India’s police stations are human rights threat, says chief justice


In an extraordinary rebuke over police brutality, India’s chief justice has said the most dangerous places in the country for threats to human rights are police stations.

Nuthalapati Ramana said that rather than being the safest places, “the threat to human rights and bodily integrity are the highest in police stations”.

“Custodial torture and other police atrocities are problems which still prevail in our society,” he told the National Legal Services Authority in a speech on Sunday in Delhi. He added that the poor bore the brunt of police brutality, but “going by recent reports, even the privileged are not spared third-degree treatment”.

One of the causes of police misconduct, he said, was that when brought in for questioning or arrested most Indians had no lawyer to represent them, leaving them at the mercy of corrupt officers.

The law provides for free legal representation to people who cannot afford to hire a lawyer, but many poor Indians are unaware of this right.

“The lack of effective legal representation at police stations is a huge detriment to arrested or detained persons. The decisions taken in these early hours will later determine the ability of the accused to defend himself,” Ramana said.

To many Indians the chief justice’s words will not be a revelation. The slogan of Delhi police, “For you, with you, always”, is often rephrased as “never for you, never with you and never will be for you” by residents who have come to associate police stations with fear and abuse.

The government said last week that 348 people died and 1,189 were tortured in police custody over the last three years.

Ramana urged the National Legal Services Authority, which is meant to ensure free legal advice is provided to the poor and marginalised, to do more to make the public and police aware of their rights.

He suggested putting up large hoardings outside police stations so that, on entering, people could see at a glance that they had a right to a lawyer, and that the postal service be employed to distribute information to people in the countryside.

Ramana “sharply and unambiguously” underlinining that the police continue to use violence and torture is “extremely significant”, according to the lawyer and human rights activist Vrinda Grover.

She said the key to stopping these violations, in addition to providing a lawyer, was to prosecute and punish guilty police officers, which she said currently did not happen as the government refused to sanction criminal prosecution of the police.

“Accountability through the judicial process and punishment of offending policemen alone will create a deterrent and make police stations a refuge for victims rather than sites of custodial violence,” she said.