Scroll Top


Custodial Death - Anirudh Agarwal


India, a multicultural nation known for its democracy, has not yet formulated any specific legislation for the rights of the prisoners. There are various international legal instruments and conventions that have contributed to the progressive development of human rights of prisoners such as “United nations convention against torture and other cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment” (UNCAT), “Universal Declaration of Human Rights” (UDHR) and “International covenant on Civil and Political Rights” (ICCPR)[1]. India is a signatory to the “United Nations Convention against Torture”has not yet ratified the UN Convention and the prisoners are subjected to inhumane physical and mental abuse with not legal instrument for their protection. Despite policies have been formulated to recognise the rights of the prisoners, they are deprived of their fundamental rights guaranteed by the Constitution of India and basic Human Rights laws. State of A.P. vs Challa Ramkrishna Reddy[2]substantiated that prisoners are equally entitled to constitutional rights as any normal human being. The Supreme Court ruled that even if the prisoner is convicted or under trail, he/she does not cease to be a human being or natural person and is still entitled to all the fundamental rights unless his liberty is constitutionally curtailed.

For many years, custodial deaths have drawn the attention of the media, general public and the legislature. However, no significant headway has been made to hold those responsible accountable and punish them for their actions. Not every custodial death demand action – some deaths in custody are due to natural causes and other factors. But there are numerous cases where custodial deaths are caused due to offences such as rape, assault, torture etc. One of the most repugnant practice is ‘Torture’ which the police officials use on prisoners or under-trials to extract information or confessions with regard to a particular event.The practice of police brutality is not a new phenomenon and date back to mid-nineteenth century. Primary step towards grappling with any issue is to recognise it. One of the most prevalent forms of police brutality is in the form of ‘Torture’ which has been recognised at a global scale. It is disheartening to see that a developing country like India has not yet codified laws or formulated a specific piece of legislation for the rights of the prisoners.

As per the reports of National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), custodial deaths in India has increased significantly by 9% from 92 in 2016 to 100 in 2017.

As the graph indicates that the greatest number of deaths (37) that was reported was in the form of suicide.Also, as per the NCRB reports, there were in total 56 cases registered of human rights violations by the police in the year 2017. However, only 29 cases get charge sheeted and only 14 of them were completed in terms of investigation. Towards the end of the investigation there were only 3 cases where the perpetrator was convicted. As a result, the probability of a registered case leading to conviction is 1 in 18. There are enormous powers that are envisaged with the police officials which could be exercised disproportionately and can completely go unchecked resulting in the gravest of human rights violation with almost little to no remedy at all.

One such recent incident that sparked the nation and led to a widespread protest on the streets opposing the actions of the police officers was the incident of a father and son who died in police custody in Tamil Nadu.The police were blamed for mercilessly killing the two men by brutally torturing them – eventually leading to their death due to severe blood loss. As the shop was opened longer than the permitted hours a civil case was charged against them.A systematic parallel can be drawn with George Floyd’s murder case in America where the police officials killed the man by pressing their knee against his neck leading to suffocation and ultimately death.In the present case, despite departmental action being taken following the protests and the outrage, four police officers have been suspended and the station inspector has been transferred however, not a single officer has been booked for murder. Later, a judicial inquiry was called for and the state government announced a sum of rupees twenty lacs as compensation to the family of the victim.

As per ‘Article 1’ of “Universal Declaration of Human Rights” states that “All human beings are born free an equal in dignity and rights[3]. Once the person is behind bars, the status of a prisoner is not merely reduced to an object of the nation and is entitled to the fundamental rights guaranteed by the constitution of India. As rightly pointed out in the case Charles Shobraj vs. Superintendentthat “the convicted persons go to prisons as punishment and not for punishment[4]. In the words of Justice Krishna IyerIn our world prisons are still laboratories of torture, warehouses in which human commodities are sadistically kept and where spectrums of inmates range from drift-wood juveniles to heroic dissenters[5].In the case of T.V. Vatheeswaran v. State of Tamil Nadu[6]it was held that “the Articles 14, 19 and 21 are available to the prisoners as well as freemen. Prison walls do not keep out fundamental rights[7].The apex court in the A.K. Gopalan’s case rightly pointed out that “the ambit of Personal Liberty by Article 21 of the Constitution is wide and complete. It includes both substantive rights to Personal Liberty and the procedure prescribed for their deprivation[8].

There are others rights which the constitution of India provides for such as the ‘Right to speedy trial’ as envisaged under Article 21, ‘Right to free legal aid’ and ‘Right to meet friends and consult lawyers’ which could be substantiated by the case law Dharmbir vs. State of U.P.where the family members were permitted to meet the prisoners under guarded conditions at least once a year[9]. The fundamental rights guaranteed by the Indian constitution are not absolute in nature and hence, certain reasonable restrictions can be imposed which would be in conflict with the concept of prisons such as ‘freedom to reside and to settle’ and ‘freedom of profession, occupation, trade or business[10].

In addition to constitutional rights, statutory rights that are available to the prisoners under the ‘Prisons Act, 1894’. This was the first piece of legislation for prison regulation in India. Under this act, Section 4 provides for “accommodation and sanitary conditions for prisoners”, Section 7 provides for “shelter and safe custody of the excess number of prisoners who cannot be safely kept in any prison”, Section 24 (2) provides for “examination of prisoners by qualified medical officers”, Section 35 provides for “provides for treatment of under-trials, civil prisoners, parole and temporary release of prisoners” and Section 37 provides that “a prisoner must be provided with a medical officer if he is in need or if he appears out of health in mind or body”[11].


In conclusion, I would like to reinstate and put emphasis on the part that human rights are available to all the individuals be it a civilian or a criminal and the prisoners should not be deprived of liberty against his or her will. Indian should primarily be focusing on tackling with issue of ‘Torture’ which could be achieved by ratifying the ‘UN Convention against Torture’. In addition to this, there should be checks and balances with respect to the powers that are envisaged with the police officers who are considered to be the very protectors of its citizens. It is the duty of the government not only to ensure that proper infrastructural facilities and humane conditions are provided for the survival of the prisoners but also that the prisoners are made aware of their rights so as to avoid the abuse of power by the officials inside the prisons.Therefore, it’s a wake up call both to the Judiciary and the Government of India to review the potential roadblocks and come up with a strong piece of legislation in upholding the human dignity and the rights of the prisoners in India.

Author(s) Name: Anirudh Agarwal (O P Jindal Global University, Sonipat)


[1]Convention on Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

[2]AIR 2000 SC 2083

[3]Article 1 of Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

[4] 1979 SCR (1) 512


[6]AIR 1983 SC 361


[8] AIR 1950 SC 27

[9] 1979 3 SCC 645

[10]Articles 19 (1) (e) and 19 (1) (g) of the Constitution of India

[11]Sections 4, 7, 24 (2), 35, 37 of The Prisons Act, 1894