Custodial Death in Reference to the History of Police Brutality in India


By Vaibhavi Batra from Amity Law School, Noida

We have a lot of people that are oppressed. We have a lot of people that aren’t treated equally, aren’t given equal opportunities. Police brutality is a huge thing that needs to be addressed. There are a lot of issues that need to be talked about, need to be brought to life, and we need to fix those.‘ – Colin Kaepernick


The term ‘police’ have been derived from the Latin term ‘politia’, which means the condition of a state. According to the Oxford Dictionary, “the term police mean a system of regulation for the preservation of order and enforcement of the law.” The term police broadly refer to purposely maintenance of public order and protection of persons and properties from unlawful acts and hazardous accidents. Thus, it refers to the civil functionaries charged with maintaining public order and safety and enforcing laws to protect the victims and detect the criminals.

In a multi-cultural, multi-ethnic and vast country with huge population like India, it is a very important as well as back-breaking job to maintain law and order throughout the country.

Police officers are given a great deal of latitude in performing their duties. It is so because they are expected to protect people from any kind of violence and abuse and for that they have the power to use physical power and sometimes even resort to more deadly force under certain circumstances. However, sometimes the officers make use of such power even when it is not required to do so, it results in ‘Police Brutality’


Police brutality can be defined as civil rights violation where officers exercise undue or excessive force against a subject. By excessive force, we understand that when the use of force exceeds the minimum amount of force required to stop an accident or to protect oneself or anyone else from harm or injuries. The use of such tools as pepper spray, batons, and teasers, as well as hitting, choking, throwing a non-combatant civilian to the ground, and sexual abuse are all examples of physical police brutality. It can be a physical as well as verbal abuse or racial profiling and false arrest or custodial death as well. This all comes under “police corruption” which is misconduct on the part of police officers by misusing their powers by inflicting brutality on the local people.

Many countries have their laws for police brutality. It is considered as a severe offence but still, there are cases where the complaints of civilians or victim do not even reach to the investigation stage. It is very difficult to prove that the police are using excessive force or not. In defense, the civilian has started to record the videos of their interaction with the police officer and the same is done by the police officer in his or her defense.

The term “police brutality” was first time used in the mid-nineteenth century in the year 1848 in “Puppet Show”, a British humorous & satirical Weekly Magazine. It was used by American Press for the first time in “Chicago Tribune”

History of Police Brutality in India

The history of police brutality in India can be traced back to the time when British were ruling India. The very first incident of police brutality which was recorded was the – Jallianwala Bagh Massacre which happened on 13th April, 1919. After that in the Post- Independence period, civilians of the country encountered a lot of incidents of police brutality and raised a voice against them. Few of the major incidents of brutality are:

  • 25th March 1966 – Pravir Chandra Bhanj Deo, ruler of Odisha, was killed in police firing at the steps of his own palace.
  • 22nd May 1987 – Hashimpur Massacre, during which Personnels of PAC took 42 Muslim youth outside the city and shot them dead and dumped their bodies in canals. At that time, Hindu-Muslim riots were also going on.
  • 25th November 1994 – The Koothuparamba Firing, the police opened firing at a public event for protecting the minister M.V. Raghvan; five protesters were dead and 6 people were injured.
  • 1999 – The Manjolai Labourers Massacre, claimed seventeen lives in Thirunelveli, Tamil Nadu.
  • 2009 – Police opened fire on Muslims at the fishing village, Beemapally, Kerela; six people were shot dead.
  • 13th October 2015 – Punjab police shot two protestors and injured fifty people in Kotkapur, Punjab. The police claimed that the shooting was in ‘self-defence’.
  • 2019 – The police attacked the mob at Jamia Milia Islamia during CAA NRC protest.
  • 22nd June 2020 – Custodial death of father & son in Tamil Nadu.

These were few of the cases which came to notice, but there are hundreds of such cases of which people may not be aware of as they have never seen the light of the day.


Custodial death is a form of police brutality which refers to the death of a person in the custody of the police or any other authority. The causes of death may range from suspected homicide by police officers, death due to physical abuse, death my inmates, suicide in custody or the natural causes.

Some of the main torture methods used by police in the custody which causes grievous hurt or death of the persons are:

  • Pouring petrol or applying chili powder on private parts and hitting it;
  • Beating while handcuffed;
  • Pricking body with needles
  • Branding with hot-iron rod;
  • Electric shock;
  • Beating after stripping;
  • Inserting hard blunt object in anus;
  • Beating after hanging upside-down with hands and legs tied;
  • Urinating into the mouth;
  • Forcing to perform oral-sex;
  • Kicking abdomen of pregnant women.

According to the National Human Rights Commission report for 2017-18, around fifteen cases of custodial violence and torture were reported everyday with nine people dying every twenty –four hours in judicial and police custody.

According to the reports of 2019, almost one 1,731 people were the victims of custodial deaths in India. This works out to almost five such deaths per day. Timed with the International Day in Support of Victims of Torture, ‘India: Annual Report on Torture 2019’ said 1,606 of the deaths happened in judicial custody and 125 in police custody. Out of the 125 deaths in police custody, Uttar Pradesh topped with 14 deaths, followed by Tamil Nadu and Punjab with 11 deaths each and Bihar with 10 deaths,” said the report published by the National Campaign Against Torture (NCAT). Of the 125 cases in police custody, ninety-three persons (74.4%) died due to alleged torture or foul play, while twenty-four (19.2%) died under suspicious circumstances in which the police cited suicide of sixteen persons, seven because of illness and one because of injuries. The reasons for the custodial death of five others (4%) were unknown, the report said.

Women continued to be tortured or targeted for sexual violence in custody and the victims often belonged to the weaker sections. During 2019, the death of at least four women in police custody was reported, the NCAT said.


  • Mohamed Huzaifa Javed Ahmed v. The State Of Maharashtra

In this case, the police have brutally beaten a child with an excess amount of force which resulted to his death. The police officer was removed from his position and entitled to imprisonment.

  • Jayaraj-Fenix Case

It is also known as the “George Floyd case of India”. A duo of father and son were beaten to death in the police custody just on violating some rules in Tamil Nadu.

  • Custodial Death of Kashmiri teacher Rizwan Pandit

Rizwan Asad Pandit was picked in night from his residence in Awantipora for questioning in a “terror case”. The local police in Awantipora area of Pulwama had handed him over to the dreaded Special Operations Group, the counter-insurgent group of Kashmir police, where he died.

  • Unnao Rape Case

The custodial death of the father of the Unnao rape case sets a perfect example of how police is being influenced and working for the powerful strata of the society and how governance gets brutalised when the state’s chief executive gives a carte blanche (complete freedom to act as one’s wishes) to the police to brand anybody a criminal and kill at will.


There are many cases of police brutality but many of them are not reported for further investigation whereas many of the cases are registered where no investigation takes place. A civilian with a valid police brutality issue should file a complaint against a police officer.

The first step in this process is to visit the website of the police department where that particular officer is based, because each jurisdiction has its process for filing a complaint. Some of the websites provide a hotline number for complaints of police brutality. It may also be possible to report about the brutality by police in person by going to the police station which is within the jurisdiction. If the act is criminal then the criminal suit will be filled and if the act is of civil nature then it a civil suit will be filed.

After the complaint is filed then the department of Internal Affairs will investigate. The Internal Affairs department is established only to investigate the cases against law enforcement officials. An officer can generally only be disciplined or fired for his behavior as if a complaint has been filed against him, and even if he is not disciplined or terminated, the complaint typically remains on his permanent record. If a civilian is not satisfied then the police officer can be sued in criminal court or civil court.


Custodial torture and deaths are actually a nationwide problem. In a country where the police to population ratio is well below ideal and the judiciary is inundated with backlog cases, police malpractice isn’t uncommon. This can only be addressed through police reforms, including boosting police numbers, better training and prosecution of custodial malpractice. Plus, other arms of the state too need to deliver and prevent overburdening of police. The aim should be a smart police force with limited remit.


  1. Times of India Editorial ‘Our George Floyds’, dated 29th June 2020.


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