West Bengal police has one of the worst human rights records in India. Two recent incidences of police atrocities — the arrest of Abhijit Sinha and Kaushik Ganguly in Midnapore and the death of Anesh Das and Nimai Chandra Ghosh in the overcrowded court lock-up in Malda — underline the terrible reputation of the state police and the poor condition of the law and order infrastructure in the state.
In 1974, it was estimated that around 15,000-20,000 people were detained without trial in police stations and prisons where the conditions were abysmal — inadequate medical facilities, poor hygiene, not to speak of the allegations of torture.
When the Left Front came to power in 1977, it promised that the police would not be used against political protests and that all political prisoners would be released. Two commissions of inquiry were set up. One was the Sarma Sarkar commission, which investigated the killings in the state between March 1970 and May 1975, especially atrocities committed by the police. But in 1980, ruling on an appeal filed by six officers against the commission’s interim report, the high court declared the commission invalid and asked the government to form a new one. Since the government did not issue any notice, the Sarma Sarkar commission lapsed.
The situation has worsened in the Nineties. In 1994-96, West Bengal had the highest number of custodial deaths in India. This year, there have already been 76 custodial deaths in the country. And even these figures are not strictly accurate since records on custodial deaths are regularly faked.
Worse, there have been reports of political bias among officers investigating clashes between political parties — mainly the left and Trinamool Congress — that have escalated in the later half of 2000.
Then there is the corruption. Allegedly, many police stations accept bribes from criminals; some policemen also hound relatives of those arrested for money in exchange for their release.
Take Mohammad Alam who was arrested in March 1995 by plain-clothes policemen of the Garden Reach police station. They demanded Rs 4,000 for his release from his mother, Jabeda Khatoon. When she could not arrange the pay-off, sources say, Alam was beaten up. He was remanded to judicial custody a few days later, but the Alipore Central jail refused to admit him because of his condition. He was taken to a hospital where he died a day later.
No wonder, the 1996-97, 1997-98 and 1998-99 reports of the West Bengal human rights commission contain a severe indictment of the police’s human rights record.
The state government’s inaction seems inexplicable since Article 22 (1) of the Constitution obliges the authorities to produce all those arrested before a magistrate within 24 hours. But the police have found a way around this. Detainees are booked under section 107 of the criminal procedure code which makes their release conditional on the furnishing of a bond.
The police are also bound by articles 5 and 7 of the universal declaration of human rights, ratified by India in 1979, which forb- ids inhuman treatment of prisoners. There is also a Supreme Court verdict which deems any form of torture violative of Article 21.
The state government should take steps to implement police reforms, in line with the advice of the national police commission. The West Bengal police continues to be run according to the 1943 rules established by the British. Two commissions have been appointed over the past 40 years, but their recommendations have not been implemented.
The law and order infrastructure in the state also needs improvement. A West Bengal police commission report says there are about 425 police stations for a population of around 72 million (1996 figures). This works out to one police station for every 170,000 people. Naturally this does not make the police’s task any easier. But nevertheless, this is no excuse for human rights violations.