Custodial Torture in India

In India, custodial torture is a serious issue that highlights the need for systemic criminal law reforms and its implementation by law enforcement agencies for better protection of individuals’ rights. In 2019, India estimates 1723 custodial deaths have been occurred which constitutes 5 deaths every day.1 During the custody, police use various third-degree methods to extract confessions and obtain evidence from the accused. Despite the fact that India signed the UN Convention Against Torture (CAT)2, but India has not ratified this Convention or passed a central law to prevent custodial violence.3 However, individuals have been guaranteed the right to life and personal liberty under Article 21 of the Constitution of India4, emphasising the “right to live with dignity” and well-being of every person. In addition, the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) constituted under the Protection of Human Rights Act, 19935 addresses violation of human rights, including the custodial torture. Despite these legal safeguards, statistics on custodial deaths indicates systemic failure to prevent the custodial violence through effective implementation of existing laws.

The Indian judiciary played a crucial role in preventing custodial torture through directives issued in various cases, including D.K. Basu case6, Arnesh Kumar case7, Sunil Batra case8 and others. In Arnesh Kumar v. State of Bihar9, the Supreme Court issued guidelines to prevent unnecessary arrests and detention by police officers and Magistrates. In a cognizable offence, the police officer shall serve notice to the accused to appear before him. He shall submit the checklist stating the reasons for such arrest while producing the accused before the Magistrate. After perusing the checklist, the Magistrate upon being satisfied with the reasons mentioned in the report shall detain the accused. In D.K. Basu v. State of W.B.10, the Supreme Court took suo motu cognizance of the matter based on the Basu’s letter, the then Executive Chairman of Legal Aid Services of West Bengal, seeking attention towards news article about deaths in police custody. The Supreme Court issued various guidelines to prevent custodial deaths. Among these guidelines, the Supreme Court suggested that the police officers shall prepare a memorandum of arrest and at least one family member shall be present while arresting him. It is the duty of police officers to refrain from employing coercive methods during the interrogation of accused.

In Sunil Batra v. State (UT of Delhi)11, the Supreme Court took suo motu based on the letter alleging the torture inflicted by a prison warder upon another inmate. It examined the powers of jail authorities to keep a prisoner in a separate cell. However, Section 30(2) of the Prisoners Act, 190012 does not prescribe any criteria for separate confinement. Thus, the Supreme Court of India struck down the provisions of Section 30(2) of the Prisoners Act on the grounds of arbitrary and violative of prisoners right to life and personal liberty guaranteed under Article 21 of the Constitution of India. In custodial deaths, Magistrate is empowered to hold inquiry under Section 196 of the Nagarik Suraksha Sanhita, 202313. At present, Magistrate includes both Judicial Magistrate and Executive Magistrate. However, in People’s Union for Civil Liberties v. State of Maharashtra14, the Supreme Court held that the inquiry in the cases of death by police torture must be invariably conducted by Judicial Magistrate who is empowered to take cognizance of offences under Section 176 CrPC (now Section 196 of the Nagarik Suraksha Sanhita, 2023). It is opined that the inquiry of custodial deaths may be conducted by Judicial Magistrates rather than Executive Magistrates for a fair trial.

It is imperative to re-examine the scope of police custody to prevent custodial violence and safeguard the rights and well-being of individuals. Section 187 of the Nagarik Suraksha Sanhita, 202315 prescribes the procedure when investigation cannot be completed in twenty-four hours. According to this Section, when any person is arrested and detained in custody, and it appears that the investigation cannot be completed within twenty-four hours, the police officer shall produce the accused before a Magistrate. Further, the Magistrate may authorise the detention of the accused in such custody for a term not exceeding fifteen days in the whole, or in parts, at any time during the initial forty days or sixty days out of detention period of sixty or ninety days. If the investigation relates to an offence punishable with death, imprisonment for life or imprisonment for a term of ten years or more, the total detention period is ninety days and investigation relates to any other offence is sixty days. Such enlargement of police custody has legal ramifications such as police officers have adequate time to coerce the accused to make confession or extract the evidence.

At the time of arrest, the police officer may handcuff the accused for certain categories of offences including habitual offenders, repeat offenders of organised crimes, terrorist activities, drug-related crime, rape, murder, acid attack, offence of illegal possession of arms and ammunition, counterfeiting of coins and currency notes, human trafficking, offences against the State or economic offences.16 However, in Sunil Batra v. State (UT of Delhi)17, the Supreme Court held that: 197-B. The indiscriminate resort to handcuffs when accused persons are taken to and from court and the expedient of forcing irons on prison inmates are illegal and shall be stopped forthwith save in a small category of cases. Reckless handcuffing and chaining in public degrades, puts to shame finer sensibilities and is a slur on our culture. It also held that the undertrial prisoner has freedom of movement guaranteed under Article 19 of the Constitution18, which cannot be curtailed down cruelly by application of handcuffs or other hoops.

In Prem Shankar Shukla v. State (UT of Delhi)19, the Supreme Court of India categorically held that the routine handcuffing is prima facie inhuman, unreasonable, arbitrary and violative of Article 21 of the Constitution of India. It also issued directives that the police officer must show reasons to the Presiding Judge behind handcuffing a person and shall obtain Judge’s approval. The Judge shall authorise the use of handcuffs only when there is no other reasonable way to prevent escape in such circumstances. There is a need to enact comprehensive legislation to address the complex issues pertaining to custodial torture caused by the intersection of criminal law and constitutional rights. Such law should prevent custodial torture and punish erring public officials by conducting prompt investigation and trials. It is necessary to conduct police training programs to uphold accountability and empathy towards citizens. In addition, civil society organisations should conduct public awareness campaigns and advocate for necessary legal reforms to bridge enforcement and implementation gaps to ensure that individuals’ rights are protected.

†Assistant Professor, School of Law, Mahindra University, Hyderabad. Author can be reached at:

1. National Campaign Against Torture, “India: Annual Report on Torture 2019”, p. 6 <>.

2. Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, 1984.

3. Ravi Nair, “India’s Continued Refusal to Ratify UN Convention Against Torture Lacks Substance”, (, 21-11-2022).

4. Constitution of India, Art. 21.

5. Protection of Human Rights Act, 1993.

6. D.K. Basu v. State of W.B., (1997) 1 SCC 416.

7. Arnesh Kumar v. State of Bihar, (2014) 8 SCC 273.

8. Sunil Batra v. State (UT of Delhi), (1978) 4 SCC 494.

9. (2014) 8 SCC 273.

10. (1997) 1 SCC 416.

11. (1978) 4 SCC 494.

12. Prisoners Act, 1900, S. 30(2).

13. Nagarik Suraksha Sanhita, 2023, S. 196.

14. (2014) 10 SCC 635.

15. Nagarik Suraksha Sanhita, 2023, S. 187.

16. Nagarik Suraksha Sanhita, 2023, S. 43(3).

17. (1978) 4 SCC 494.

18. Constitution of India, Art. 19.

19. (1980) 3 SCC 526.

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