Custodial Deaths in Tripura: Time to worry

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On June 24, this year the opposition party of Tripura, CPI-M demanded a judicial inquiry into the four custodial deaths which happened over a period of the last eight months in the state. This is not the first time that opposition parties in the state have raised such a demand. In January this year, both CPI (M) and Congress had demanded a judicial probe into the custodial death of a 38-year-old undertrial, who was found hanging in West Agartala Police Station. Unfortunately, Tripura has made it to the media headlines for incidents like custodial death in the state. Northeast Today writes

There had been at least 17 custodial deaths in Tripura since 1993 as reported by the media. Hence, the present government alone cannot be blamed for custodial death as 15 persons died in police custody between 1993-2018 under the left rule. Tripura law minister Ratan Lal Nath in a statement said, “The CPI (M) has no right to say anything about the custodial deaths as 15 persons died in the police custody between 1993-2018.” The minister also said, “During the time of Manik Sarkar while he was the chief minister, 14 custodial deaths were reported in Tripura.”

“The incidences of custodial death are more of a human rights issue than a political game. It is also an issue of concern in terms of police brutality”, stated a local journalist from Agartala. The case of Sushanta Ghosh (38) who died in police custody in January surely reflects that. Sushanta, who was a resident of Lankamura area of West Tripura, was arrested by the crime branch of Tripura Police on January 11 for allegedly helping four foreign nationals (Two Bangladeshi and two Turkish nationals) to hack ATMs in Agartala and loot the cash. The four foreign nationals were arrested in West Bengal and brought to the state. Local media reports said Sushanta was picked up by the police after the foreigners named him during their interrogation. However, on January 12, morning, Sushanta was found dead. Police told media persons that he committed suicide in the jail lavatory.

Sushanta’s family, as well as others, including opposition leaders from the state, said that custodial torture caused his death. Sushanta’s father also claimed that said he was innocent. He said the four foreign nationals visited their shop to buy sweets. When they sought his help to exchange some dollars for Indian rupees, Sushanta agreed. He didn’t know them from before, the father claimed.

“It is a clear case of murder by police, but it may not have happened inside the cell. He was murdered outside and then hanged,” CPI (M) leader Pabitra Kar said, quoting the family members. The family lodged a formal complaint alleging that Ghosh was killed in police custody and named Nirdesh Deb, DSP (crime branch), for torturing him. Ghosh’s sister, who visited him at the police station soon after his arrest, reportedly said that her brother was threatened “repeatedly” by cyber crime branch SP Sharmistha Chakraborty and told that both she and her brother would be killed if she didn’t leave the police station at once.

The Tripura State government had ordered a magisterial inquiry into the incident, but no action has been taken against the police officers who were involved in the incident. Congress state chief Pijush Kanti Biswas asked, “When the superintendent of police (SP), along with three of his subordinates, were suspended for failing to arrest former minister and sitting MLA Badal Choudhury three months ago, how can the same government not take any action against the accused police officers, who allegedly tortured Sushanta in custody before killing him?” Biswas, a prominent criminal lawyer, said the police made up the suicide story, which has only exposed them in front of the nation.

“Police must answer the basic questions — from where Sushanta got the muffler inside the cell. How did he climb up at least 40 feet to hang himself, where is the CCTV footage of the incident, and why were the family members of the deceased not allowed to meet him in police custody,” he added.

However, it seems Tripura Police did not change its character and did not learn from Sushanta Ghosh’s case. On June 17, another man named Sajaio Mog died in Amarpur jail in southern Tripura. Mog’s death too sparked protest from the opposition party.

Taking a firm stand on such incidents, opposition leader and former Chief Minister Manik Sarkar in a letter to the Chief Minister Biplab Kumar Deb said that in violation of the basic human rights since October last year, two youths died in the police stations and another two in jails. Demanding a judicial probe into the four deaths, Sarkar, requested the Chief Minister to provide a government job to one family member of each victim and cautioned the police and jail authorities to prevent the recurrence of such “unnatural deaths”.

Whether it is Tripura or other parts of the country custodial death has become an issue of higher concern in India. A recent report by a rights body against custodial torture across the world reveals a disturbing scenario in India – 1,731 people died in custody in 2019, mostly from vulnerable communities, Dalits and Muslims. Of this, 1,606 people died in judicial custody and 125 people in police custody-says a media report. Without police reform custodial death is a long away to go.