February 5, 2009
"How the nation responds in the wake of A. Kugan’s death in police custody reflects the values that we have as a society."
Kugan Ananthan is not the first person to die while in police custody. I doubt he will be the last. The actual numbers who have so far died are unclear because of the contrasting data given by the authorities.
But we need to know the actual details. We need to know the reasons why they died, and we need to know the ethnicity of those who died.
We have to know how many of those deaths are caused by beatings and torture because such deaths are totally unacceptable.
And while it is true that this issue is one about human rights and not about race, if the numbers show a disproportionately high number of Indians dying while in police custody, it becomes not just a human rights issue; it also becomes an issue of racism.
If it is true that Indians held in custody died in higher numbers compared with those of other races, and if it is true that their deaths were due to torture and beatings, then there are two possibilities – one, there are individual racists on the police force; two, which is worse, the police force as a whole practices racist policies. Neither is acceptable.
An investigation has to be conducted, and it has to be done by an independent body.
The police and the executive, for the sake of their own credibility, must not be allowed to conduct it themselves.
For the good of the nation, this independent investigation has to be given priority.
The issue of death in custody is important because the manner with which we treat our people, even those who have committed crimes, is a reflection of the kind of society we are.
On a very basic level of argument, even if you are in jail after being convicted, your sentence, the price you pay for your crime, is your incarceration. Not death.
Yes, we do have the death penalty in this country but it is for specific crimes like murder and drug trafficking.
Yes, we have corporal punishment in this country, but it is for specific crimes like kidnapping and rape.
There are ways and means to administer these punishments and they have to be followed. Anything short of that is lawlessness and barbarity.
And for those who are incarcerated pending trial, it is even more important that they are not hurt or killed, because at that point they are still considered innocent.
I have heard talk that Kugan was part of a gang of car thieves, that he was a crook. All this does not matter to me one single bit. Why? Because Kugan was not convicted in a court of law, and until he is, he is innocent. The death of Kugan is the death of an innocent man.
In a way, as awful as this may sound, I will not be surprised if an independent study shows that there are deaths in custody as the result of beatings and torture.
It all boils down to the values that we have as a society.
Do we believe that the ends justify the means or do we hold to the idea that certain core principles must hold sway, principles like the outright rejection of torture and that a man is innocent until proven guilty?
As pointless and as cruel as Kugan’s death may be, at the very least it ought to provoke us into asking these questions.