Patna: On a December afternoon, seated on the mud floor of her home that was particularly cold after unexpected winter rains, Parmila Devi, 48, recalled the last day of October 2021. Her husband had promised to bring fish on his way home, but instead, word arrived that he had been taken to the police station.
Parmila, 48, rushed to the Rosera police station in Samastipur district, in the heart of Bihar, to find her husband unconscious. Her husband was only pretending, policemen told Devi, asking her to slap him to wake him up.
Ramsewak, about 55 years old, and more than 400 other men employed as sweepers with the Rosera nagar panchayat (an urban local body), were protesting four months of unpaid wages. According to the family, he was picked up by policemen from the site of the protest.
“They beat him up so much,” Parmila said. “He couldn't open his eyes or speak or move.”
It was their son, Deepak, 24, also a municipal sweeper, who got the call. According to him, after a first information report (FIR)—the starting point of a criminal investigation—was filed against Ramsewak, he was taken to an unknown place and beaten, allegedly by policemen and elected and administrative representatives of the municipality.
“There were injuries on his chest, they hit him on the head, his nose was bleeding," said Deepak, who uses one name.
Ramsewak was then taken to the Rosera police station, and after a couple of hours, to the Rosera sub-divisional hospital. He died on 5 November at the Patna Medical College Hospital, about 150 km from Rosera. The cause of death was given as septicemia, severe blood infection, possibly from injuries.
Past midnight, Deepak said, at least four police cars tailed their ambulance on their way home to Rosera from Patna.
“They snatched all the papers I had received from the hospital, including the postmortem report,” he told Article 14. “They tried to take my father's body too, but I protested and pleaded with them…”
Deepak continued to beg the policemen to allow him to take the body home where Devi and other family members were waiting. Citing law and order issues, the policemen took Ramsewak's body to a cremation area near the Rosera bridge, a few kilometres from Deepak's home.
“I saw that all the preparations for cremating him were already made,” Deepak said.
When he continued to ask questions, according to Deepak, a sub-inspector threatened him. “He said I would face the same fate if I resisted.”
He said the policemen took his father’s phone, nearly Rs 6,000 in cash and his Aadhar card, which were never returned. The policemen drained a motorbike's fuel tank for petrol to burn his father's body, he said.
Early in the morning on 6 November, despite opposition from his family, Ramsewak’s body was cremated by policemen.
Ramsewak's custodial torture was not an isolated incident in Bihar.
In A Year, 110 Dead In Custody
According to data from the Bihar human rights commission, until 2021 there were at least 369 cases of custodial deaths in judicial custody, and 33 deaths in police custody. Of these, 25 judicial custodial death cases were dismissed in limine or at the preliminary stage, and 17 cases disposed of with directions from the human rights commission. There were 324 pending cases with the human rights body.
According to a September 2020 reply by the ministry of home affairs (MHA) to the Lok Sabha, five people died in police custody and 105 died in judicial custody in Bihar between 1 April 2019 to 31 March 2020.
Bihar ranked sixth among Indian states by custodial deaths in police custody and fourth by custodial deaths in judicial custody, according to the MHA.
Bihar’s chief minister Nitish Kumar, a product of the 1970s’ ‘Bihar movement’ under Gandhian socialist Jayaprakash Narayan that fought misrule in Bihar and later at the Centre, was arrested in the pre-emergency period in 1974 and again in 1976, during the Emergency, “dragged” to jail by policemen.
As chief minister, however, he has chosen to give the police a free hand even in the face of continuing custodial violence, said human rights activists.
“In some instances, they (policemen) get out of turn promotions,” said Amitabh Das, retired deputy inspector general (DIG) of the Bihar Police. In Bihar, senior inspectors were directly promoted to the rank of deputy superintendent in many instances, he said. “Many careerist officers will not think about what is legal or illegal. For their career benefits, they will stage fake encounters and custodial murders.”
Article 14 sent detailed queries on custodial torture in Bihar to senior officials in the government and police, including the state’s principal secretary, chief minister, the director general of state police (DGP), Muzaffarpur district magistrate and Samastipur police superintendent, but received no response. We tried contacting the office of the DGP repeatedly through January and February and sent him an email on 2 February.
How Nitish’s Pursuit Of Justice For Custodial Torture Faded
According to the ‘Prison Statistics Report-2019 of the NCRB, 1,775 prisoners died across Indian jails in 2019. These included 1,544 natural deaths , 165 unnatural deaths and 66 deaths of “unknown reasons”.
According to a 2019 report of the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), Bihar was one of six states that did not order judicial enquiries (the others were Kerala, Jharkhand, Karnataka, Odisha and Telangana) into custodial killings.
In March 1988, a 70-year-old man was beaten to death while in the custody of the Bihar Sharif police in Nalanda district.
Ram Pavitra Singh was picked up by the police from near an exam centre, and he died around 7 pm the same day.
A relative then approached human right activists in the state to help him seek justice. According to Kishori Das, a member of the People's Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL), a fact-finding committee under PUCL provincial president Prabhakar Sinha visited the victim's home, recorded testimonies and concluded that the man had died of custodial torture.
The relative who had approached PUCL was Nitish Kumar, then a Janata Party leader and currently the state’s chief minister.
In July 2019, Nitish Kumar narrated the story of his arrest during Emergency following his minister’s reply to a starred question in the Bihar assembly from an opposition leader seeking action against policemen guilty of violating the Bihar police manual while dealing with demonstrators.
"Nitish Kumar, as an activist in the JP movement (led by socialist Jayaprakash Narayan) and as an engineering student, stood against police brutality and the authoritarian rule of the state,” said Pushpendra Kumar, a member of the executive committee of PUCL Bihar. “As chief minister, he has foregone his earlier stand and has fallen prey to the same despotic and autocratic tendencies clearly visible by his insensitivity and inaction towards police brutality.”
Bootlegging Cases & Custodial Torture
The ban on sale and consumption of liquor in Bihar, implemented by the Nitish Kumar government in April 2016, provided the backdrop for several custodial torture cases.
In July 2021, Govind Majhi, 31, died after being tortured in custody at the Daudnagar sub-jail in Aurangabad district. Majhi, who belonged to the Musahar community, designated a Mahadalit group, among Bihar’s most marginalised, was arrested on 9 July from his house in the Sarta village of Jehanabad district and booked for operating a country liquor business.
After his death while in judicial custody, villagers blocked the Ekangarsarai-Biharsharif highway at Nehalpur chowk, leading to a police baton charge. Police fired eight rounds to disperse the crowd.
On 24 and 25 July, police ransacked houses in a raid on the village, and lodged an FIR FIR against 51 persons belonging to the Majhi community and another 200 unknown persons, invoking several sections of the Indian Penal Code (IPC), 1860, and section 27 of the Arms Act, 1959.
In another custodial death incident related to police action against bootlegging, on 13 January 2020, Vikram Kumar, 22, died while in judicial custody in Lakhisarai district jail.
Vikram Kumar, who belonged to Chauta village, was arrested in connection with a case of liquor trade and sent to judicial custody on 11 January. Jail officials admitted him to the civil hospital in Lakhisarai town on 13 January. He was admitted with a stomach pain, but Vikram Kumar died the same day. Family accused police of custodial torture and medical negligence.
In Muzaffarpur district, Chandeswar Ram, 45, who worked at a biomedical waste processing factory, lost his job following the imposition of a nationwide lockdown to tackle the spread of Covid-19 cases. To make ends meet, he began to sell toddy extracted from the date palm trees in the compound of his home in Bela Chapra village.
On 18 November 2021, three or four policemen barged into his home, said his family, and detained him and three other men, their neighbours.
The three men were allowed to leave after being roughed up. The policemen then grabbed Chandeswar by his collar and rained blows on him.
"I begged them to let my husband go,” said Parmila Devi, 41, his wife (no relation to the other Parmila Devi in this story). “They tried taking me in the vehicle too but my husband pleaded with them not to.”
According to the police, they recovered more than a litre of foreign liquor from Chandeswar's home, a claim his wife denied.
Parmila made some food and took a blanket for her husband, returning from the Bela thana around 10 pm. The following day, she returned to the police station in the morning and waited until 1 pm for the station house officer (SHO).
The officer told her a chargesheet had been filed against her husband, and he might go to jail. “I noticed my husband’s head was swollen due to the torture. There were injury marks on his face,” she said.
For the next four days, though Parmila went to the station every day with food for her husband, she could tell he was no longer at the station, and she received no information from the policemen about where he had been taken.
On 23 November, an acquaintance told her Chandeswar was at the Sri Krishna Medical College in Muzaffarpur. Sanjeet, the couple’s nephew, told Article 14 that when they reached the hospital, the patient on the adjacent bed said he had been lying there for two days, unattended.
“The police hadn't informed us,” Sanjeet said. “The hospital authorities started medication after we reached the hospital.”
Chandeswar was unable to speak. “He had been beaten. There were injury marks all over his body. His head seemed severely injured,” his wife said, sobbing. Both his arms were fractured, his front teeth were broken.
They took photos of Chandeswar at the hospital and again before the last rites on 24 November. The pictures showed the injury marks on his face, forehead and mouth.
“I should have jumped off the roof,” Parmila said. “Why did I come back if I couldn't bring him back?”
According to PUCL national council member professor Shahid Kamal, who visited the family the day after the death, the incident was a “clear case” of custodial torture.
Chandeswar had no history of medical illness. Upon being arrested, a magistrate had certified him as being medically fit.
“He died four days after being taken to police custody, under suspicious circumstances," Kamal said.
The family was not provided a copy of the postmortem report, though Kamal said doctors stated the cause of death as ‘alcoholism’.
The family tried to file a case seeking an investigation into his death, but an FIR was registered only after the family approached the Muzaffarpur court.
Between January and November 2021, according to the state police data, at least 13,439 vehicles carrying liquor were caught in Bihar. More than 4 million litres of liquor were seized.
"Police started earning a lot following the liquor ban,” Kamal claimed. In January 2019, it was reported that nearly 500 policemen in the state had been dismissed from service for participating in the illegal trade of liquor in Bihar.
According to Kamal, bootleggers who refused to pay bribes were sent to jail or tortured, and Dalits and other marginalised communities accounted for a sizeable percentage of victims.
‘He Said He Would Have Us Killed, Beaten To Death’
For Ramsewak of Rosera in Samastipur, it was a fight to demand wages from a local government body that led to custodial torture by the Rosera police.
For about five days in the last week of October 2021, a group of men staged a sit-in protest outside the office of the Rosera municipal council. All sweepers with the municipal council, they had not been paid for four months, and their provident fund contributions had been halted 18 months earlier.
“We went to a senior officer and asked him to give at least a part of our due wages if it wasn't possible to pay it in its entirety,” said Deepak, Ramsewak’s son.
Deepak alleged that the officer verbally abused the protesting men in his office. “The officer used caste slurs like Chamarwa [a pejorative for Chamars, a Dalit sub caste] and asked us how dare we ask him for money and argue with him,” Deepak said. “He said he would have us killed and beaten to death.”
Deepak was eventually sacked, his back wages still unpaid. The family was in dire straits with their savings exhausted on Ramsewak’s treatment and Deepak unable to find new employment.
"A worker works to satisfy his hunger and needs. When he asks for his wages, he instead gets beaten up and abused by the police and executives,” said Samastipur-based Khursheed Khair, a CPI ML (Liberation) leader who was part of a delegation that visited the family. “What can be more shameful than this?”
On 1 November, Ramsewak was referred to the Darbhanga medical college and hospital. The Rosera sub-divisional hospital staff put him in an ambulance. Two constables accompanied the distraught wife to Darbhanga. “In Darbhanga, the police took my husband’s thumb-print on a blank sheet of paper,” Parmila, Ramsewak’s wife, said, adding that the men intimidated her to sign on a sheet of paper too.
Eventually, the Darbhanga medical college discharged Ramsewak on 2 November, though he was still unconscious.
At home, on 3 November, enraged villagers decided to march to Rosera police station carrying the unconscious Ramsewak Ram on a thela, a wooden cart with wheels.
Manoj Kumar Thakur, a reporter with the Patna-based Prabhat Times, rushed to Rosera police station from his home, barely 500 m away.
Thakur saw Ramsewak on his mattress, clearly struggling to breathe. Women were standing around him, crying. “Initially, the villagers were sloganeering against police brutality,” Thakur recounted. “A few minutes later, enraged youth smashed flower vases and threw chairs out of the police station. They broke window panes.”
The reporter said the sub-divisional officer was informed and requested to send additional forces and also an ambulance to take Ramsewak Ram back to a hospital.
A little later, he said, 35 to 40 policemen reached Rosera police station and conducted a baton charge against the protesters. “Many people were forcibly dragged out of the station by the police. People were injured in the lathi charge, and the police arrested eight people.” Those arrested include women and minors.
Thakur left around 1 pm.
On 5 November, to his shock, Manoj Kumar Thakur was among approximately 400 people charged by the Rosera police under sections 147 (rioting), 148 (rioting, armed with deadly weapon),149 (member of unlawful assembly), 452 (house-trespass after preparation for hurt, assault or wrongful restraint), 353 (assault or criminal force to deter public servant from discharge of his duty), 307(attempt to murder), 333 (voluntarily causing grievous hurt to deter public servant from his duty), 341 (wrongful restraint), 323 (voluntarily causing hurt), 504 (intentional insult with intent to provoke breach of peace), 506 (criminal intimidation), 427 (mischief causing damage), 120(B) (criminal conspiracy) of the IPC and also under the Prevention Of Damage to Public Properties Act, 1984.
Shravan Ram, Ramsewak Ram’s elder son, returned to Rosera from Kota in Rajasthan only on 4 November, but found his name in the FIR registered on 3 November.
"Cases were filed against people present at the protest that day and those who weren't too,” Shravan Ram said, adding that “every member” of their family was facing a case in relation to the 3 November incident. “Some women were arrested and have been bailed out since," he said.
Shravan, also formerly a sanitation worker in Rosera, migrated to Kota where he is a tailor.
Mita Devi, 35, a neighbour of the family who spent a month in Begusarai sub-jail after being arrested on 3 November, said she was struck on the head by policemen during the lathi charge.
She said she was on her way to the market when the baton charge began. “I hadn't committed any crime; I hadn't stolen anything or robbed anyone. They just beat us,” she said. “The magistrate saw my injuries but had said nothing."
Extending a hand to show welts from the injuries, Mita Devi alleged that while in police custody, policemen took Rs1,500, her mobile phone and her Aadhar card.. "They still haven't returned my belongings,” she said. “Do they think they will become kings by stealing from us poor people?”
Despite repeated phone calls on 26 and 28 January, Article 14 was unable to speak to officers at the Rosera police station.
Free Hand For Police Machinery In Bihar
According to PUCL member Kishori Das, a member of several fact-finding teams on custodial deaths, Nitish Kumar's strategy to give police a free hand is a key reason for continuing custodial violence in Bihar.
“Even if he enjoys little public support, he is running the state with the help of police machinery,” Kishori Das said. A free hand for police meant poor accountability, reflected in low rates of action against policemen for custodial torture.
Shivanand Tiwari, a former member of Parliament and spokesperson of the Rashtriya Janata Dal, an opposition party in Bihar, blamed the colonial character of the police force for continuing incidents of custodial violence. “In colonial times, the purpose of the police was to protect the rulers,” Tiwari said. “They had to repress people and keep them in a state of fear to not rise against the rulers.” He said that legacy continued to inform policing in India.
According to Amitabh Das, the former DIG quoted previously, policemen charged in custodial torture cases were rarely convicted.
Five policemen were suspended from Chakiya police station in Sitamarhi district in March 2019 following the custodial death of two youth arrested in a case of robbery and murder.
The families of the victims shared photos and a video clip of their bodies taken before their burial, showing marks of nails driven into their thighs, soles and wrists, and severely injured legs, to the investigating officers.
Even after district magistrate Ranjeet Kumar Singh confirmed that the autopsy showed the youngsters had been beaten and physically tortured by police, the accused policemen were not immediately arrested, an FIR was filed after a delay, allowing the accused policemen time to abscond.
“The process of police investigating police is against the concept of natural justice,” said Amitabh Das, the former DIG, who also served on the state’s human rights commission. “You cannot be a judge on your case.” He said local police personnel should not be involved in investigating police atrocities.
According to the 2019 NCRB report, of 85 cases of deaths in police custody, cases were registered against police personnel only in 15 cases, only eight police personnel were arrested, and four chargesheeted. By the end of the year, no policeman was convicted in any of these cases.
As far back as the Nineties, the human rights commission introduced guidelines on reporting of custodial torture and custodial deaths, including videographing of autopsies and appointment of a medical panel to conduct the postmortem.
In December 2020, the Supreme Court in Paramvir Singh Saini Vs. Baljit Singh ruled that police stations and offices of other investigation agencies that carry out interrogations must have closed circuit cameras. The apex court directed state governments to ensure that CCTV cameras are installed in every police station.
While Rosera police station was under CCTV surveillance, the Bela police outpost where Chandeswar Ram was taken did not have CCTVs, said activists.
According to Ramsewak's postmortem report, the cause of death was “septicemia and brain complication”. The report said there were no external injury marks, but “puss mixed with blood in the right temporoparietal lobe of brain tissue hints at the internal injury”.
Amitabh Das called the human rights commission “a toothless body”, not suitable to deal with custodial death cases. “If the commission orders an SP or a DM to submit a report, they will not oblige,” he said. “The human rights commission has no power to prosecute officers for inaction.”
A staff member in Bihar’s human rights commission who asked to remain anonymous said despite the rule that a case of custodial torture must be reported to the human rights commission within 24 hours, most cases remain unreported.
The human rights commission also failed to register cases suo moto. The SHRC did not have information on the custodial torture of Ramsewak when the Article 14 team met them in the last week of December 2021, though the case had been widely reported by the regional media.
Hope, Survival And The Wait For Justice
Ramsewak liked to dance at weddings and other functions, his wife Parmila recollected, seated on the mud floor of her home in Rosera. By his bedside as he lay unconscious on a hospital bed, she thought about those events, she said.
Struggling to find justice, she said the family was in dire straits, financially and emotionally.
Her family members still facing pending cases, she was often sleepless with worry. “I am scared of going to jail,” she told Article 14. “The police threatened me many times.”
In Muzaffarpur, Chandeswar Ram’s wife Parmila recollected sitting by his side on a bench outside a courtroom. His head was swollen. She went outside to buy him some litti, then watched as he ate slowly.
“He said he would be back home soon,” she said. He offered her a litti that day, but she had refused. Later, she regretted not having eaten the litti he offered. It was the last time she saw him alive. “If only I had known that it was the last time,” said said. “I could have shared a meal with him.”
(Ashfaque EJ is an independent journalist based in Kerala. Vrati Kumar is a law student at the University of Calcutta.)