Dr Amar Jesani (Indian Journal of Medical Ethics) and Dr Jinee Lokaneeta (Drew University)

India over the past three decades has been characterized by an almost complete lack of change in the (high) incidence of torture and ill-treatment and a marked gap between relatively well-developed legal protections for those in custody and the actual practice of the police and prison service.

The sheer size of the country makes it difficult to generalize. Torture has been worst in those areas affected by continuing conflict, including Jammu and Kashmir as well as those parts of the country afflicted by intermittent communal violence. However, it would be misleading to see torture as something only connected to political instability or conflict. Torture and other ill-treatment are endemic to the Indian criminal justice system. This partly reflects social phenomena such as the intensely hierarchical nature of Indian society and the systemic violence against women; it is also perpetuated by the lack of any reform of the colonial police force inherited at independence in 1947. The police behave almost like occupiers in their own country.

That said, despite a profusion of numbers, hard and accurate data on the incidence of torture are difficult to obtain. Numbers for deaths in custody – itself a massive social problem – generally function as a proxy for torture, the precise extent of which remains unknown. The country’s National Human Rights Commission has made attempts both to document and to address the torture issue, without significant result. A series of progressive decisions by the Indian Supreme Court are barely reflected in practice at the local level.