Custodial death is a terrifying betrayal of trust in which people who are supposed to protect people’s rights and welfare instead turn into abusers and perpetrators of violence. The transformation of institutions meant to safeguard individuals and maintain justice turned into tools of oppression and injustice, it is among the most heinous crimes against humanity.

The core concepts of duty and rights are heinously broken in cases of custodial death. The basic rights of individuals to due process, protection from harm, and the presumption of innocence are callously disregarded, as is the duty of law enforcement and correctional authorities to safeguard the safety and welfare of those in their care. The cornerstone of society’s confidence in its legal and governmental institutions is destroyed by this heinous betrayal of trust.

Definition of Custodial Death

Custodial death refers to the death of a person in the custody of law enforcement authorities, typically occurring while the person is under arrest, In detention, or otherwise under the control of authorities. The death can occur in various circumstances, including during the interrogation, while in a police custody, or while being detained in correctional facility. The death may be caused by natural reason like cardiac arrest, nervous shock etc. but when the law enforcement are involved in the death of the person then it raises the questions about the use of power, treatment of detainees, and responsibility of authorities involved.

Difference Between Judicial Custody and Police Custody

A magistrate is in charge of the accused when they are in judicial custody. In the Police custody, the accused is held in a detention centre attached to a police station; in the second, a jail. The Criminal Procedure Code comes into play when someone is arrested by the police, and they have to appear before a magistrate within the 24 hours. Even after the court has granted the accused judicial custody, the police are still able to assume control of the accused or suspect with the proper authorization from the court; in other words, they are able to convert the accused from judicial custody to police custody. Since the police have no right to question an accused person while they are in judicial custody, they must determine if questioning is essential based on the evidence. 

Rights of Detainees, Arrestee Under-Trial and Prisoners 

  • Equality before law and equal protection of laws ensuring all the person shall be treated as equal. (Article 14 of the Constitution of India)
  • Right to Life: As a basic and inalienable human right, Article 21 protects everyone’s right to life. It shields people from arbitrary acts that might cause fatalities. This right includes the right to a dignified existence. It limits the state’s ability to take a life unless a proper and lawful procedure is followed.
  • Right to Personal Liberty: The right to personal liberty is likewise protected by Article 21. It guarantees that no authority, be it the state or another, can arbitrarily restrict someone’s freedom and physical autonomy. This covers defense against wrongful detention, arrest, or incarceration. A person’s personal liberty is a vital component of their freedom and dignity, and Article 21 guarantees its preservation.
  • Double jeopardy: No person shall be convicted for the same offence twice. When the person is found guilty in certain offences, he/she cannot be punished again for the same act (Article 22(2)).
  • Self Incrimination: The person cannot be compelled to witness against himself, the officials cannot force a person to admit his/her guilt (Article 22(3)). Confession made in the police custody is irrelevant (Indian Evidence Act 1872 Section 24 and 25).
  • Right to Live in Humane and Good Conditions: The Supreme Court issued several directives in the Upendra Baxi v. State of U.P case to ensure that prisoners housed in the Agra Protective Home are not subjected to cruel or dehumanizing treatment. This preserves the constitutionally guaranteed right to live in dignity (Article 21).
  • Entitlement to Unrestricted Legal Assistance: A fundamental right guaranteed by the constitution is the ability for anyone who is arrested to consult with legal counsel.The Supreme Court ruled in M.H. Wadanrao Haskot Vs. State of Maharashtra, that access to legal representation is a necessary component of an impartial process.

Landmark Cases

Sunil Batra V. Delhi Administration the petitioner, a convict under death sentence came to know that the torture is happening on the fellow inmates, petitioner file a complained, but the question arises is the complained admissible? The Supreme Court in his judgement held that prisoners’ grievances, not demanding release but, within the lockup circumstances, complaining ill treatment and curtailment short of illegal detentions. The prisoners were also human and fundamental rights do not flee, as he enters the prison. the court held that the prisoner, had been tortured illegally and the superintendent could not dissolve himself from responsibility. The court laid down certain guidelines.

  • Grievances box: there should be a grievances box in every jail, free access should be accorded to the inmates for that, it is sealed by a district magistrate and it will be open by himself or his surrogate.
  • Dynamic approach: the stress was laid down on the need of courts to be dynamic and diversified in meeting out to the remedies of prisoners.
  • Problems of overcrowding: the problems prevailing in the jail such as overcrowding, non-accommodation etc. were taken note of the concern and the same is directed to the government to take steps.

DK Basu v. State of west Bengal is a landmark judgement where a letter was written to chief justice of India referring to a local newspaper report wherein mistreatment of prisoners by police are alleged. Relying on the letter the Supreme Court consider it as writ petition. Thereupon the court gave various guidelines.

  • Arresting or interrogation officials have to bear clear and identifiable badge.
  • There has to be preparation of memo of arrest in the presence of family member or local person.
  • Arrested person has right to inform his/her relative as soon as possible
  • The details of arrest and transmission of information to the next friend or relative have to be entered in the police diary.
  • The arrestee has to be subject to medical examination every 48 hours.
  • The arrestee has to be permitted to meet his lawyer during investigation.
  • Police control room district or the state Headquarter has to notify in the notice board about the fact of arrest within 12 hours from the moment of arrest.

Smt. Shakila Abdul Gafar Khan v. Vasant Raghunath Dhoble And Anr 2003 Supreme quoted “Government as the omnipotent and omnipresent teacher teaches the whole people by its example, if the Government becomes a law breaker, it breeds contempt for law, it invites every man to become a law into himself”.

Procedure of Investigation

Any magistrate with authority may, in addition to or instead of the police officer’s investigation, hold an inquiry into the cause of unnatural death under the general clause of Section 176(1) of the Criminal Procedure Code 1973. Nonetheless, this authority is only advisory and should not be adhered to strictly. Since Section 176(1A) of the Code was added in 2005 amendment to Criminal Procedure Code, legalese has acknowledged custodial violence as one of the most severe types of criminal activity. The Section specified that:

  • A person dies or disappears or,
  • A woman is alleged to have been raped,

In addition to the police’s investigation or inquiry, the judicial magistrate or metropolitan magistrate with jurisdiction over the subject must carry out an investigation into the matter while the person in question was in the custody of the police or in any other custody authorized by the court.

This clause is unique in that it solely addresses custodial offenses. As a result, the following are some of the provision’s key features:

Parallel to the investigation or inquiry carried out by the police authority will be the judicial or metropolitan magistrate’s probe. The magistrate is required by the law to carry out the relevant investigation. The phrase “must” has been substituted for “may,” signifying the duty placed on the authorities. Additionally, the amendment eliminated the executive magistrate’s eligibility to make certain kinds of investigations. Instead, the task of conducting the investigation has been given to the judicial magistrate or the metropolitan magistrate.

Reforms and Suggestion 

The 2010 Prevention of Torture Bill was approved by the Lok Sabha on May 6, 2010. The Rajya Sabha, however, felt that the bill did not meet the requirements of the United Nations Convention against Torture, therefore they referred it to a select committee. When the 15th Lok Sabha was dissolved on May 18, 2014, the amended bill lapsed itself.

The Law Commission of India recommended in a study from 2018 that India ratify the UN Convention against Torture and enact independent legislation prohibiting the torture of its citizens by agents of the government.


The loss of life in custody is a grave violation of human rights and stain on the principal of justice and accountability. As we confront this issue, it is imperative to conduct thorough and impartial investigation in each cases, holding parties responsible and accountable for their actions. Moreover, meaningful reform must be implemented within law enforcement agencies to address systematic issues and prevent future tragedies. Transparency, oversight, and community engagement are essential components of this process. By prioritizing the protection and dignity of individuals in custody, we can strive towards more just and equitable society where custodial death are not reduced, but unthinkable. Let us commit to upholding human rights and ensuring that every life is valued and protected, both inside and outside the walls of detention facilities. 



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