By KM Yadav, Anil Mishra, Shiv Narayan Sharma, Venkatesh Narayanan*
It is a depressing fact that the National Human Rights Commission of India (NHRC) has to have a Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) for dealing with after-the-fact custodial deaths and rapes. That such crimes are borne disproportionately by minorities, marginalised communities, Dalits and Adivasis is even more distressing.
Much ink continues to be spilt annually and internationally on this topic. There are even scholarly dissertations by leading Supreme Court advocates on this. The epidemic of such homicides remains unaddressed judicially. There is even a resigned acceptance ‘rate’ of such deaths now — a vastly undercounted five deaths a day, which continue unabated. On an average, every month, 150 citizens will be dead without ever and even been accused of anything, i.e. killed under “interrogation” in police custody, or once having had charges filed under them – killed in judicial custody.
Which is why the latest such infraction on May 21, 2021 — the brazen murder of Faisal Hussain, a resident of village Bhatpuri in Bangarmau tehsil of Unnao district, while in police custody is tragic and so important. The homicide of Faisal — a vegetable vendor of meagre produce Dhaniya, Mirchi, Nimbu and Adrak, sole bread winner for his family of four other siblings, including a physically and mentally challenged brother — stands apart in its horror.
Faisal, a minor, was accosted by the police for allegedly violating Covid restrictions. He was beaten on location. At the police station, colloquially referred to as Kotwali, he was again subjected to blunt trauma to his head and later pronounced dead-on-arrival at a local hospital.
A five member delegation from the Socialist Party of India (SPI) visited the family between May 27 and 30. The delegation had two teams, one headed by KM Yadav and the second by Anil Mishra. Facts gleaned through interviews conducted with Faisal’s father Islam Hussain, his elder brother Mohd Sufiyan, his cousin Salman Hussain and others highlight unbearable levels of official callousness.
In Salman’s retelling of the deadly event, Faisal was confronted by a local self-described Singham-style “toughcop” Vijay Choudhury, who swung by in his police vehicle accompanied by constable Seemawat (and a home guard named Satyaprakash) around 2 pm. That afternoon, tens of others had set up roadside stalls hawking local fresh produce.
Vijay picked on Faisal, an easy minority target, and then proceeded to verbally and physically abuse him. Onlookers report hearing the officer yelling “Why didn’t you close the shop when I came, I will tell you now” while then hitting Faisal adding “Come on. Will tell you in the police station.” They then proceeded to take him to the Kotwali.
CCTV footage corroborates that the Kotwali where Faisal was taken to, no more than 800 metres from the pitiable roadside location where he hawked, seemed to have taken 7 minutes, for what ought to have been a mere two minute ride by motorcycle, the incremental time perhaps being spent in vicious battery and assault of Faisal. When Mohd Sufiyan, Faisal’s elder brother, hearing the incident, went to the police station, he observed that Faisal was already lying unresponsive on the ground.
The police swung into full-on damage-control mode, first preventing Mohd from checking on his brother, and then rushing Faisal to the local community health centre where doctors pronounced him dead on arrival. The police then tried unsuccessfully pressuring medical staff to provide “treatment”. Their next move was to try to move the now-dead on arrival (DOA) victim to the bigger Unnao District Hospital.
Shortly, in a turn of events, sensing a surging crowd-control challenge on their hands and in spite of the Kotwali-in-charge’s presence on-site Vijay Choudhury, Seemawat and Sathya Prakash absconded from the site. Later that night, after FIR 0160, dated 8.30 pm, May 21, was filed, the family took possession of the body. The three law enforcement personnel remain suspended but on the run.
Islam Hussain reflected, “Our son was a Muslim so such injustice was done to him. Selling vegetables is not a crime, 50 shops were open, why only my son?”, before sobbing into despairing silence. Officials at the Kotwali refused to entertain the SPI delegation. The visiting team was able to assist the family with a nominal Rs 3,000 goodwill of retired Indian Revenue Service officer and former member Union Public Service Commission Parveen Talha.
Apart from the wanton loss of life, and sustained emotional trauma, the family of Faisal now faces immediate hurdles in even making ends meet. They are aware that once the media spike subsides, political attention dwindles and news cycles move on, and the lockdown continues, their capacity to sustain living expenses will continue to erode.
The SPI demands that restorative and compensatory speedy justice be provided to the surviving family. The conversations which SPI has had with the family of Faisal Hussain shows an immense desire to secure justice for Faisal and themselves at the conduct of this heinous crime. At the minimum they feel that the following need be addressed:
1. A magisterial enquiry be conducted with the full power of supporting documentation including the FIR, inquest report, CCTV footage, geo-location mobile data of phones, attested evidence of all the personnel at the Kotwali, the post-mortem autopsy report and medical treatment records – each one of these are as prescribed by the SOP of the NHRC itself.
2. The State government honour its own interim relief commitment of Rs 4 lakh to the family and appropriate immediate employment to a surviving family member to prevent them from falling into imminent destitution. Prior established Supreme Court jurisprudence entails the state authorities to do so explicitly in cases of custodial deaths (Smt Nilabati Behera Alias Lalit … vs State Of Orissa, Raghubir Singh vs. Haryana and DK Basu vs. Bengal).
The tragic killing of Faisal Hussein is illuminative but not unique. His loss cannot be undone but we can work on systemic positive changes to prevent even having a need for NHRC. We can also stand meekly and silently while the media moment moves on. Or we can make an attempt to make a tragic wrong, somewhat right by speaking up. That choice is up to us.
*With Socialist Party (India)