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Custodial Deaths Under Scrutiny: Jharkhand's Troubling Human Rights Record

The number of custodial deaths was reported as 67, 45, and 54 for the respective years of 2018-19, 2019-20, and 2020-21.

By Ground report
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custodial deaths in Jharkhand

Vikram Raj, Jharkhand | Smt. Reena Devi, the wife of Sendhu Munda, has come forward with a heart-wrenching account of her husband's alleged brutal beating by jail personnel at Latehar Jail, leading to his untimely death on the night of May 5th or the early hours of May 6th, 2023. Despite more than a month passing since the incident, Reena Devi has yet to receive the post-mortem report or witness any arrests of those involved in the violence. Moreover, no compensation has been provided to the grieving family.

The incident unfolded on May 2nd, 2023, when a tragic event occurred in the couple's village of Hesla, Latehar, resulting in death due to the fatal beating of Sibal Ganjhu and Bonni Devi, an elderly couple. On the morning of May 3rd, law enforcement personnel forcibly entered Reena Devi's residence, causing havoc and inquiring about her husband's whereabouts. In an unsettling turn of events, Sendhu Munda was forcefully taken into custody alongside 12 other individuals from their village, without any explanation or justification provided by the police.

According to the statement provided by Anjani Anjan, the Superintendent of Police in Latehar, “the act of murder of Sibal Ganjhu and Bonni Devi can be attributed to the prevailing superstitious belief in witchcraft. It has been identified that two Pahans (recognized as priests in the community) played a role in inciting the mob to carry out the killings. In addition to these two Pahans, a total of 11 individuals who are residents of Hesla village had been apprehended and taken into custody. The incident is directly linked to the observance of Sarhul Puja, a significant religious festival. On April 22, the day of Sarhul Puja, the elderly couple declined to accept Sarhul flowers, which sparked resentment among the local people. Coincidentally, on the same day, two young individuals from a nearby village, identified as Ajay and Sukesh Mahto, lost their lives in an accident. The cause of their deaths was attributed to the alleged witchcraft practiced by the aforementioned elderly couple. Subsequently, on the night of May 2, Pahan Dheeraj Munda and Butri Pahan from Hesla village violently assaulted and killed the elderly couple, Sibal Ganjhu and Bonni Devi, within the premises of the local Akhara. The individuals who have been arrested in connection with this crime include Pahan Dheeraj Munda, Butru Pahan, Santosh Ganjhu, Pardeshi Munda, Sendhu Munda, Amrit Munda, Surendra Ganjhu, Vinod Singh, Bhola Munda, Ramchandra Munda, and Munwa Munda. Additional suspects implicated in the case are Ramdhan Ganjhu and Parmeshwar Munda.”

Over the following days, Reena Devi tirelessly attempted to meet her husband, visiting both the police station and the jail. However, her efforts proved futile as she could not secure a meeting. Finally, on May 5th, she was granted access to Latehar Jail after paying a sum of Rs. 320 to the gatekeeper as a bribe. Disturbed by her husband's dejected state, she found him physically unharmed. Tragically, the next day, on May 6th, she received the devastating news of his demise. Rushing to Sadar Hospital with her brother-in-law Philip Munda and concerned villagers, they discovered fresh wounds covering Sendhu Munda's lifeless body. Doctors and police at the scene attributed his death to epilepsy, a condition he was alleged to have had despite no prior medical history supporting such claims. The family vehemently denies any previous health issues and insists that Sendhu Munda was in good health.

The visible injuries on Sendhu Munda's body suggest severe beatings while in custody, leading to his tragic demise. Allegations of collusion between jail personnel, police, and government doctors have surfaced, fueling suspicion of a potential cover-up operation.

Reena Devi recounts an incident at the hospital where a policeman coerced Philip Munda, her brother-in-law, into signing a document detailing the number and nature of wounds on Sendhu Munda's body. However, when asked for a copy of the record, the police officer assured them it would be delivered to their home—a promise yet to be fulfilled. The post-mortem examination took place at Sadar Hospital on the night of May 6th, with authorities assuring the family that they would receive the report promptly. Regrettably, a month has passed, and the family remains in the dark about the findings.

On May 7th, police personnel visited the village, urging the family to expeditiously conduct the deceased husband's funeral rites. Succumbing to pressure, the rituals were performed on the same day. Reports have surfaced that a case has been registered against five jail personnel allegedly involved in Sendhu Munda's death. CCTV footage from the jail purportedly captures the harrowing beating with sticks and rods. However, no arrests have been made so far, and no FIR has been lodged against the jail superintendent, who is believed to bear significant responsibility for the violence and subsequent death that occurred within the confines of the judicial system.

The shocking revelations made by Smt. Reena Devi has sent shockwaves through the Tribal community, prompting calls for a thorough investigation into the alleged brutality and a demand for justice for Sendhu Munda. Local villagers and journalists, who have been closely following the case, express their outrage at the lack of progress in the arrest of the involved jail personnel.

Public pressure is mounting as citizens demand transparency and accountability from the authorities. Civil rights organizations and activists have joined forces to support Reena Devi's cause, advocating for an impartial investigation into the incident and urging the swift apprehension of those responsible. They emphasize that no one should be above the law, especially when it concerns the custodial care of individuals in the criminal justice system.

Latehar Jail, under scrutiny for this alleged incident, now faces a critical moment in its history. The reputation of the institution, as well as the criminal justice system at large, hangs in the balance. Concerned citizens are calling for urgent reforms to prevent such tragedies from recurring and to restore public trust in the judicial system.

In response to the mounting pressure, the authorities are yet to issue an official statement, leaving the affected family and the community in a state of distress. However, it is hoped that the collective voices demanding justice will not go unheard and that a thorough and impartial investigation will be conducted to uncover the truth surrounding Sendhu Munda's tragic death.

As the case unfolds, Smt. Reena Devi remains resolute in her pursuit of justice for her late husband. She vows to fight until the responsible individuals are held accountable and her family receives the compensation they deserve for their loss.

The community stands in solidarity with the grieving family, demanding that the wheels of justice turn swiftly to ensure that such incidents are not swept under the rug. The eyes of the nation are now fixed on Latehar, awaiting a resolution that will determine the credibility and integrity of the criminal justice system in the region.

This is not the first time that the state administration has been criticized for Human Rights Violations. Jharkhand has witnessed a concerning pattern characterized by instances of fatalities occurring while individuals are in custody. As revealed in a written response provided by the home, prison, and disaster management department to Vinod Singh, a legislator from the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist), during the year's budget session of 2022 of the assembly, Jharkhand documented a total of 166 custodial deaths between 2018 and 2020. Among these, 156 deaths transpired within the confines of prisons, while the remaining 10 occurred while individuals were in police custody.

According to the available data, the number of custodial deaths was reported as 67, 45, and 54 for the respective years of 2018-19, 2019-20, and 2020-21. Regrettably, there was no mention of the specific data pertaining to the year 2021-22.

To address the long chain of human rights violations in Jharkhand, it is imperative that the state government takes immediate and concrete steps to ensure accountability and justice. This includes conducting thorough and impartial investigations into all reported cases of custodial deaths and human rights abuses, prosecuting those responsible, and providing reparations to the victims' families.

(Author is an independent Journalist)

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