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Indian Case Summary

Shri D.K. Basu,Ashok K. Johri vs State Of West Bengal,State Of U.P on 18 December, 1996 – Case Summary

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In the case of Shri D.K. Basu and Ashok K. Johri versus the State of West Bengal and the State of U.P, a landmark judgement was passed by the Supreme Court of India on 18th December 1996. The case was presided over by Kuldip Singh and A.S. Anand, who were the bench judges at the time.

Facts of the Case

The case originated from a letter addressed to the Chief Justice of India by the Executive Chairman of Legal Aid Services, West Bengal, a non-political organization. The letter, dated 26th August 1986, highlighted several news items about deaths in police custody and lock-ups. The Executive Chairman urged the development of “custody jurisprudence” and the formulation of modalities for awarding compensation to victims or their family members for atrocities and deaths caused in police custody. The letter was treated as a writ petition under the “public interest litigation” category due to the importance of the issues raised.

Issues Raised

The case raised significant issues concerning police powers, including whether monetary compensation should be awarded for established infringement of the Fundamental Rights guaranteed by Articles 21 and 22 of the Constitution of India. The issues were fundamental and touched upon the darker side of human civilization, where ‘torture’ of a human being by another human being is used as an instrument to impose the will of the ‘strong’ over the ‘weak’ by suffering.

Court’s Observations and Judgement

The court observed that custodial violence, including torture and death in lock-ups, strikes a blow at the Rule of Law, which demands that the powers of the executive should not only be derived from law but also that the same should be limited by law. The court noted that custodial violence is a matter of concern as it is committed by persons who are supposed to be the protectors of the citizens. It is committed under the shield of uniform and authority in the four walls of a police station or lock-up, the victim being totally helpless.

The court also observed that “torture” has not been defined in the Constitution or in other penal laws. ‘Torture’ of a human being by another human being is essentially an instrument to impose the will of the ‘strong’ over the ‘weak’ by suffering. The word torture today has become synonymous with the darker side of human civilization.

The court held that any form of torture or cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment would fall within the inhibition of Article 21 of the Constitution, whether it occurs during investigation, interrogation, or otherwise. If the functionaries of the Government become lawbreakers, it is bound to breed contempt for law and would encourage lawlessness and every man would have the tendency to become law unto himself thereby leading to anarchism.

The court concluded that custodial death is perhaps one of the worst crimes in a civilized society governed by the Rule of Law. The rights inherent in Articles 21 and 22(1) of the Constitution required to be jealously and scrupulously protected. The court cannot wish away the problem. Any form of torture or cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment would fall within the inhibition of Article 21 of the Constitution, whether it occurs during investigation, interrogation, or otherwise. If the functionaries of the Government become lawbreakers, it is bound to breed contempt for law and would encourage lawlessness and every man would have the tendency to become law unto himself thereby leading to anarchism. No civilized nation can permit that to happen.