New Delhi: More than 5,400 custodial deaths were reported in India over the last three years and Uttar Pradesh has reported the highest number of custodial deaths in the same period, according to Ministry of Home Affairs data submitted to Parliament.

In the period between 2016 and 2018, 427 people died in police custody in India, while 5,049 people died in judicial custody. The highest number of police custody deaths reported in 2017 were 146 persons, while the highest number of judicial custody deaths reported in 2018 were 1,797.

Uttar Pradesh, Punjab, Maharashtra, West Bengal and Bihar are amongst the states that have reported the highest number of custodial deaths in the country.

While UP reported 464 custodial deaths last year, Maharashtra reported 160 custodial deaths. West Bengal and Bihar reported 120 custodial deaths each and Punjab reported 122 custodial deaths in 2018.

According to the police, the majority of such custodial deaths happen under natural circumstances as victims develop medical problems after reaching the prison.

A police officer from Delhi said on the condition of anonymity, “People who are arrested develop a fear psychosis as soon as they land in the prison, due to which many develop medical problems, which later get complicated and they die.”

The officer further claimed that many commit suicide inside the prison and some even get hurt while trying to escape. These are some of the several reasons for custodial deaths.

However, human rights activists debunk the claims of the police and say that in most cases the victim succumbs to the agony and torture by the police and jail officials.

According to Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI) data, unnatural deaths in custody have been on the rise over the years. CHRI’s data claims that 231 unnatural custodial deaths took place in 2016, against 115 in 2015.

Madhurima Dhanuka, programme head for prison reforms at CHRI, told The Sunday Guardian: “Natural deaths are higher because most of custodial deaths are marked as natural deaths. But the kind of torture that some of the prisoners go through as soon as they land up in custody is unimaginable. What is not factored in is the mental stress and torture that a prisoner is subjected to every day and at times the treatment meted to them is such that their dignity is taken away, making them take harsh steps.”

“The number of judicial custodial deaths is higher than police custodial deaths because the victim who has been tortured in police custody is more often than not transferred to judicial custody. Thus the police shirks its responsibility and avoids the paperwork in case of the victim dying,” Dhanuka added.

Human rights activists say that the police presently does not resort to traditional means of torture and has instead developed newer means of torture in custody, including spraying high speed jets on the prisoners, make them sit for hours on iceboxes or make them stand under the sun for hours, etc.