"The police in India are under tremendous pressure, as people need quick results. So we have to pick up and interrogate a lot of people. Sometimes things get out of control," said Raghuraj Singh Chauhan, a newly assigned officer at the station where Rajeev Sharma died. "After all, confessions cannot be extracted with love. The fear of the police has to be kept alive -- how else would you reduce crime?" he added, fanning himself with a police file folder.
A senior police officer in Meerut, on condition of anonymity, openly discussed torture methods with a visiting reporter. One technique, he said, involves a two-foot-long rubber belt attached to a wooden handle.
The widow of Rajeev Sharma, an alleged victim of police torture, holds his photo as the family sits outside their home in Meerut, India. Next to her is Sunil Sharma, who says police had beaten his younger brother "very badly."
(Rama Lakshmi For The Washington Post)
"We call this thing samaj sudharak," the officer said, smiling, using the Hindi phrase for social reformer. "When we hit with this, there are no fractures, no blood, no major peeling of the skin. It is safe for us, as nothing shows up in the postmortem report. But the pain is such that the person can only appeal to God. He will confess to anything."
Last September, in a written ruling in a case of police misconduct, the Supreme Court criticized the use of torture. "The dehumanizing torture, assault and death in custody which have assumed alarming proportions raise serious questions about the credibility of the rule of law and administration of the criminal justice system," the court said. "The cry for justice becomes louder and warrants immediate remedial measure."
In addition, the severity of the torture problem is probably worse than statistics indicate, because victims, fearing reprisals, rarely report cases against the police, human rights advocates said.
"About 40 percent of custodial torture cases are not even reported. They are just grateful for God's mercy that they are alive and free," said Pradeep Kumar, a human rights lawyer who has represented police torture victims in Uttar Pradesh. "Torture sometimes leads to permanent disability, psychological trauma, loss of faculties."
The National Human Rights Commission, led by a retired Supreme Court justice, has faced criticism that it is too dependent on the government and lacks enforcement power.
"We have not been able to build a human rights culture in the police force," said Shankar Sen, a former police officer and an ex-member of the commission. "It is not only individual aberration but a matter of systemic failure."
The commission has ordered that cameras be installed in police stations to monitor and deter police brutality.
"In the past year we have spent about $600,000 to equip most of the police stations in New Delhi with a camera. This will make police functioning transparent and have a big impact on torture," said Maxwell Pereira, a senior police official in the capital.
But critics and families of victims said they had not seen changes. In a much-publicized case in New Delhi last fall, five policemen were charged with beating and killing Sushil Kumar Nama at a police station.
Nama had been detained on suspicion that he was working with neighborhood gamblers. Four of the police officers were arrested in April, but one remains at large, authorities said. Police officials denied that Nama was tortured, saying he died of a heart attack after he was released from custody.
"My two children are so traumatized that now they run home scared every time they see a policeman on the street," said Nama's wife, Rekha, 29. "They know that danger lurks behind that uniform. They are not policemen, they are wolves."