A 65-year-old man belonging to the nomadic Nat Bajania tribe allegedly died in police custody in Junagadh, Gujarat, after he was picked up by local police on August 15 along with 11 others of the same tribe.
Reportedly, the 12 men were picked on suspicion of theft. According to an application written by the 12 men to Subash Trivedi, Junagadh range Inspector General of Police (IG), they were picked up on the night of August 14 and kept in custody for two days. The application also states that Junagadh police physically and sexually abused them and forced them to admit to crime of theft that they did not commit.
After two days, 65-year-old Hirabapa succumbed to his injuries and was hurriedly cremated even though the Nat Bajania tribe traditionally bury their dead, states the application.
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“These twelve men were detained illegally and tortured for two days without being produced in court. We have demanded that a committee be formed and an investigation be held on the suspicious circumstances of Hirabapa’s death and brutal physical abuse of the twelve men,” Mittal Patel, member of Development and Welfare Board for De-notified, Nomadic and Semi Nomadic Communities of Government of India, told NewsClick.
One of the victims, Shankar Bajania said, “On August 14, police came to us and clicked photos of three men including mine. The police told us that they were clicking photos so that no one would harass us in future. However, on the same day, the police returned at around 2 in the night and took twelve of us to the police station. They began thrashing us in turns but they hit Hirabapa the most. They kept thrashing with belts till dawn of August 15. After a break they came back and hung us upside down and thrashed us again out side the C division police station in Junagadh. All the while they kept asking us to confess to the theft of mobiles. At around 3:30 PM on August 16, the police brought Hirabapa and dropped him near us. He (Hirabapa) was unconscious, when we looked closer, we realised that he was not breathing. When we told the police about this, they first said that he (Hirabapa) was pretending. Later they found that Hirabapa was dead and took him somewhere.”
The men further stated, “Apart from being continuously thrashed by the police, they forced us to perform oral sex on each other and hold each others’ genitals in our mouths for hours. Then the police asked us to admit to the theft of 12 mobile phones and made us sign some documents before finally releasing us on August 17.”
Reportedly, Hirabapa’s body was sent for post mortem to Jamnagar district, about 140 kilometres from Junagadh before being cremated late at night. Hirabapa’s family claim that they were informed about his death and were called to the crematorium just before he was cremated without their consent.
“The old person, who the police thinks was involved in theft, suffered a stroke during investigation as he was a habitual drunkard,” Saurabh Singh, Junagadh Superintendent of Police told the media while responding to the allegation made by the twelve men in the application to the IG, Junagadh range.
“The decision of cremation was taken by Hirabapa’s family. However, in such cases bodies are sent for panel post mortem to Jamnagar or Surendranagar districts. We will have the report in hand soon,” added Singh.
“We are investigating two matters – that of the custodial death and of the crime of theft against the men who were brought in for questioning,” he further said.
Also read: High Numbers of Custodial Deaths: Police Butchering Basic Human Rights
“The people of Nomadic and Denotified Tribes in Gujarat have never been treated with dignity by the police. People belonging to these communities are mostly poor and uneducated, hence, unaware of their rights. These men approached me to help them to prove their innocence in the theft charge before any charge is filed against them,” stated Mittal Patel, who has submitted the application on behalf the 12 men.
Noticeably, Bhaga Bajania, only one of the 12 men has been arrested so far on charges of stealing mobile phones. However, the others have asserted in the application that none of them have committed the crime of theft that the police are claiming. Meanwhile, activists have sought an explanation as to why the 12 men were not produced in court despite being in custody from 2 AM on August 14 to 10 PM on August 17.