INDIA: A human body preserved like a fish and a rotten criminal justice system in West Bengal

In October 2003, 17-year-old Mousumi Ari was murdered by her in-laws. Whereas the role of the state personnel should have been to investigate and prosecute the perpetrators, in fact they did exactly the opposite, as one of the accused, the father-in-law of the victim, was attached to the investigating police station.

When police from Kakdwip station, led by Sub Inspector Mr. A K Ghosh, arrived at the scene, rather than investigating properly, they removed Mousumi’s clothes and put fresh clothes on her body. They took away the bloodstained clothes in a packet. Further the police failed to dispatch the body in time for post mortem examination, and deliberately abstained to collect any evidence from the crime scene. They further forced the victim’s mother to give in writing that her daughter committed suicide.

The police retained the body in their custody for more than 24 hrs in derogation of the law and the inquest on the body was conducted without a qualified doctor examined the body prior to inquest. Further the post mortem examination conducted by the forensic surgeon was apparently to assist the perpetrators and facilitate for their acquittal. The first post mortem report said that there were no injuries indicating violence and the forensic surgeon indicated that the cause of death was suicide. However the second post mortem conducted after much public pressure mentions anti mortem injuries which fortifies the claim of the victim’s relatives’ that Maousumi did not commit suicide, but was murdered. By all probabilities the first doctor who conducted the post mortem might not have even seen the body since the existing system for conducting post mortem in West Bengal is in a state of horrendous corruption and ineptitude. For further details please see AHRC statement on post mortem examinations conducted in custodial deaths in particular in West Bengal (AS-03-2004). On receipt of the report from West Bengal through Manabadhikar Suraksha Mancha, (MASUM) AHRC issued an urgent appeal in this case calling for urgent action on 2 April 2004 (UA-33-2004: Police, magistrate and doctor cover-up murder of 17-year-old girl) Prior to this, background was set by the intervention of the locals and by MASUM. However there is no response from the authorities up till now.

Who was it that took the necessary steps to obtain justice in this case? Not the police, not the magistrate, not the autopsy surgeon; it was the mother and aunt of the deceased girl. Rural villagers involved in the fish trade, they knew only that a grave wrong was being committed against them by the state. Instead of cremating Mousumi’s body upon getting it back from the morgue, and against all religious customs and social traditions, they took the unprecedented step of covering the body with plastic and burying it in an eight-feet-deep pit filled with salt. Just as fish could be preserved with salt, they concluded, so could their loved one’s body be preserved, in the hope that some kind of new investigation would follow.

It was this drastic step by the two women that allowed for what happened next. After Mousumi’s father returned from sea, he obtained help to draft letters to state officials, and in December the case was brought to the attention of local human rights organisation, MASUM, which successfully lobbied for a new post mortem investigation, this time by forensic experts. The body was exhumed and the new investigation has led to murder charges against the in-laws, but to date no action has been taken against the errant state officers. 

In a letter to the Chief Minister of West Bengal (AG-01-2004), the Asian Human Rights Commission, in calling for the immediate suspension from service of the said officers and reinvestigation of the case, has pointed to some of the problems in the case. These include that,

1. The police failed to send Mousumi’s body immediately to a hospital, as is their primary duty, to determine if she was even dead at the time of their arrival. In fact, the police appear to have kept the body for over 24 hours. 
2. The police removed evidence from the scene of the crime, but did not record it on the list of seized items. They also failed to collect vital evidence, which should have been sent for forensic examination. 
3. The police failed to secure the place of occurrence. Subsequently, bloodstains on the floor and walls were simply washed away, thus vital evidence was destroyed. 
4. The police refused to record a complaint of murder from the mother. Instead they forced her to sign a complaint indicating that her daughter had committed suicide due to cruelty. 
5. There are inconsistencies in the times and dates of various official records, speaking to the fact that they had been badly fabricated. 
6. Although the body had not been declared legally dead by a doctor, as required by law, the magistrate held his inquest, and did so without the family members present. The same magistrate was later called upon to conduct a second inquest. 
7. While the Investigating Officer added a charge of murder to his final report, the substance of the investigating documents, including the majority of witness statements, suggests an act of suicide. This contradiction may allow the Court to acquit the accused on the benefit of the doubt.
8. The first autopsy surgeon failed to properly examine the body, and may not even have sighted it.

While Mousumi Ari’s case is remarkable because of the steps taken by the family to obtain justice despite the obstacles placed before them, it is in every other respect typical of the total decay of the criminal justice system in India today. Let us ask some basic questions about the role that each part of the criminal justice machinery plays in such cases.

What is the intended role of the police? It is to apply the law and investigate crimes. Throughout India, however, the police are responsible for the most flagrant violations of the law in order to protect the perpetrators of crime.

How could the Government of India justify their stand from not ratifying the Convention against Torture in light of such violations?

What is the intended role of the autopsy surgeon? It is to establish the cause of death? Throughout India, however, doctors fail to conduct proper autopsies and either deliberately or carelessly submits false reports that again allow the perpetrators of crimes to escape detection. 

What is the intended role of the magistrate at time of inquest? It is to inquire independently, and through a quasi-judicial process, into the cause of death. Throughout India, however, magistrates collude with the police to produce fabricated reports. As pointed out by the Asian Human Rights Commission in a recent statement (AS-03-2004, 29 February 2004), in West Bengal in particular, the magistrates responsible for these inquiries are under the same department as the police, and therefore for all practical purposes no procedure for independent inquiry exists. 

What is the intended role of the bureaucracy, government agencies, and human rights commissions? It is to ensure that the citizens of the country are properly governed, and their rights protected. Throughout India, however, the state agents, including senior police, ministers, chief secretaries and human rights commissioners, fail to take any interest in the misdeeds of their subordinates, and often assist them in covering up crimes. In fact, subordinate officers can expect that their illegal actions will either be ignored, or steps will be taken to protect them. 

Who is responsible for the increase of crime? Throughout India, it is the agents of the criminal justice system: the police, judicial officials, medical personnel and other state officers who one way or another prevent even the most rudimentary criminal investigations from proceeding as they should. Where criminals control and staff a system, it can only be expected that crime will increase as a result. It then falls to the victims themselves to stand for justice and fight against this rampant criminality through whatever means they have available. 

Mousumi Ari is now dead, although not yet cremated; her body is as yet preserved by her family, who fear that it may yet be needed as evidence. The Chief Minister of West Bengal should now order the immediate suspension of all state officers involved in covering-up the murder, and order a reinvestigation by personnel from outside the state police force. When the Nobel Prize medallion of Rabindranath Tagore was stolen recently, the Chief Minister lost no time in ordering high-level outside investigators on to the case. Presumably the Chief Minister would not like to give the impression that the life of a citizen is worth less than a piece of metal. These simple steps, if taken by the Chief Minister, will do nothing to resolve the massive systemic problems facing the criminal justice system, but they will at least go a small way to restoring some of its credibility in West Bengal. They will certainly give hope to one poor family that their desperate efforts on behalf of their slain relative were not in vain. 

Asian Human Rights Commission

Document Type : Statement
Document ID : AS-09-2004
Countries : India,
Issues : Administration of justice,