Guwahati, India - On the night of January 9, a police team headed by officer Ranjit Hazarika raided the home of one Hasen Ali of No 2 Atakata village in Mangaldoi district of the State of Assam in India's northeast.
Suspecting him of possessing illegal arms, the police barged into his home at midnight and searched for the weapons but couldn’t find any.
Hasen, who had been a migrant worker in the southern state of Karnataka, had recently come back home with his wife and three children, including an infant. The 40-year-old was the sole breadwinner for the family.
Hasen's wife Jamiran Nessa told Al Jazeera that her husband was dragged out of the home and at least four policemen pinned him down in the courtyard and kicked him indiscriminately.
"Police covered his face with a cloth and poured cold water on his face. He vomited and fainted after a while," Nessa, 35, said.
Police brought him to Mangaldoi Civil Hospital around 12km from his home, where a doctor declared him "brought dead".
Next morning when news of Hasen's death spread, a large number of villagers gathered to protest against police atrocities and demand justice. At least one person died when police opened fire on the agitated crowd of about 5,000 people.
Ainuddin Ahmed, a student activist from Darrang district, claims that waterboarding is a widely practised torture technique used by the Assam police as part of their notorious "third degree", or torture practices, in police custody to extract information from detainees.
Police covered his face with a cloth and poured cold water on his face. He vomited and fainted within a while
Ainuddin's organisation, the All Assam Minority Students' Union (AAMSU), works for the victims of police atrocities and persecution of minorities.
"Tens of thousands of genuine Indian Muslims of Assam have been harassed on the pretext of being illegal immigrant from Bangladesh, and more than 2,000 of them are put up in detention camps across the state," Ainuddin, general secretary of AAMSU, said.
|Ainuddin Ahmed campaigns against police atrocities [Photo courtesy: AAMSU]|
Aman Wadud, a lawyer based in the state capital Guwahati who provides pro-bono legal aid to the victims of state persecution and targeted violence, says police actions against Muslims are often harsh.
"Police have always been uncharitable towards Muslims of Assam; it has a different and very harsh parameter to deal with Muslims. Whenever Muslims protest for their rights, the police forces hardly hesitate to open firing," he told Al Jazeera.
'Guilty will be punished'
Assam police chief announced that those guilty of Hasen's death would be punished.
"He has died in police custody, already a case has been registered, the person (police officer) has been arrested and sent to judicial custody, and the investigation is on," Mukesh Sahay, the director general of police in Assam, told Al Jazeera.
"The investigation will find out what the cause of death was. If his guilt is established he will be punished as per law."
Sahay admitted there was a need for "training and sensitisation" of the police force and strict "enforcement" of law.
"If anybody violates the law he will be punished under the same law, simple. Our principle is zero tolerance, [if] anybody violates, take action," he said.
But security forces in the state have not always followed the rule book.
Two days after the custodial death of Hasen, a journalist from a local satellite television channel, Swarupjyoti Chetia, was picked up by security forces in a midnight raid at his residence in the Dibrugarh district of Assam.
Chetia was accused of passing crucial information about an air force station and other government installations in the area to the banned rebel outfit United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA).
The news channel alleged that Chetia was subjected to torture during detention, including pouring cold water on his body in the middle of the winter night.
Security forces, however, released him next day owing to huge protest and road blockade by the villagers against the "arbitrary detention and torture".
'My life has been destroyed'
Police officer Hazarika has been accused of using waterboarding before to get confession from detainees.
Last September Hazarika picked up Ambas Ali of Borbari Sonowa village from a tea-stall under the Dhula police station in Darrang district.
If anybody violates the law, he will be punished under the same law, simple. Our principle is zero tolerance, [if] anybody violates, take action
Mukesh Sahay, Assam police chief
Ambas, who lost his land to river erosion, now supports his family by purchasing goats and cattle from nearby villages and selling them in the local market.
He says the police first took him to the police station and then to another location where they planted a pistol under his belt before he was photographed.
Ambas says he was then brought back to the police station where he was blindfolded, pinned down and held tightly by several policemen, some of them sat on his chest and belly. They then placed a cloth on his face and poured water over it.
"Hardly half a minute to one minute, I could survive but then lost my senses. When I regained my senses, they did the same thing again and asked me to confess that the pistol was mine," Ambas told Al Jazeera.
"I can't explain what I suffered. …I thought, I wouldn't survive…. My life has been destroyed….."
Huge public outcry
waterboarding, or simulated drowning, only became widely known after it was revealed that the CIA had been subjecting suspects to it in the wake of 9/11.
However, the torture technique to extract information from detainees dates back hundreds of years.
In modern times, there was a huge public outcry in the US after it came to light that US soldiers were using water for a form of torture infamously known as the "water cure", used against Filipinos in the Philippine-American War (1899-1902).
And in the late 1950s, French military used waterboarding against the Algerians suspected to be members of FLN (National Liberation Front).
Most recently, the CIA employed waterboarding as one of their "Enhanced Interrogation Techniques" in Guantanamo Bay prison camp to extract information from detainees.
According to a recent study published by the National Law University, Delhi, 82.6 percent prisoners were tortured in police custody
However, a US Senate Intelligence Committee report highlighted the ineffectiveness of torture as a tool of interrogation.
Between 1994 and 2008, India recorded 16,836 custodial deaths or more than 1,203 persons per year but successive governments have been denying torture as a cause of custodial death.
According to a recent study published by the National Law University, Delhi, 82.6 percent of prisoners were tortured in police custody.
|The spot where Hasen Ali died due to torture [Photo courtesy: AAMSU]|
The National Human Rights Commission's annual report 2013-14 says that it had received indications of 1,719 cases of custodial death during the review period.
Assam police chief Sahay claims that in recent times the higher number of custodial deaths is due to some other technical causes like "mob violence" and "lynching", not police torture.
However, studies tell a different story; a report released by Human Rights Watch said that more than 590 detainees died in police custody between 2010 and 2015 in India. And no police officers were convicted during that period.
The report documented individual cases of custodial torture, death and impunity, including the practice of waterboarding.
UN Convention against Torture
According to Kirity Roy of Banglar Manabadhikar Suraksha Mancha (MASUM), an organisation working against torture and extra-judicial killing, India has signed but not yet ratified the 1997 UN Convention against Torture.
The South Asian nation is one of only nine countries worldwide that have yet to ratify the treaty and enact a law against torture.
Roy has faced arrest for working against torture and atrocities meted out by the armed forces in Assam.
He said that waterboarding is just one of several torture techniques used by police in the northeastern state.
The draft Torture Bill has many strong features – the presumption of torture when there is injury while in custody, recognising both physical and psychological torture, and deterrent punishment
Harsh Mandar, human rights activist
In 2010, the then government introduced the Prevention of Torture Bill, which grossly overlooked torture techniques such as waterboarding.
Article 1 of the UN Convention defines torture as an act of "severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental" but the Indian bill defined torture as "grievous hurt" or "danger to life, limb or health".
It declined to recognise some of the brutal and inhuman torture techniques, which do not leave physical marks and therefore were considered to not be a punishable crime.
Torture techniques, such as waterboarding and sleep deprivation, are known as "clean torture", as they don't leave physical marks but are brutal and inhumane.
Last year, the Supreme Court described torture as an instrument of "human degradation" used by the state.
In October, the Law Commission of India, the highest recommendatory body on law prepared the draft "Prevention of Torture Bill, 2017", widening the definition of torture to cover clean torture, including waterboarding, and making provisions for stringent punishment including life in prison, compensation, and burden of proof on the accused in cases of custodial death.
Activists and academics welcomed the draft bill as progressive.
"The draft Torture Bill has many strong features - the presumption of torture when there is injury while in custody, recognising both physical and psychological torture, and deterrent punishment," Harsh Mander, author and special monitor to the National Human Rights Commission, said.
"We would still need to build systems to be able to protect a victim as he seeks justice against an all-powerful official system."
Sanjay Barbora, who heads the school of Social Sciences and Humanity at Tata Institute of Social Sciences in Guwahati, also welcomed the new Prevention of Torture Bill but shared his concerns about laws such as Armed Forces Special Power Act (AFSPA), which grant immunity to security forces.
"In the last six decades, the 'culture of impunity' enjoyed by the armed forces has 'infected' the state police forces as well, who normally don't have protection under AFSPA", said Sanjoy Hazarika, director of the Common Wealth Human Rights Initiative.