D.K. Basu v. State of West Bengal

This judgment talks about the issue of custodial violence and how it is one of the worst crimes in the civilized society. The Court has also given various directions regarding monetary compensation to victims of custodial violence, torture and custodial deaths and held the State strictly as well as vicariously liable.
COURTSupreme Court of India
JUDGES/CORAMJustice Kuldip Singh and Justice A.S. Anand


Whenever any offense is committed against a citizen, he/she first resort to the police authorities. Police are a part of the legal as well as the executive system of our country on whom the citizens place faith and trust for their protection. However, numerous cases of custodial violence, death in lock-ups, tortures by police authorities, weaken that faith and trust. The present case brings to light the various instances of custodial violence and action taken by the Apex Court regarding the same.


The facts of the case are as follows: Mr. D.K. Basu, the then Executive Chairman of West Bengal Legal Aid Services, addressed a letter to the then Chief Justice of India on 26.08.1986. In the letter, Mr. Basu shed light on certain news publications in the newspapers Telegraph, the Statesman, and Indian Express during July-August 1986. The news items related to deaths in police lock-ups and custody; and Mr. Basu, through his letter, urged that the Supreme Court examine the issue and develop “custodial jurisprudence” along with modalities for awarding compensation to the victims and their families so affected. It was requested in the letter that the same be treated as a writ petition as Public Interest Litigation (PIL). Due to the importance of the issue, the letter was treated as a writ petition and notices were issued on 09.02.1987 to the respondents. The respondents by way of their counter contended that whenever custodial deaths occurred, the action was taken and hence claimed that the petition was misconceived, misleading, and untenable in law.

Meanwhile, Mr. Ashok Kumar Johri addressed a letter to the CJI on 29.08.1987 drawing attention to the death of a prisoner in police custody in Aligarh. On receiving the letter, the Apex Court of the country realized the importance and pervasiveness of the issues and so directed issuance of notices to all State Governments as well as the Law Commission of India. The learned two-judge bench of the Supreme Court held that State terrorism is not an answer to combat terrorism; it would only provide legitimacy to ‘terrorism’ and hence, State is liable for any acts of violence by its officers and functionaries.

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The main issue in the case was: Whether monetary compensation should be awarded for established infringement of the Fundamental Rights guaranteed by Articles 21 and 22 of the Constitution of India?

Summary of court decision and judgment

In the writ petition cum Public Interest Litigation, the Apex Court, re-iterating its duty said: “The importance of affirmed rights of every human being, needs no emphasis and, therefore, to deter breaches thereof becomes a sacred duty of the Court, as the custodian and protector of the fundamental and the basic human rights of the citizens.”

The Court was of the view that custodial deaths are one of the worst crimes in a civilized society governed by the Rule of Law, like India. The Court also issued certain guidelines and mandated their compliance by all governmental agencies alike, failing which prosecutions would be launched against the offenders. Additionally, the Court gave various directions regarding monetary compensation to victims of custodial violence, torture, and custodial deaths and held the State strictly as well as vicariously liable.

Guidelines prescribed by the Court:

  • The arrested person has the right to meet his lawyer.
  • He has the right to a medical examination for every 48 hours.
  • The arresting person has to inform the relatives regarding his arrest.
  • The person who arrested has to be produced before the magistrate within 24 hours.
  • The arresting officer shall prepare the memo and has to be attested by at least one witness.
  • An entry must be made regarding his arrest in the diary.
  • A police control room should be set up in all the districts and in all the state headquarters and the information regarding the persons, an arrest has to be communicated to all the Districts.
  • All the documents including the memo of the arrest have to be sent to the magistrate.
  • The arresting officer shall have the clear identification of his name, designation.
  • The time, place, arrest, and the place of custody have to be notified to the interested person or the friend or the relative.
  • The person arrested has to be made aware of his right.
  • Those are some of the set guidelines that are to be followed by every arresting person during an arrest.
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Precedents like Neelabati Bahrea v. State of Orissa[1] have laid down that fundamental rights of prisoners and detainees and have established that Article 21 cannot be taken away under any circumstances. In State of Madhya Pradesh v. Shyamsunder Trivedi and Ors[2], attempts of police officers to conceal the death of an arrested person by way of exaggerated stories came to light and encouragement of the lower courts by ruling in favor of accused police officers was reprimanded by the Apex Court. The Court observed that “death in police custody is perhaps one of the worst kinds of crime in a civilized society, governed by the rule of law and poses a serious threat to an orderly civilized society”. The Supreme Court based its decision on the precedents and gave a correct judgment.


Though various legislations, statutes, precedents, reports, etc. are in place, the dismayed reality of custodial violence remains as a bad mark on the Indian society. Compensation to the victims of such violence is also a burning issue and needs more importance for the Legislature. It can be said that custodial violence, rape, and death is that form of behavior which changes the whole concept of the life of the victim and his/her family. It has been prevalent in India since the ancient and medieval times and started gaining its popularity during the British Raj. The physical violence paralyzes the bodily simulation of the person and the psychological violence breaks down the victim’s personality. Sexual violence leaves scars on the person’s psyche which is unfathomable. There is a great need to make a conscious endeavor towards bringing about the much-needed change amongst all sections of the society especially the office bearers of the government. There is also a pressing need to create an overall environment in which the officials can perform their duties with a sense of pride and fulfillment without facing any difficulty on account of hurdles – legal, administrative, financial, etc. proper training and orientation need to be imparted so that the aberrations in the forces is lessened. The Court gave a landmark judgment in the present case and tried its best to curb the custodial violence.

Also Read  Nathulal v. State of Madhya Pradesh

[1]1993 CriLJ 2899.

[2](1995) 4 SCC 262.