Death of Muslim man in custody sparks outrage in India

·3-min read
Representative: Questions have emerged over the police’s claims that Mohammad Altaf took his own life as his family alleges he was killed in custody  (AFP via Getty Images)
Representative: Questions have emerged over the police’s claims that Mohammad Altaf took his own life as his family alleges he was killed in custody (AFP via Getty Images)

A 22-year-old Muslim labourer died at a police station in India after he was called in for interrogation, triggering outrage as his family members say he was killed in custody.

The man, identified as Mohammad Altaf, was a resident of Kasganj city in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh (UP).

He died on Tuesday at a city police station after he was called in for questioning over the alleged kidnapping of a minor Hindu girl.

The police, in its initial statement, said Altaf died by suicide in the washroom using a string tied to a tap, after he asked for a break during interrogation. The post-mortem report cited asphyxia as the cause of death, police said.

“During investigation, he [Altaf] asked the cops that he needs to use a washroom. He was taken to the lock-up washroom, where he hanged himself to a tap using the drawstring of his jacket hood,” said Rohan Pramod Botre, the superintendent of police at Kasganj.

Photos and videos that appeared from the police station later, however, showed the distance between the pipe and the floor to be considerably less, with a Times of India report stating it to be less than three feet, raising questions over the police’s claims.

Altaf’s family has alleged his body had visible injuries. The mother of the 22-year-old labourer told digital news website NewsClick : “My son had a deep head injury and his feet were swollen. We need justice!”

“Signs of torture were visible on his head and legs. I had questioned police about a hole in his head. There was swelling on his face and legs. His parents are being pressured by police to not speak to the media,” Altaf’s aunt Mubeena was quoted as saying by the Times of India, adding that he was “brutally beaten”.

Several social media users have been demanding action from the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) state government, using hashtags such as #UP_police_murdered_Altaf and #WeDemandJusticeForAltaf. Activists and opposition parties have also demanded an investigation.

“This is Altaf. He was taken into custody, and within 24 hours, found dead. Police claim he killed himself — a likely cover up for murder. His crime? Being Muslim in #India,” wrote law professor Khaled Beydoun.

“Altaf was picked up by UP Police and tortured. He died in custody and police came up with a suicide story. His relatives maintain that they saw grave injuries to his head and rest of the body. How did Altaf beat himself up?” tweeted commentator and podcaster Jas Oberoi.

The police in a subsequent statement said five policemen had been suspended for negligence in the wake of the incident. Outrage on social media over the alleged custodial death, however, has not ended.

UP has recorded the greatest number of custodial deaths in India at 1,295 between 2018 and 2021, according to government data. As many as 5,221 people died in judicial custody in India in the past three years.

If you are experiencing feelings of distress and isolation, or are struggling to cope, The Samaritans offers support; you can speak to someone for free over the phone, in confidence, on 116 123 (UK and ROI), email jo@samaritans.org, or visit the Samaritans website to find details of your nearest branch.

If you are based in the USA, and you or someone you know needs mental health assistance right now, call National Suicide Prevention Helpline on 1-800-273-TALK (8255). The Helpline is a free, confidential crisis hotline that is available to everyone 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

If you are in another country, you can go to www.befrienders.org to find a helpline near you.

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