Why has India not yet ratified the UN Convention against Torture ?

United Nations Convention against Torture (UNCAT) is an international human rights treaty, that aims to prevent torture and other acts of cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment around the world.


A week or two ago, I saw an insightful video. Sonali, a young law student explains in there, how most of us demanding justice for the shopkeeper father-son from Tamil Nadu (tortured to death by police), were demanding something that had already been provided.

In her IGTV video, she then suggests some specific demands that we should probably make if we really care about improvement of the policing system in India:

  1. setting up of a Police Complaint Authority
  2. making CCTV mandatory in police stations
  3. better training & sensitization of police officers
  4. signing of UNCAT

She explains how there are only 9 countries in the world that have not yet signed the United Nations Convention against Torture (UNCAT) – India is one of them. There is a slight inaccuracy in this statement that I will clarify in a bit. Hold on.

Anyway, so her video made me wonder – have tortures gone down in countries that have signed the Convention? But even before that, I needed to figure out an explanation to the obvious question.

Why has India not yet signed the UNCAT?

Like most things, I found the answer on Youtube.

It so happens that India has signed the convention. It did so in 1997 itself. What it has not done is – ratify the same.

‘Ratification’ is the next step after signing, where in the country becomes legally obliged to adhere to the rules of the Convention. Signing just shows intent – there is no legal obligation as such. It’s been 23 years since the signing. India has not yet ratified UNCAT. Why?

Most of our Indian laws are borrowed from Britishers – we modified and adapted them once we got independence. Even today, in 2020, most Indian states follow the Indian Police Act 1861 (with few modifications).

Since they were the Britishers who set up the policing system, they didn’t see any issue in ingraining a culture of torture in there. It probably made sense – they were the ‘rulers’, the Indians their subjects.

The issue is – the overall ideology of how policing should happen, has continued till date.

What this means is, if and when India chooses to ratify the UN convention against torture – it will have to fundamentally redesign the policing structure / ideology (across all states – each state has its own policing regulation). And this probably is too much of work! And so India has done nothing about it! Since 23 years!

I also came across an interesting and a very recent video where Karan Thapar interviews India’s former Law Minister Ashwani Kumar (AK held this position for about six months during the second term of Congress Govt. under Dr. Manmohan Singh).

I learnt two important things from watching the video:

  1. The Congress Govt. did spend 3 months preparing an anti-torture bill (in 2010) but didn’t do enough to get it enacted (I’ve linked the bill for you to read, it’s only few pages).
  2. At some point, Arun Kumar took up this issue with Supreme Court, requesting the court to ‘nudge’ the present Modi Govt. to do something about ratifying UNCAT. The Supreme Court however said in 2019 that this wasn’t something it should be doing (in the video, you can see AK expressing how this is a weird thing for SC to say because it has taken up similar issues earlier where it did ‘nudge’ the Govt. to act, like for mob-lynching related laws).

Do we have enough laws already? Would more laws change anything? One can debate for years I guess. But let me come to my million dollar question.

When a country ratifies the UN convention against torture, do incidences of torture go down?

Because if the above is not happening, what’s even the point?

I tried hard to find an answer but there is nothing really. The best I could discover was this book from early 2000 that tries to assess UNCAT. But you can only read few pages in here, and those pages don’t answer my question. The book doesn’t seem to be available anywhere (either in print or as an e-book).

So let me just go ahead and raise another question.

Why does police torture anyway?

Primarily, two reasons:

  1. to show the victim who the boss is (display of power); and
  2. to extract useful information that can help in an investigation (possibly saving innocent lives as a result).

Point 1 is about mentality. Britishers probably designed the policing system in this way because it was important for them not just to extract information, but also, once in a while to show who the boss was.

The fact that this mentality still exists in the police force, is shameful. At least that’s what I think.

On point 2 – many studies show that it’s not so clear that torture really works (if you click on the link, you can read for yourself; there’s a book too if you really want to dig deep).

Intuitively, many of us certainly believe that torture must work because what else explains this statistic: over 70% of Indians (& Chinese) are okay with torture as long as the bigger objective of ‘protecting the public’ is met.

Whether or not ratifying the UNCAT brings down the cases of torture in India, it will be nice if policing system is reformed. Attempts to reform don’t always lead to any real change as was observed in Tanzania, but it’s worth trying at least? It’s not that no reform has happened in India.

The first National Police Commission in 1981 delivered eight reports addressing a range of police issues. In 2005, the Police Drafting Committee drafted a Model Police Act to replace the existing and archaic Police Act, 1861. Most recently, last year, the Supreme Court issued new directives to state governments to implement the directives that the apex court had recommended in 2006. Thus, both the problems and potential solutions to India’s police problems are well-understood.

What has perhaps stymied the implementation of these reforms is the lack of political will, which in turn could be linked to the growing criminalization of politics. When lawmakers increasingly feature serious criminal charges in their resume, they have very little incentive to professionalize the police force.

Sriharsha Devulapalli, Vishnu Padmanabhan, LiveMint

As far as I could find out, the draft of “Model Police Act” remains just that – a draft. And our police personnel continue to torture and execute ‘encounters’ as they please. There will always be good cops who will never do this, but the system allows and approves of the killings if and when a cop (or the politician s/he reports to) wants to.

We, the citizens, outrage when we feel that the person tortured / killed was innocent. But we are okay, even somewhat relieved when we feel that the person killed were anyway criminal / terrorist / rapist.

Sahi hai!


1. Sonali’s video (watch from 5:30 onwards if you just want to listen to what else we can demand from our government)

2. Explanation of why India has not yet ratified the UNCAT.

3. Karan Thapar’s interview with Ashwani Kumar

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