In 2018, Dr K Prathibha was working in the Kannur district hospital when a set of policemen arrived for the medical screening test of a convict. During the test, the officers wanted her to cover up a few custodial injuries by issuing a fake certificate, but the doctor firmly refused and completed the screening.
She didn’t stop here, but went ahead to discuss the issue with her seniors and found that there are no definite protocols to conduct a medical examination other than general rules.
“There are guidelines like conducting a strict examination, talking to the patient, and other basic protocols. But the doctors have no major control over it and can be forced to conduct basic tests only. Additionally, police officers mostly come in a hurry for a last-minute check-up of the people in custody, which restricts our detailed examination. This is against our principles.”
She was referring to the Nedumkandam incident, Rajkumar (49), a small-time financial agent who died in custody on 21 June 2019 after allegedly being subjected to brutal third-degree torture at the police station in Idukki.
Rajkumar was rounded up on 12 June by a group of people to whom he owed money. They handed him over to the police but his arrest was recorded four days later on 16 June for unknown reasons. Later, he was shifted to the Peerumedu Taluk Hospital, where he died on 21 June.
“During treatment, doctors have to be the controlling agency and the police have nothing to do with it. To attain that right, I approached several officers including the chief secretary,” says the 37-year-old doctor.
As a result of her efforts, and based on the custodial death of Nedumkandam in 2019, the government framed a protocol, which included the recommendations of Justice Narayana Kurup, who conducted an inquiry on custodial death.
On 4 June 2021, the Directorate of Health Services issued a circular which stated, “The Director of Health Service and Director of Medical Education shall ensure that all persons brought from police custody shall be subjected to initial screening to unearth the iceberg phenomenon.”
‘Iceberg phenomenon’ refers to internal injuries inflicted by the police without any external marks.
Today, the accused or suspect has to undergo a thorough medical examination in government hospitals at the time of admission to jail. Additionally, under section 54 of the Code of Criminal Procedure (CrPC), ‘the arrested person has the right to be medically examined by a registered medical practitioner, either to disprove the commission of the offence or to establish any ill-treatment by the police or for other reasons’.
Overcoming threat calls and backlashes
Dr Prathibha is currently working as the medical officer of Tanalur Family Health Centre, Malappuram. The doctor, who completed her studies at Government Medical College, Thiruvananthapuram, has 11 years of experience in the field.
Following the Kannur incident, she received a few threatening calls from an unknown caller. She shares, “To be honest, I was a little scared, but that didn’t hold me back from the aim. My family and colleagues stood by me and offered their support. And after all, it’s part of my job. They might be convicts for the police and the rest of the world. But for me, they are patients. I was just fulfilling my responsibility as a doctor.”
In 2019, a protocol was issued by the government which said a basic health report as per the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC)’s guidelines has to be made before taking a person into jail. The guidelines include taking blood tests, HIV, hepatitis tests and overall body checks for injuries.
However, Dr Prathibha was not entirely satisfied with the protocol after the enquiry, as it didn’t give many rights to the medical officer. She submitted three suggestions which would give more rights to the doctors as well as the persons in custody from the police bureaucracy.
The suggestions included allowing doctors to check the patients away from police presence, giving preference to conducting medical check-ups of those brought from custody, and preparing the certificate by specialist doctors after medical examination.
While the path to navigating the law of accused and suspects in police custody is a winding road that includes the cognisance of the Kerala government, Justice Narayan Kurup and many others in the judicial system, one cannot deny the contributions of Dr Prathibha who is still ever-ready to fight the good fight.
Her struggle is a notable contribution to the human rights as well as ethics of medical practitioners. The one-woman army says she won’t be hesitant to initiate protests when it comes to her duty. “My work is unbiased and will continue to be so, no matter what,” says the braveheart.
“Nedumkandam custodial death: 5 Kerala cops and a Home Guard to be dismissed”, published by The News Minute on 2 June 2021.
“Kerala makes medical test for custodial torture mandatory after Nedumkandam case”, published by The News Minute on 13 June 2021.
Edited by Yoshita Rao