Three decades back, when I joined the police, suicide cases were entrusted to the junior-most investigating officers in the police stations for inquest. Once the autopsy report was made available, the officer concluded, “death is suicidal in nature, no suspicion of foul play”, and that was the end of the story.
Of course, in a few instances, the autopsy report and circumstances did raise suspicions requiring registration of a criminal case and further investigation. But it was relatively uncommon for families to question police findings.
The media was still not as ubiquitous in our lives and people were not as vocal.
By now, police officers realise that suicide inquiries are potential minefields. Society feels an understandable sense of empathy for a person who has ended life and seeks an answer. The near and dear ones cannot believe that a person they know so intimately and for so long, could have taken such a decision of their own volition.
“They can’t do it” is their obvious view and so a logical demand for justice. Problem is, the dead tell no tales. Suicide victims mostly end life in their personal space. There are no eyewitnesses. Suicide notes, the final will and testament, even when available, are mostly cryptic statements of a person who is running away from life in a hurry.
Consequently, all the ingredients of a mystery are in-built for crafting many conspiracy theories at will and at the cost of the privacy and dignity of the deceased and those in his or her life.
The pressure on the police to find a scapegoat to end the storm is enormous. Most suicide victims have no news value. Their families reconcile to the tragedy after sometimes.
Otherwise, there would be much more hullabaloo.
For a variety of reasons, investigative findings of the Indian police have suffered from trust deficit historically. When allegations are levelled, some with merit and many without, senior officers in the police, government or courts have had an easy way out.
Any case, facing accusations, is handed over to another team of police officers, known by a different name, hoping for a more satisfactory conclusion.
There is a need to shift focus from “who investigates” to “how suicides are investigated”, if serving the truth is the goal. Four areas need to be considered for systemic reform.
First, an autopsy and its findings are absolutely vital. Once autopsy surgeon(s) have recorded conclusions, the fate of the case is almost sealed.
Neither the police nor the court can change a clear autopsy finding unless the autopsy surgeon or one of the team members disowns the report in part or in its entirety. So, changing the investigating team is just a waste of time.
The new team can only seek a few clarifications, but the basic conclusion, in sum and substance, will be the same. There are three problems here. First, bodies are handed over to the family almost immediately for last rites.
Unless the body has been buried, there is no scope for exhumation and a second autopsy in case of any doubt. Second, laws should permit the presence of a qualified autopsy surgeon to represent the interest of the family and he may provide a report to the family’s counsel like in the West.
In the absence of an alternate expert opinion, lawyers have really no basis to question police findings. Thirdly, the infrastructure and skill set currently available for autopsy is hardly of a desirable standard in most parts of the country.
The ideal way will be that a specialist autopsy surgeon examines the dead body without any time pressure, gets all the related test reports and submits findings before body is handed over for last rites unless family disavows future claims.
This will take between a week and 10 days.
Second, the mandate of a police inquiry is to eliminate the apprehension of murder or what is called “foul play”. A police officer is neither trained nor required under the law to get into psychological aspects of a suicide, which requires a “psychological autopsy”.
In psychological autopsy a qualified forensic or investigative psychologist reconstructs the state of mind of the person at the point of death. There are established protocols for such a procedure. A person may decide to end life for a variety of complex psychological reasons.
There might be long-term behavioural issues as well as immediate triggers. Sometimes the person has expressed an intent earlier and might have shown symptoms of self-harm. If a person is under clinical care then the clinician may have followed a set of strategies that may require peer review. None of these are in the scope or competence of cops.
In India we do not have any practice of psychological autopsy as of now.
Third, there is a need for a coroner court system so that a full judicial process can be gone through as part of an inquest. In colonial times such elaborate inquest was limited to metropolitan towns.
We now need to assign greater value to human life, and seek a full inquest in all cases of equivocal deaths.
Fourth, the only major research on suicide in India is the statistics compiled by the National Crime Record Bureau, which is largely a presentation of data generated by the police.
There is a need for collaboration between the academia and the police for better understanding of suicides and their causes, which can be relied upon for psychological autopsy, psycho-linguistics for understanding suicide notes and other investigative supports.
Also, policy interventions can be made to address incidence of suicide. Besides, India needs to deal with mental health issues far better.
Investigation into suicide cases needs to be carried out with greater professionalism and transparency. Otherwise, from time to time we will have episodic maelstroms that will captivate TV audiences and undermine police credibility only further.Sudhanshu Sarangi, an IPS officer, is commissioner of police of Bhubaneswar-Cuttack. He has received special forces training and has a Ph.D. in psychology from UK's Liverpool University.