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S. Pandian is spearheading a widespread movement in India to demand humane treatment for people subjected to police custodial care and interrogation. He organizes systematic education on human rights and legal issues for rural activists, common people, and police personnel. He also is building a sustained campaign, including a victims' forum, to enforce custodial justice and abolish torture in rural police stations, jails, and institutions.

This profile below was prepared when S. Pandian was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2003.

Fellow Sketch

Pandian is leading a people’s movement towards addressing human rights violations particularly in custodial situations. Through an extensive volunteer network, grassroots research and fact-finding missions, Pandian is ensuring that no authority functions above the law.

For Pandian, no authority in the country can be allowed to act with impunity. With the increase in number of people tortured and killed in custody, Pandian saw a critical need to create systems of monitoring and control, to ensure that these authorities, particularly the police, act in accordance with the law. Seeing this as particularly a rural problem, Pandian started out by travelling across Tamil Nadu state, disseminating information about the laws which protect people’s rights when in custody. He also ensured that the DK Basu judgement, which issued 11 commandments to all police stations to address the issue of custodial torture and deaths, was printed and published in each police station in Tamil Nadu. Through his travels, he established a large and dynamic volunteer network across the state, who then became his eyes and ears on the ground. By intensive training, and workshops, volunteers are equipped to identify violations in their areas, conduct initial research and analysis. Following this Pandian himself visits their areas to verify and supervise the report formulation and publication. With nearly 1000 volunteers in Tamil Nadu, Pandian has his ear close to the ground and is able to respond immediately and effectively to injustice.

Pandian started his work as a human rights lawyer and rights advocate when he was himself arrested and detained in early 1993. While he was leading a demonstration of estate wage earners, he was arrested without charge by the police, and detained for over a month. Following that, he was released without any of the judicial procedures having been followed. This experience demonstrated the critical gaps in the criminal justice system between the victims, the charge-sheeted, and the authorities. Since then, Pandian has made it his life’s mission to ensure that people are aware of their rights, and have the capacity to ensure that they do not get violated by the arms of the State.  

* This profile was updated in March 2014. Please read ahead for the election profile. 


S. Pandian is spearheading a widespread movement in India to demand humane treatment for people subjected to police custodial care and interrogation. He organizes systematic education on human rights and legal issues for rural activists, common people, and police personnel. He also is building a sustained campaign, including a victims' forum, to enforce custodial justice and abolish torture in rural police stations, jails, and institutions.


Pandian is working to change the wrongful habits of law enforcement agencies in the rural areas of India. The Constitution of India and the other legal instruments list human rights protection as one of the state's main duties. The government of India also has accepted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Pandian is taking these guaranteed rights to rural India to help combat police excess and abuse of detainees.

Pandian's "Campaign for Custodial Justice and Abolition of Torture" has brought to public attention police brutality in rural areas. It provides new possibilities for changing the mindsets of both culprit and victim: the police who abuse their power versus the illiterate rural masses. The campaign provides a platform on which to raise issues and find ways to change abusive police patterns. Pandian reaches out to the police, civil society institutions, panchayaths (village councils), educational institutions, women's sanghas, youth groups, and the media. He aims to protect human rights for all who are subject to the authority of law, thereby ensuring fair trial in accordance with the principles of natural justice and putting an end to unnecessary delay in processing cases.


Illegal detention and torture in police stations and jails are common in India. Most victims are rural illiterates who are unfamiliar with their legal rights. The Indian population is largely rural, and the people are disadvantaged not only by their low status but also by lack of information, education, and access to legal help. Additionally, caste discrimination aggravates the issue, creating widespread hopelessness among young people and pushing the rural masses to withdraw and submit meekly to the abuses of people with power.

There are groups at the national and state levels working on human rights, but their efforts tend to concentrate on urban areas. They lack rural outreach, and the work is restricted to reported cases. Of cases in which police excess results in breaking families and village peace, more than 90 percent go unreported.

Many government programs and policies have created opportunities through which law enforcement authorities abuse the rural masses. For example, recently, in a spree to develop wastelands the government decided to hand over vast areas belonging to the rural poor to multinational companies. In order to protect this deal, the government will allow the police to crush any protest. The rural poor thus stand with no protection or support and stand to lose in all cases related to natural resources and common properties.

There is an urgent need for intervention with respect to police and custodial systems. In Indian jails, hundreds of thousands of people are detained for long periods. Police dressed either in uniform or civilian wear have illegally used "encounters" to enter, arrest, abuse, torture and kill suspects even without any warrant or legal procedure. Police cases have been booked incorrectly, both negligently and deliberately, causing a delay in justice due to confusion and complications in the legal system.

Healthcare, hygiene, nutritional levels, reformation, and counseling are merely words on paper. Deaths under police custody (either in jails or in transit) largely are reported as suicide or sudden health disorders. Such cases become known only if the relatives raise a strong cry.

On these and on several other grounds, the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) received over 1,405 cases against the police in 2001-2002 alone. These mostly were related to custodial torture and false cases. Observers record that these reported cases have been increasing significantly over the years. In 1996 Justice D. K. Basu passed a judgment to law enforcement authorities to adhere to all legal procedures, but, police continue to practice these procedures selectively.

Pandian states that it is the poor, illiterate men and women belonging to scheduled castes and ignorant of their legal rights who are subjected to all kinds of atrocities. While human rights groups tend to focus on educating urban youth and police, the reality for the majority of the Indian population is grim. There is a great need in rural India for human rights work with panchayaths and rural police outposts, stations, and jails.

Average Indians feel that they will never encounter a situation of police excess. They also feel that they do not need legal education. Most feel no connection to police atrocities and institutional abuses, which they believe occur far away. Even victims do not come together to share their experiences and demand justice, thus making it easier for authorities to continue to abuse the powerless.


Pandian has successfully established the Campaign for Custodial Justice and Abolition of Torture in the northern districts of Tamil Nadu. He has documented and submitted to state authorities cases of custodial torture, death, and false accusations filed on youth and women belonging to tribal and schedule caste communities. Using such cases as examples, he is educating the rural masses, panchayath members, and the youth leaders on legal issues and custodial justice.

Pandian has laid down a systematic program to engage victims of custodial torture and harassment, including a forum in which they share experiences and gather strength to change the police systems. Once Pandian anchors this activity in the northern districts of Tamil Nadu, his next step is to form community-based committees to monitor the police stations and other institutions and report to the national and state human rights commissions.

Initially, Pandian worked with fact-finding committees reporting various human rights violations. While this was helpful as part of a wider effort, he realized that investigative reports did not, of themselves, change anything. Field workers merely collected data, with no effort to gain a deeper understanding of the situation. He started to develop literature on human rights and other legal issues. He also initiated the Campaign for Custodial Justice and Abolition of Torture. The course material he developed was effectively used. He also worked with college students and motivated them to take part in fact-finding exercises, while also training rural youth volunteers.

Pandian has now seen the effectiveness of human rights education. His intensive work with NGO personnel, village leaders, Dalit and tribal youth groups, and women sanghas has proved the old dictum "information is power." These grassroots members now sustain the community struggle for custodial justice.

The campaign body acts both as an information disseminator and as a support during legal struggles. The campaign documents incidents of police excess and custodial torture and provides the needed legal backup to take the cases to the courts, as well as to the state human rights commissions. Their success has attracted trade union leaders to join the effort as they build their own movements among organized and unorganized laborers.

Pandian's community-based fact-finding and human rights education has attracted wide media coverage. As a result, several Dalit youth groups from around the state have sought guidance and training from the campaign groups. Pandian and his team have faced several threats and have come close to litigation. Now Pandian is developing and strengthening the Victims Forums to draw greater public attention. He has already put together several forums to record the experiences of victims of illegal detentions. Pandian is helping these victims to demand compensation for these violations. The next step is to identify those who are still languishing in the jails and find simple methods either to bring them out on bail or to have the cases acquitted.


In 1999, during a labor protest on the banks of River Tamirbarani in Tirunalveli, police resorted to caning to contain the mob. Chaos erupted. People jumped into the river to escape capture, and the police beat those who tried to come ashore. Several people, including two women and a child, drowned during the stampede. Hundreds were arrested and tortured under custody. Pandian (born in July 1963) compiled the fact-finding report on this incident. He relates the 1999 incident to his own experience in 1993: police arrested him without charge while he was leading a demonstration of estate wage earners. He was released without judicial procedures. He was surprised by the manner in which everything happened. Pandian exclaims, "Nothing much has changed even now."

Pandian has witnessed police excess all his life, particularly in lower-caste communities. Against his parents' pleas, Pandian spoke to youth sangha volunteers about such police attacks. As a young, educated, higher-caste person in the village, he tried to analyze the filing of false cases and long-term imprisonments that destroyed families. He had no audience at the time. After working in a few factories, Pandian joined the Human Rights Foundation (HRF) and continued to work with the institution on labor laws and trade unions.

He participated in several fact-finding studies and warned about the possibilities of a major catastrophe in institutions that had lodged large numbers of mentally disabled people in Tamil Nadu. After the fire accident at Erwadi in 2001, where chained, mentally disabled people died, his report was in great demand by the media and the government.

Pandian's fieldwork over the past six years has helped him address the causes and methods of custodial care and protection. He has developed mastery not only in legal issues, but also in methods to bring this knowledge to the rural poor in the appropriate language and context. Pandian says that the "speed in which every state is doubling its police force calls for an urgent need to educate every individual on human rights and equip them with basic legal tenets to protect themselves. This is true and urgent, particularly in rural India."