The custodial deaths of Jayaraj and Benicks – extrajudicial capital punishment for an alleged lockdown violation – have, once again, highlighted the brutality of the police.
Three months ago, we watched videos of policemen lathi-charging students inside a campus library, to “teach them a lesson”. Throughout lockdown, we watched as migrants were pushed and beaten as they trudged along highways, hoping to reach homes hundreds of kilometres away.
While we shook our heads at this, we laughed at images of young men being made to write imposition and assume humiliating positions and do frog jumps for alleged lockdown violations.
We can call for the system to change all we want, but we cannot absolve ourselves of guilt in condoning and even encouraging police brutality with our approval, our acceptance, our convictions of justice, and even our cinema.
Stress and overwork are often offered as excuses for the actions of policemen, who are seen as being at the vanguard of the fight against the corona virus, and therefore most exposed.
But there are plenty of other professionals who are at least as stressed and overworked and arguably in greater danger of exposure – doctors, nurses, sanitation workers, bank officials, grocers, delivery personnel, corporation staff. None of the other groups has the permission or opportunity to take personal frustration out on random people over whom they exercise the authority of their uniforms.
Television and mobile phone cameras recorded and aired visuals of policemen attacking lockdown violators with batons, making them do sit-ups, and meting out other forms of street justice, with no regard for the fact that many of these so-called violators may have genuine reasons for being out.
As a pet parent with seventeen dogs and cats, I keep my fingers crossed every time I have to drive to the clinic, which is just over a kilometre from my home but falls under a different area. At times, I have had policemen smile at me and wave me on, or even laugh at my animals’ curious expressions and tail wags. Once, I was ordered to return home. When I tried to make a case for myself and said I could call up the doctor if they needed confirmation of the necessity of the visit, a policeman wagged his finger at me and said, “One more word from you, and I will impound your car.”
Also read: What custodial deaths say about police power
I expect parents taking human children for vaccinations and medical check-ups face a similar ordeal. There are no clear rules on what is considered a medical emergency, and whether one is a violator or not is left to the discretion of the police. Clearly, some policemen require a car seat to be bloodied by a broken limb and torn skin before they will allow one to visit a vet or doctor.
Even doctors are no exception to the police’s highhandedness during lockdown. A doctor in Telangana has alleged that she was abused, slapped, and dragged away from her motorcycle by a policeman for insisting she had to go to hospital. The events of the day were partially caught on video, and this has since been circulated on social media and news channels. She is seen being dragged away, and alleged that she was manhandled off camera before a senior police official who was passing that way stopped, let her go on her way, and apologised on his subordinates’ behalf. He also reportedly told her they had reacted that way because they were “overworked”.
Social media is full of accounts by people of having been attacked by the police, often with video evidence. Some even had permission letters from hospitals they needed to visit for treatment.
There have been numerous cases of extrajudicial action by the police, from the Bhagalpur blindings of 1979-80 to the Manjolai massacre of 1999. The horror at Marichjhapi, the Hashimpura massacre, the Rampur Tiraha firing, the Thoothukudi killings, the Jamia Millia Islamia attacks, the JNU violence have all involved police action. The problem is that even those who protest against the violence of the police attribute their actions to orders from politicians.
The same is true of films and books. Take for instance Article 15, which is considered a nuanced depiction of the wheels within wheels in a small town. The police are seen as a mix of good people and jaded people, operating at the behest of or – in the case of the hero – standing up to corrupt politicians or industrialists. Rohinton Mistry’s A Fine Balance is another example of Indian literature that attributes police action to political forces.
Through all this, we ignore the fact that people with certain inclinations tend to find professions which will give them an opportunity to yield to their temptations. Just as paedophiles gravitate towards professions that allow them time with children, so do violent people search out professions that will allow them an outlet for their brutal impulses. Being in the police gives them the opportunity to do so with impunity. And banding together with other like-minded individuals could exacerbate these gruesome tendencies. It appears a particularly deviant group of policemen was working at the Sattankulam station, many with a history of violence.
Not only is the concept of regular psychiatric assessments of our police and armed forces an alien one, but senior policemen have spoken about how brutality is actively encouraged even in police training academies. The fact that they are given weapons is seen as licence to use them. Batons and firearms are meant for self-defence and as threats to prevent violence from criminals – not for abuse, physical or sexual.
Our cinema, even films which claim to be realist, take for granted that cops are the good guys fighting evil forces. Encounters are glorified through films like Ab Tak Chhappan, Chekka Chivandha Vaanam, and A Wednesday. Serving police officers are turned into icons through movies like Encounter Daya Nayak and Black Friday. Even films like Visaaranai make it a point to throw in at least one honest police official, who usually falls prey to the “system”.
Tamil cinema has shown police brutality in many, many films – Papanasam (a remake of the Malayalam Dhrishyam), Mahanadhi, Raatchasan, Virumandi and several potboilers of the 1990s and 2000s, including Kaadhalan. But none of them stands up against the attitude. There is the odd dirty cop, yes, but the systemic corruption and ugliness is portrayed as a rare occurrence, one that goes away when the “good guys” take charge.
We celebrate encounters which put away “bad guys” who will get away with rape or murder because of lack of evidence, with no thought for the fact that we are encouraging violence to compensate for ineptitude.
We laugh at tactics aimed at humiliation, including the infamous “murgha banao”. In the case of Jayaraj and Benicks, humiliating them seems to have been the police’s chief motivation if the allegations are true – witnesses said they were stripped and beaten in each other’s presence to increase their sense of impotency, particularly before a parent and child respectively.
We must understand that every time a policeman chooses to fire at someone instead of in the air, every time a military officer authorises the use of pellet guns instead of tear gas to disperse a mob, he is no longer “just doing his job”. He is taking an active part in brutalising unarmed citizens. He is no cog in a political wheel, but an instrument of violence.
While the official count of custodial deaths in Tamil Nadu for the period 2001-18 is about 100, a group of NGOs under the umbrella Campaign Against Torture released a report on torture in India in 2019, which found that 1966 people died in police and judicial custody in the previous year alone.
The missing boys and blinded children of Kashmir, the encounter killings across India, the Thangjam Manoramas of Manipur, Jayaraj and Benicks, are all the victims of not just the brutality of men in uniform, but our abetment of these men’s actions.
More Columns by Nandini Krishnan:
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Nandini is the author of Invisible Men: Inside India's Transmasculine Networks (2018) and Hitched: The Modern Woman and Arranged Marriage (2013). She tweets @k_nandini. Her website is: www.nandinikrishnan.com