What custodial deaths say about police power

Source :SIFY
Last Updated: Fri, Jul 3rd, 2020, 13:57:53hrs
custodial death

For more than a week, we didn’t know the facts of the case in the custodial deaths of father-son duo Jayaraj and Benicks. We didn’t even know whether the son was Benicks, Bennix, Fenix or – as the First Information Report filed by the police read – Pennis.

The FIR claimed father and son had abused the police and rolled on the ground in protest, incurring internal injuries. Just the fact that something as ridiculous as this could be put to paper and that a doctor and magistrate acquiesced in this is a chilling revelation of just how powerful the men in khaki are.

It is often presumed that those at the receiving end of police brutality are of lower classes and castes, people who are too powerless and scared to counter extrajudicial action. In this case, Benicks’ friends have reported that there were seven lawyers knocking the doors of the police station. There is no mention of an arrest warrant. Benicks and his father belonged to the Nadar community, a powerful one in the region.

Various rumours made their ways to the media – that an auto driver had claimed to the police that Jayaraj had spoken derogatorily of them, that Benicks had refused to sell a policeman a mobile phone on EMI. No one can be arrested on hearsay, particularly when the remarks are not even inflammatory. Despite the presence of nearly ten witnesses, police claimed – and got away with the claim for several days – that the father and son were arrested together, for criminal intimidation.

The criminal intimidation charge is often used by police because it is a non-bailable offence. Four years ago, activist Piyush Manush, who also alleged police torture, was arrested under the same charge after being arrested for protesting the construction of a railway overbridge in Salem.

Less than two years ago, the police came down on a protest against the Sterlite factory in Thoothukudi, killing 13 people and wounding over 100.

The details of the custodial deaths of Jayaraj and Benicks play out almost like the Tamil film Visaaranai, down to a policewoman being the only sympathetic person at the station, and afraid to testify for fear of what the others may do to her.

Much has been said about the Tamil Nadu police’s history of brutality and the tendency of suspects to break their limbs after ‘slipping in the toilets’. In August last year, RTI activist Bramma filed a request for details of the cleaning agents used in police toilets, saying it was strange that only people in custody seemed to slip in the toilets and not the policemen who used them or housekeeping staff who cleaned them.

Even as details of the post-mortem report’s findings found their way into news reports, and the horrific allegations of sexual assault with batons were given credence, others have come forward with charges of violence against the state police. A video of policemen in Coimbatore ganging up against a minor who was recording an altercation between them and his mother has been doing the rounds on social media. The mother was being accused of a lockdown violation too, and all the boy was doing was recording the police’s confrontation with her.

A 25-year-old autorickshaw driver from Tenkasi died from internal injuries 48 days after being taken into police custody and allegedly tortured. His father says he was warned of dire consequences if he breathed a word about the police action – Benicks’ friends, who took the father and son to hospital after the alleged assault, have quoted the same threat as being the reason their friend did not tell the magistrate about being beaten.

In the midst of all this, there are reports of Facebook posts by a police constable from Nagapattinam which threatened milk vendors who have stopped supplying the police. The constable has purportedly said “We are on the lookout for the next custodial death”. An earlier post by the same constable details having stripped a suspect and fed him faeces during a month-long detention for “abusing the police”.

One can’t ascertain whether the constable’s claims are true without an investigation. But lawyer Selvam Raja alleges in a Twitter thread that police brutality going unchecked is par for the course.

The arrogance on display by the Sattankulam policemen who are under the scanner suggests they believe they are immune to punishment. Kovilpatti Magistrate M S Bharathidasan has said in his report to the Madurai Bench of the Madras High Court that the policemen at the station and particularly the senior officers were uncooperative and indifferent during his visit, even making attempts to intimidate court officials.

The fact that the magistrate was only asked to visit the station on June 28, nine days after the duo was taken into custody and a week after what has now been called ‘murder’ in the FIR, has allowed ample time for crucial evidence to be destroyed. The CCTV footage that could have proven decisive in the case has been erased, and may not be recoverable though the hard drive has been seized, particularly if it has been overwritten on the hard drive.

Media reports state that the magistrate revealed that a policewoman, Head Constable Revathy, who agreed to be a witness in the case, was concerned she was being spied on by her colleagues. She also reportedly said they were trying to do away with the blood-stained tables and lathis. The magistrate himself has said the senior officers at the station ADSP D Kumar and DSP Prathapan behaved in a dismissive manner with him and did not acknowledge his presence. He gave details of their body language and verbal asides, and stated that he had to close the inquiry early because of the atmosphere of animosity. If a magistrate could be bullied by police officials in the middle of a media storm, one need hardly wonder that two men in custody were threatened into silence.

A photograph in The Hindu newspaper’s Wednesday edition shows the two senior officers walking jauntily away from the court’s premises after the hearing, one of them with his face mask around his neck and a smirk on his face. The Madras High Court left no doubt of its estimate of the powers of the accused – Head Constable Revathy and her family were assigned protection and it was suggested that she be sent on leave; the inquiry was handed over to the CB-CID before the CBI steps in so that the accused will not have a chance to further destroy evidence. And within a day of the CB-CID taking charge, the crime in the FIR was changed to ‘murder’ from ‘suspicious deaths’. However, so far, only the five policemen of rank Inspector and below have been held.

This case has to be a watershed moment in the history of Tamil Nadu. We need to enact laws that will ensure that the police cannot abuse their power. Quoting logistics about policemen being overworked and vacancies not being filled is moot. We live in a time when technology can ease the requirement for manpower. We don’t need five cops stationed at checkpoints, as long as we have cameras that can read the licence plate and record the faces of people flouting lockdown or traffic rules.

The law enforcement cannot be above the law. No financial compensation or government job will bring back the dead, and if Jayaraj and Benicks’ family is to find solace in something, it should be in the notion that their deaths became cause for the police to clean up their act.

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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