It was India’s own ‘George Floyd moment’ as the recent custodial killings of a trader and his son by police in Sathankulam, a small town in Tamil Nadu’s Thoothukudi district, sent shock waves throughout India and across the world. While the national and global outcry has resulted in charges of murder against four policemen, going by previous experience in such cases, there are grave doubts about whether justice will be really done or bring any lasting changes in the behaviour of police with ordinary citizens.
Though it faces no major civil unrest or insurgencies like Kashmir or the North-East, Tamil Nadu operates like a virtual police state, being among the few states in India that have used anti-terrorism laws such as TADA and POTA against mainstream opposition politicians.
Even by dismal standards that Indian police are known for, the gruesome details of torture that Jeyraj and his son Bennicks were subjected to has touched a raw nerve everywhere. For the ‘crime’ of keeping their small mobile phone shop open a few minutes past the lockdown deadline of 8 pm the duo were not just brutally assaulted inside a police station for hours, Bennicks was sodomized with a baton before being taken to a hospital after their health condition worsened. Both father and son died within a day of each other due to severe injuries.
The crime would have been hushed up, if not for Bennick’s sister Persis challenging the police account and the Madurai bench of the Madras High Court taking suo-moto cognizance of the case and ordering an inquiry. There was a denial of any wrongdoing initially, by both the police and the Tamil Nadu government, which subsequently ordered compensation to the family of the deceased.
Tamil Nadu has one of the oldest police forces in India, with the East India Company setting up a Board of Police to deal with ‘removal of public nuisance, & maintenance of public health and order’ as far back as 1770. The modern form of the state police has its roots in the Madras District Police Act XXIV of 1859, brought in by the British regime.
The colonial nature of the Tamil Nadu police has never really been challenged or reformed in the post-Independence period. Ignoring both the Indian Constitution as well as various judicial directives, the state police have been a law unto itself, arbitrarily wielding the ‘danda’, while also extracting a regular share of ‘Chanda’ from establishments both big and small.
The impunity with which police in the state operates is a result of how successive governments have used them, to settle scores against political rivals, suppress public protests, or simply terrorize citizens. Though it faces no major civil unrest or insurgencies like Kashmir or the North-East, Tamil Nadu operates like a virtual police state, being among the few states in India that have used anti-terrorism laws such as TADA and POTA against mainstream opposition politicians.
On a more routine basis, draconian laws such as the Goondas Act of 1982, a copy of legislation first brought in by the colonial rulers back in 1923 in Bengal, are used to harass and intimidate anyone opposing state policies. While the law is meant for preventive detention of habitual offenders, it has become a tool to put anyone in prison, without the opportunity to defend themselves before the courts.
With ruling politicians more interested in making money than in governance, a large part of routine tasks that the civil administration should handle is also outsourced to the police. The ongoing COVID-19 lockdown for example has been enforced mainly by the police, without consultation with civil society, the general public, or even opposition political parties.
With such impunity, it is not surprising that in Tamil Nadu which has a sordid history of torturing and killing prisoners in custody, many more cases are coming to light, following the Jeyraj and Bennick’s murder. The police, in Thootukudi district, in particular, is known for using extreme force against members of the public. In 2018, police snipers killed 13 people and injured over a hundred peaceful protestors demanding the closure of the Vedanta-owned Sterlite Copper factory for environmental pollution. While a one-man commission was set up to examine the excessive use of force by the police no officers have been arrested for the cold-blooded murders.
Custodial Deaths: Encounters, Extra-Judicial Killings
Custodial deaths are, of course, an all-India phenomenon also, with the National Human Rights Commission of India recording a total of 1,723 cases of death of persons in judicial and police custody during 2019, which translates into an average of five custodial deaths per day. Indian police are also notorious for carrying out hundreds of extra-judicial killings or ‘encounters’ against anyone they want to get rid of for whatever reason – usually dubbed as ‘criminals’ or even ‘terrorists’.
What the routine and flagrant violation of law by the police in India shows is simply that police reform cannot be brought about through purely legislative means or by pointing to the rights enshrined in the Indian Constitution. In Sathankulam for example, none of the guidelines laid down by the Supreme Court of India in its landmark 1987 judgment in the D.K.Basu vs State of West Bengal case to protect the rights of those arrested were followed. The guidelines include the attestation by at least one witness for the memo of arrest, countersigned by the arrestee; and the medical examination of the arrestee every 48 hours.
However, the Indian police – whether in Tamil Nadu or elsewhere- behaves the way it does because the dominant elites in Indian society, like businessmen, politicians, bureaucrats, and the mostly upper-caste Hindu middle classes, openly condone their actions. Police terror in other words is needed to maintain their hold over the vast Indian population, much of which is poor and kept in horrific conditions of deprivation.
It is not a coincidence that a majority of the victims of police torture typically belong to the poor and marginalized sections of Indian society, usually also from a religious minority or suppressed caste. For example, Dalits, Adivasis, and Muslims together constitute only 39% of the Indian population but form 55% of all undertrials and around 50% of convicted prisoners in Indian jails. India is one of only five countries that are yet to ratify the 1987 UN Convention against Torture – the result of deliberate indifference to the fate of ordinary citizens shared across the mainstream political spectrum.
In the case of the Sathankulam custodial deaths also there seems to have been caste as well as religious angle, with the victims being Nadar Christians and the main policeman accused in their murder from the rival Konar caste. A shadowy outfit called ‘Friends of Police’, which has branches all over Tamil Nadu, but is locally infiltrated by the RSS also seems to have played a role in the custodial killings.
The state government has sought to defuse growing public outrage by handing over the investigation into the Sathankulam custodial deaths to the Central Bureau of Investigation, itself an institution with low credibility- particularly in politically sensitive cases. The calculation of the state authorities is perhaps being to ‘manage’ the outcome once the issue disappears from the news headlines.
In order to foil any attempt to protect the culprits, not only should there be constant vigil over details of this particular case, but there is also a need for setting up direct public mechanisms to counter police high handedness. Some innovation is long overdue in how police and citizens in India interact with each other, to restore the balance of power between them, which is essential to the functioning of any democracy.