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Custodial death of father-son duo in Tamil Nadu tip of 'horrendous' iceberg: NAPM

Counterview Desk
Denouncing what it has called “all-pervasive and routine culture of police violence and impunity” pervading currently in India, India’s premier civil society network, National Alliance for People’s Movements (NAPM), referring to the custodial death of Thoothukudi (Tamil Nadu) residents, Jayaraj and Bennicks, said, the FIR filed by the police on the incident “indicates an obvious attempt at obfuscation.”
In a statement, NAPM said, “We note that such gruesome violence occasionally grabs public attention, but only forms a ‘tip of the horrendous iceberg’ of custodial violence across the country.” Pointing out that days after the Thoothukudi incident made headlines, information of ‘death’ of Kumaresan, an auto driver who was tortured by the Tenkasi (Tamil Nadu) police last month has surfaced.”
Also giving other instances, it said, a few months back there was “gruesome police violence (leading to death) on 23-year-old Faizan in the national capital who was forced to sing the national anthem”, things have gone so far that in the infamous case of physical and sexual torture of adivasi social activist Soni Sori, IPS officer Ankit Garg was recommended by the Chhattisgarh government for Presidential award for ‘meritorious’ service.

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The National Alliance for People’s Movements (NAPM) is shell-shocked at the incomprehensible physical, mental and sexual violence inflicted by the Santhankulam police on two Thoothukudi residents, Jayaraj and Bennicks, that led to their painful death in custody. This news has jolted Tamil Nadu and the nation in the past few days.
Although the all-pervasive and routine culture of police violence and impunity in India and conflict areas is not something new, this particular incident demonstrates, in many ways, the grotesque nature of the institution that gives itself the licence to humiliate, violate and even take away lives of citizens!
As per news reports and eye-witness testimonies, the ‘altercation’ between the Sathankulam police and the father-son duo began on June 18, when policemen on patrol hauled up Bennicks for violating lockdown timings. In the argument that ensued, words were said by unidentified parties, that caused the policemen’s ire. The next day, Bennicks’s father, Jayaraj was picked up by the police. On hearing of his father’s arrest, Bennicks too went to the Santhankulam police station, only to be detained as well.
They were reportedly taken to Kovilpatti sub-jail and brutalized, and then taken to Kovilpatti Government Hospital in their friends’ car for a check-up before being presented in front of the Judicial Magistrate P. Saravanan, at his house, on June 20. 
Bennicks’s friend, whose car was used to transport the two, alleges that they had such severe rectal bleeding that they were forced to change lungis repeatedly, as each got soaked with blood. Despite this, they allege, that no medication was provided to them to stem the bleeding and the doctor at the hospital was pressurized into giving a ‘fitness’ certificate.
Bennicks’s friends and lawyers also allege that both Jayaraj and Bennicks had been threatened with dire consequences, should they speak of what was done to them before the Judicial Magistrate, and that they were kept a substantial distance away from the Magistrate at all points, rendering the entire process farcical.
The Magistrate remanded them to judicial custody. Newspaper reports indicate that an entry made in the sub-jail register in Kovilpatti, on their being remanded to judicial custody, records bruises to the gluteal region and bleeding injuries sustained by them. This is confirmed by the medical report of the Kovilpati Government Hospital.
On June 22, Bennicks complained of chest pain, fainted and was rushed to the hospital where he died; his father died a day later in the same hospital. While report of the autopsy ordered by the Madras High Court is awaited, testimonies from those who saw their bodies, including Bennicks’s elder sister, indicate that both were severely sexually tortured.
The FIR filed by the police indicates an obvious attempt at obfuscation, stating that on being asked to close their shop according to lockdown guidelines the father-son duo refused and ‘rolled’ on the ground, sustaining internal injuries!
The facts of the case clearly establish that the police officials, the magistrate who ordered remand and medical officers have failing to discharge their legal mandate as well as in upholding judicial principles, such as those laid down in the DK Basu versus State of West Bengal.
Tamil Nadu incident has captured public imagination when racist police killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade, others have sparked outrage in the world
It is now being reported that suspended sub-inspectors Balakrishnan and Raghu Ganesh, prime accused for the ‘death’ of Jayaraj and Bennicks have a history of torturing people in custody. That no FIR has been filed against the concerned police officials also points to the impunity their actions has from the superior authorities.
In this particular instance, there are also claims about ‘infiltration’ by right-wing affiliated organizations into the local ‘friends of’ police force. There have been similar concerns in many states like Telangana, Uttar Pradesh etc. and this aspect merits a detailed inquiry as well.
NAPM denounces, in the strongest possible terms, the unlawful and inhuman actions of the police personnel involved and demands:
  • An independent doctor’s presence during the autopsy;
  • An independent, time-bound judicial inquiry into the horrific incident with civil society involvement. Instead of CBI, an SIT constituted and monitored by the independent judicial commission would be appropriate in the circumstances; 
  • Registration of FIR under Sec 302 and other sections of law against the police personnel involved, including those who witnessed but did not stop the incident; 
  • Exemplary compensation to the family of the deceased; 
  • An immediate public apology by the DGP and Chief Minister to the family and a clear assurance that the guilty will be brough to book at the earliest. 
We note that such gruesome violence occasionally grabs public attention, but only forms a ‘tip of the horrendous iceberg’ of custodial violence across the country. Days after the Thoothukudi incident made headlines, information of ‘death’ of Kumaresan, an auto driver who was tortured by the Tenkasi (TN) police last month has surfaced now!
A few months back, we all witnessed the gruesome police violence (leading to death) on 23-year-old Faizan in the national capital who was forced to sing the national anthem! Torture in the police force seems to have an institutional validation and guilty officers are rarely punished.
Soni Sori
In fact, in the (in)famous case of physical and sexual torture of adivasi social activist Soni Sori, IPS officer Ankit Garg was recommended by the State for Presidential award for ‘meritorious’ service! Such actions not only condone but also encourage the errant officials.
Each state has numerous examples of police torture and we know for a fact that religious minorities, adivasis, dalits, de-notified tribes, women, minors, transgender persons are particularly vulnerable to police excesses and custodial violence. 
As the "India - Annual Torture Reports" for 2018 and 2019 indicate, an average of 5 people ‘die’ in custody in India every single day of the year (1966 custodial deaths in 2018, 1731 in 2019), a vast majority in judicial custody indicating that they die after having been presented before a Magistrate. 
For every such case that is reported, the likelihood is that several go unreported. It is evident that major structural changes are required, to alter this culture of institutionalized violence and impunity. Sadly, the ‘Anti-Torture Bill’ passed by the Lok Sabha in 2010 never saw the light of the day in the last decade. 
In this context, we call upon the Government of Tamil Nadu and governments in general to:
  1. Ensure that the State Police Complaints Authority is functional, and has the powers to make binding recommendations to the state government;
  2. Invest heavily in training police personnel at all levels, on a yearly basis; centre human rights in police training and ensure civil society and activist involvement in the training process; 
  3. Implement the internationally recognized doctrine of command responsibility, to hold directing officers vicariously liable for the excesses of those under their direct command; 
  4. Press for the Indian state to ratify the UN Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, 1984 and fulfill commitments therein by passing a robust ‘Anti-Torture’ law; 
  5. Mandate that Judicial Magistrates be required to speak with arrested persons brought before them privately, before remanding them to custody; 
  6. Undertake in earnest the structural reforms required to detoxify the Indian police force; reforms including but not restricted to the recommendations of the Second Administrative Reforms Commission and the directives of the Supreme Court in Prakash Singh and others v Union of India and others (2006) 8 SCC 1, which have largely gone ignored in the 14 years, since the judgement was delivered. 
The incident from Tamil Nadu has captured public imagination at a time when not just in the United States, but world over, the racist police killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade and many other Black people have sparked enormous outrage, leading to a new watershed in the Black Lives Matter movement as well as the stronger discourse and public consciousness around ‘abolition’ and ‘defunding’ of the police.
In India, we still have a long way to go to end the culture of state-sanctioned and structural violence and impunity. We call upon citizens, civil society and governments to recognize the imminent need for a sensitive and violence-free police force, in order to work towards the larger goal of a society sans violence, with respect for human rights, peace, dignity and justice.
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