This article originally appeared on VICE India
The death of a father and son in police custody in the South Indian state of Tamil Nadu has sparked widespread outrage across India, echoing anti-police sentiment sweeping the US.
P Jayaraj, 59, and his son J Bennix, 31, were arrested on Friday night, June 19, after allegedly breaking coronavirus curfew orders and leaving their cell phone store open past 9PM. They were taken to a police station where they were separately questioned.
On the night of June 22, three days after the pair were first taken into custody, Bennicks passed away at a government hospital after complaining of severe chest pain. A few hours later, his father succumbed to the same fate in the same hospital.
Family and friends allege that at some point over those three days the two men had been savagely beaten by police, to the point where each had to change their bloodied lungis (a sarong-like cloth wrapped around their waists) three times over.
Official post mortems are yet to be released but initial medical reports suggest that both victims were also bleeding from their anuses after police sexually assaulted them with steel rods.
However, the police deny all wrongdoing and claim the father and son were reprimanded because they “sat on the ground and abused us verbally and rolled on the ground.”
The state government has also added insult to injury by refusing to fire the policemen involved, nor charge them with murder, even though one has previously been implicated in a custodial death.
Instead, two sub-inspectors have been suspended, while their manager has been removed from official duties and placed on a "waiting list". The state government also transferred the investigation to the federal Central Bureau of Investigation, which has often been criticised for delaying investigations.
The deaths of Jayaraj and Bennicks has now prompted widespread outrage and closer scrutiny of the 124,761-strong Tamil Nadu police.
According to the 2018 National Crimes Record Bureau data, the state of Tamil Nadu had the second highest number of deaths in custody among all Indian states, even though not a single policeman has been tried for those deaths.
A judicial inquiry found that sub-inspectors of police Balakrishnan and Raghuganesh were facing similar accusations from at least a dozen people in the last two weeks, one of whom passed away after being allegedly beaten.
“In 2013, my client N Vaiyapuri was intercepted by sub-inspector Balakrishnan in a village in Tirunelveli district, and publicly stripped and thrashed him for showing photocopies of his driver’s license,” Advocate Pon Karthikeyan told VICE News.
Karthikeyan approached Tamil Nadu’s Madras High Court after the district’s police station refused to register the complaint against the officer.
After the matter was taken up by the court, Karthikeyan says the sub-inspector apologised and offered an out-of-court settlement to the man he attacked. “The police are of course overburdened, but our law arms the police with a lot of power, which they use to stall complaints against them.”
Reports also say that after Balakrishnan was transferred to the Thoothukudi district, he and Raghunesh would regularly terrorise locals and get away scott-free or through written apologies.
The non-governmental organisation Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative released a report in May 2020 saying that 12 people across India died as a result of public beatings by the police force during the three-month COVID-19 lockdown.
A report by the National Campaign Against Torture (NCAT) stated that a total of 1,731 persons died in custody in India in 2019, which amounts to about five people each day.
Less than a week after the deaths of Jayaraj and Bennicks, it was also revealed that a 25-year-old auto rickshaw driver named N Kumarasen died from severe internal injuries to his kidney and other vital organs soon after he was called into the Veerakeralampudur police station in Tenkasi district. His father alleges that his son was called in over a property dispute in May 2020, and then brutally beaten up by the police at the station, resulting in his death a month later.
Police in the city of Chennai have released photos of suspects with fractured arms and legs, and claim they suffered injuries because of “slippery toilets.”
“Anyone practising criminal law in local courts or dealing with District Magistrates realises that remanding [to police or judicial custody] is routine, but no magistrate asks the accused what happened,” Raja Selvam, a former criminal defence lawyer from Tamil Nadu told VICE News.
Selvam switched from criminal to intellectual property law after growing disillusioned with local police stations’ and courts’ unfulfilled promises to take disciplinary action against violent policemen.
He recounted a custodial death case he fought 15 years ago, in which the victim’s post mortem clearly showed boot marks on his body. A policeman claimed before the court he had died of liver failure from alcoholism. “I questioned him on how the victim could have gotten alcohol in jail, but the judge didn’t bother to listen to me,” he said.
Section 197 of India’s Code of Criminal Conduct requires a concerned government official like a Magistrate to initiate a sanction when a public servant, which includes a police officer, is accused of any offence committed while on official duty. This section is often misused to prevent the police from being held accountable.
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