This article originally appeared on VICE India.
Even a week after their deaths, the South Indian state of Tamil Nadu is still reeling from the details of the alleged torture meted out to a father and son by some of its policemen.
The deaths of P Jayaraj and son Bennicks in the Thoothukudi district of the state has prompted more disclosures about brutality by members of the 124,761-strong Tamil Nadu police.
Shockingly, the same policemen who allegedly tortured Jayaraj and Bennicks have now been implicated in the death of another individual.
The state government has aggravated matters by not heeding widespread calls to fire these policemen and charge them with murder. Instead, two sub-inspectors have been suspended, while the inspector in charge of them was transferred to a ‘waiting list’ without being given responsibilities.
The Tamil Nadu government also transferred the investigation from the state police to the federal Central Bureau of Investigation, which has often been criticised for delaying investigations.
Tamil Nadu had a population of 72 million in 2011. According to the 2018 National Crimes Record Bureau data, the state had the second highest number of deaths in custody among all Indian states, though not even one policeman was tried for these deaths.
Jayaraj, a 58-year-old mobile store owner and his 31-year-old son Bennicks reportedly died as a result of torture at a police station in Sathankulam town.
Jayaraj and Bennicks were separately taken in for questioning after the police claimed their mobile phone store was open beyond the curfew of 9 PM, imposed to restrict the spread of COVID-19, on June 19.
On the night of June 22, three days after the pair was taken into custody, Bennicks passed away at a government hospital after complaining of severe chest pain. His father succumbed to the same fate a few hours later in the same hospital.
Family and friends of the pair allege that they were so badly beaten up that each of them had to change their bloodied lungis, a sarong-like cloth wrapped around the waist, thrice.
Bennick’s sister Percy alleged that both had wounds in the rectal area caused as a result of rods being shoved into them. She accused eight policemen and four police volunteers of murdering her brother and father.
However, the police report into the deaths claimed the father and son suffered internal injuries because they “sat on the ground and abused us verbally and rolled on the ground.”
A judicial inquiry found that sub-inspectors of police Balakrishnan and Raghuganesh, who were accused of leading their torture, were facing similar accusations from at least a dozen people in the last two weeks, one of who passed away soon 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 had 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 persons dying on a daily basis.
The movement calling for justice for Jayaraj and Bennicks also brought to light the chilling history of police excesses in the Tamil Nadu.
Providing backdrop to this anger is the ongoing global campaign against the sort of systemic police brutality that led to the extrajudicial killing of George Floyd by a policeman in the United States.
Less than a week after the deaths of Jayaraj and Bennicks, it was 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, where the victim’s post mortem showed injuries caused by 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.
During the world’s strictest lockdown, excessive use of force by the police has been called out on social media multiple times, including instances in which cops tipped over the carts of vegetable sellers.
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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