Sathankulam custodial deaths

Sathankulam: Terror in uniform

Print edition : July 31, 2020

P. Jeyaraj (60), right, and his son Bennix (31), who died in police custody on June 23. Photo: PTI

At a protest in solidarity with the custodial death victims in Sathankulam on June 28. Photo: PTI

Vanitha, whose daughter Snowlin was killed in the firing on Sterlite protesters, consoles Selvarani (left), Bennix’s mother, in Sathankulam. Photo: By Special Arrangement

At the house of Sathankulam Head Constable S. Revathy, who has been given police protection after she turned witness in the custodial deaths case. Photo: By Special Arrangement

The custodial torture and deaths of a father-son duo in Tamil Nadu rip apart the police’s image, while the judiciary makes unprecedented interventions in a bid to deliver justice.

“THE police should not take the law into their own hands and misuse the same in an uncivilised and inhuman way.” These were the words of Justice O. Venkatachalam, the Principal and Sessions Judge of Chidambaranar district (since renamed Thoothukudi), in his detailed report in 1994 to the Supreme Court on police atrocities against the Dalits of Nadunalumoolaikinaru, a village near the now-infamous Sathankulam where the father-son duo of P. Jayaraj (60) and Bennix (31) was killed in custody on June 19.

The Supreme Court, in response to a writ filed by the then district secretary of the All India Democratic Woman Association (AIDWA), Mallika, had appointed the Sessions Judge as its Inquiry Commissioner to conduct an investigation into the police atrocities committed against the villagers on January 28, 1992. He recommended that no officer involved in the atrocities be given sensitive posts that might entail dealing with the marginalised people in future.

The judiciary often had to intervene to uphold the sanctity of the Constitution and ensure justice whenever the State and its agents violated human rights and dignity.

Despite such strictures, criticisms and judicial interventions, the police force in the State has not mended its ways, as was evident from the cold-blooded gunning down of 13 unarmed protesters during the protest against Sterlite Industries’ copper smelter plant in Thoothukudi (2018) and from dozens of firings, extrajudicial executions, rights violations and cases of custodial tortures and deaths in the past three decades.

Cracks in the image

A positive image has been studiously built around the Tamil Nadu Police over the years. It is perceived to be a modernised unit trained in scientific and intelligent methods of investigation and law enforcement.

The people of Tamil Nadu are repeatedly told that peace prevails in the State thanks to the police. This carefully constructed image has cracked after the custodial deaths in Sathankulam.

Timber trader Jayarai and his son Bennix, who owned a mobile phone shop in Sathankulam, were arrested by the Sathankulam Police on the night of June 19 on the charge of violating the lockdown restrictions imposed in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic. The police allegedly beat them up and remanded them to the Kovilpatti Sub Jail, where both died after two days. It is the first time ever in Tamil Nadu that two persons from a family (father and son) died of injuries sustained at a police station.

The crime was so beastly that a shocked Sathankulam town erupted in anger against the police. Leaders of political parties, rights activists and celebrities expressed their anguish over the incident. Activists found in the incident a parallel to the murder of George Floyd in the United States and trended the custodial deaths at Sathankulam with a hashtag globally.

Judicial intervention

Even as the State government was dithering on taking action against the police officers at Sathankulam, the higher judiciary intervened, as it did in the case of Nadunalumoolaikinaru.

This is the first case of police brutality in the recent past in which the judiciary, the Madurai Bench of the Madras High Court, took over the investigation suo motu.

The two-member Bench of Justices P.N. Prakash and B. Pugalendhi asked the Kovilpatti Judicial Magistrate to conduct an inquiry and submit a report. On the basis of the report, the judges concluded that there was prima facie evidence to slap murder charges against the accused police officers under Section 302 of the Indian Penal Code and entrusted the investigation to the Tamil Nadu Crime Branch-Criminal Investigation Department.

The court, in an unprcendented move, went a step further and suggested that the police could book cases against its own officers under that IPC section. In such cases earlier, the judiciary would mostly confine itself to an advisory role and issues related to compensation for the victims. In a few cases it had recommended appropriate action against the errant officials and the state for their acts of commission and omission.

Henry Tiphagne, a lawyer and founder of the Madurai-based rights organisation, People’s Watch, said: “That the High Court Bench suo motu took up the case, monitored it on a daily basis and told the investigating agency, the CB-CID, one of the wings of the Tamil Nadu police, that there was prima facie evidence to book the accused under a specific section of law, are unparalleled in the judicial history of the State.”

In another unusual move, both the judges spoke on the phone to S. Revathy, a woman head constable of the Sathankulam police station who had testified against her senior colleagues, to allay her fears.

She reportedly told the judges that she feared for the lives of her two daughters and husband. She has now been provided with round-the-clock security. “It is an irony that a police constable has to seek protection from her own colleagues,” said Henry Tiphagne.

The Bench, in another unprecedented move, asked the Thoothukudi District Revenue administration to take over the Sathankulam police station to prevent “disappearance of evidences”. The revenue officials took charge of the station in the last week of June until the CB-CID took over the investigation. Later it was restored to the district police.

“This is the first ever judicial direction in the country since Independence, wherein a police station has been brought under the Revenue Department's control—a matter of shame for the Tamil Nadu Police,” said Henry Tiphagne.

It was also the first reported case of a judiciary-appointed magistrate being “intimidated and ridiculed” by the policemen themselves inside the police station when he went there to conduct an inquiry on the orders of the High Court. The magistrate has recorded the sordid events in his report to the Bench.

And, for the first time, a petition has been filed before the Supreme Court against the Tamil Nadu Chief Minister in connection with the lockup deaths.

Friends of police

The CB-CID has decided to investigate Friends of Police, a four-member group of volunteers that ‘assisted’ the police in Sathankulam in various activities, for its alleged involvement in the case. However, G.I. Lourduswami, the State administrator of a group of the same name, said that that they did not belong to his organisation but were “volunteers” enlisted by the local police for COVID-19-related work.

Prateep V. Philip, Director General of Police of Civil Supplies (CID), founded the group in 1993 when he was Superintendent of Police, Ramanathapuram district.

The controversy over Friends of Police took a different angle when activists and a few political parties alleged that the volunteers of the group at the Sathankulam police station had links with Seva Bharathi, a wing of the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS). Seva Bharathi’s Tamil Nadu State secretary Rabo Manohar denied this accusation and warned against what he termed 'such propaganda'.

On July 8, on the basis of a report from the Tamil Nadu DGP, the State government banned Friends of Police.

Sheer ego and brutality

Certain sections of the media have attributed caste, communal and political reasons to these custodial deaths, but sources in Sathankulam, Peikulam and Thoothukudi told Frontline that neither caste nor religion or politics played a significant role in the episode.

A look at the caste backgrounds of the police at the Sathankulam station showed that no single caste or religion was predominant in it. The officers belonged to caste groups as varied as Reddy, Yadav, Pallar [a Scheduled Caste], Pillai and Nadars (both Hindu and Christian).

Friends of Police also consisted of Hindus and Christians. “No single caste or religion is dominant in the station, a fact that rules out any casteist angle to the incident,” said an advocate who was Bennix’s friend.

Sathankulam is an area where Nadars are predominant and other caste groups such as Maravas, Yadavs, Pillais and Reddies are not in significant numbers.

Although Nadars follow Hinduism and Christianity, they are socially and culturally inter-related and prefer to come under a common Nadar identity.

“A few Hindutva groups of late are trying to drive a wedge among them. But since it is a trading community, it resists such evil manipulations,” said Stalin, President of the Peikulam Traders Association. Peikulam is a tiny suburban village near Sathankulam. He ruled out any political angle in the deaths.

Many sources in Sathankulam said that the police officers in Sathankulam were “just plainly corrupt and arrogant”.

An autorickshaw driver in Sathankulam said: “Anyone taken to the police station for an inquiry would be manhandled. They run the police station like their fiefdom. Their writ runs large. These officers encouraged the sand mafia and illicit distillers. That many cases of police brutality have started surfacing now is a clear indication of how vicious the enforcers of law in Sathankulam were.”

A few cases of custodial tortures and deaths reportedly involving a few police officers of Sathankulam are being taken up for fresh investigation. The case of the mysterious death of a youth named Mahendran, who belonged to a village near Sathankulam and who allegedly died of torture in the Sathankulam Police station, has been taken up for fresh investigation.

Mohan, a field-based activist of People’s Watch, Thoothukudi, who has been pursuing the case, told Frontline that the officers had turned wild with rage when Bennix dared to prevent the policemen from assaulting his father.

“In the scuffle, he reportedly pushed a police constable aside and raised his hands to prevent another officer from assaulting him. These acts of resistance were enough to infuriate them,” he said.

He added: “They do not like anyone questioning their authority. The deaths of father and son at Sathankulam were unfortunate. They questioned the police inside the station. Any acts of resistance, the officers saw, were an affront to their unbridled authority and power.”

Henry Tiphagne said: “It is a sheer brutal manifestation of their ego that stemmed from unbridled power and authority. It never tolerates any form of dissent.”

With the CB-CID pursuing the case diligently and also arresting five more police personnel of the Sathankulam police station on murder and other related charges on July 7—taking the total to 10— the CBI sprang a surprise.

Responding to the Tamil Nadu government's request on June 29, it swiftly appointed Vijay Kumar Shukla, Additional SP, CBI, New Delhi, as the investigation officer for the case.

The CBI issued an order from New Delhi transferring two cases registered at the Kovilpatti East Police Station to it for investigation. These cases were preferred by M. Shankar, Jail Superintendent, Kovilpatti Sub Jail, at the Kovilpatti Police station following the deaths of father and son in custody on June 22 and 23.

Meanwhile, legal experts have alleged that Sathankulam Judicial Magistrate B. Saravanan remanded Jayaraj and Bennix to judicial custody without applying his mind, which, they said, led to their custodial death. The magistrate did not evaluate their health conditions before passing the remand orders, they said and have sought action against the magistrate for “judicial impropriety”.

Social activists also demanded action against the Sathankulam government hospital doctor Vennila, who allegedly issued medical clearance certificates to Jayaraj and Bennix prior to their remand.

The victims of state violence prefer the judiciary over commissions of inquiry appointed by the State government. “As these commissions mostly endorse the State’s role in any incident, the victims largely prefer the intervention of judiciary to get justice,” said an activist.

If such crimes against humanity are not to occur in future, the police must be humanised and depoliticised.

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