Custodial deaths on the rise: Is Tamil Nadu becoming a police state?

Besides not following rules, police treat people under trial and remand prisoners in a barbaric manner

The maximum punishment the police get is a transfer to armed reserve units. Photo: PTI (representational)

The recent death of a father-son duo in judicial custody in Tamil Nadu’s Tuticorin district has once again reminded people of the increasing number of custodial deaths in the state.

In the past, many individuals had been taken to various police stations on the grounds of investigation and had returned dead. The police department fails to handle properly the cases against its officials that remain unsolved.

On June 19, Jayaraj (59) and his son Emmanuel Benicks (31) were arrested by Sathankulam police who accused the duo of not complying with lockdown restrictions. While Jayaraj was arrested in the evening, Benicks, who had gone to the station to see his father, was also taken into custody.

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The police had beat the duo black and blue, alleged J Selvarani, wife of Jayaraj, in her complaint lodged with the district magistrate. It has been alleged that the police had not followed procedures starting from the arrest of the due to their admission to the hospital.

Police brutality

Besides not following rules, police used to treat people under trial and remand prisoners in a barbaric manner.

In this case, it has been claimed that Jayaraj was already a heart patient and the police had repeatedly kicked him on his chest. They had allegedly inserted a baton into Benicks’s rectum. He later suffered an internal haemorrhage and died on the way to hospital on June 22. The next morning, Jayaraj too died in the hospital after suffering from fever.

But this is not a one-off incident. Even during the anti-Sterlite protests in Tuticorin, the police had opened fire at protestors. People in the district claim Tuticorin, which was once infamous for notorious criminals, has turned into a district of notorious policemen.

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They say under inexperienced superintendent of police Arun Balagopalan, who was posted there in 2019, the district has seen a lot of human rights violations by police. “After the SP assumed charge last year, the district witnessed more than nine murders,” said SMA Gandhimathinathan, a social activist in the district.

“The public may engage in arguments with the police amid the lockdown. It is true that both the public and police have stress. But the police should know how to handle the public in this time of crisis. Even if public, out of their anger and inability, abuse the police verbally, the police should take action as per the rules. They can arrest them or file a case. But inflicting violence is unacceptable,” he said.

It’s high time to ratify CAT

Mostly, the police enjoy impunity. The maximum punishment they get is transfer to armed reserve unit.

According to ‘India: Annual Report on Torture 2018’, a report published by Asian Centre for Human Rights, the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) had received reports of 147 custodial deaths in 2018. In 2009-2010, it had received 124 reports. The country had seen 19 per cent increase in custodial deaths, the report claimed.

In 2018, Tamil Nadu topped the list among southern states with 76 custodial deaths. The 2018-2019 annual report released by the Union Ministry of Home Affairs said the NHRC had received 2,497 cases of deaths in judicial custody and 178 cases of deaths in police custody between January 2018 and March 2019.

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“The duo were tortured before being taken into judicial custody, where they were not given proper medical support. In such cases, the police, in connivance with doctors, often don’t refrigerate the body. They intentionally leave the bodies to get decomposed in order to destroy evidence. It is a judicial murder,” said Pandian, founder, Witness for Justice, a Madurai-based Dalit and human rights organisation.

On June 26, the world is set to observe International Day in Support of Victims of Torture. It is the high time that India ratified the United Nations Convention Against Torture (UN CAT), he added.

‘Welfare state to police state’

Coimbatore-based advocate and human rights activist S Balamurugan said the deaths showed that Tamil Nadu was gradually turning from a welfare state to a police state.

“The police have all infrastructure that makes them feel that they are above the law. The judiciary must control police excesses. But, mostly, it remains a mute spectator. It is only the judiciary that has the right to punish. In this case, the police themselves have given death penalties to the duo” he said.

The Padmanabhaiah Committee on Police Reforms set up in 2000 said the public had been made to believe in some way or the other that the police have all rights to beat them up. In Prakash Singh Vs Union of India, the Supreme Court in 2006 has said that the Police Act 1861 must be replaced, said Balamurugan.

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“Many commissions and committees had submitted their reports on police reforms. But most of them have not been implemented. A couple of days ago, the police beat a Class 10 student in Coimbatore after asking his parents to shut a pushcart eatery shop. What will happen if the shop had functioned for an extra half an hour? The pandemic situation cannot be handled as a law and order issue,” he added.

Dr S Ramadoss, associate professor, Department of Criminology, University of Madras, said with these kinds of sporadic incidents one could not generalise the police department as corrupt.

“Since there is no precedence for the punishment of police for custodial deaths, it does not mean that the department is above the law. They are also governed by the same Constitution. They are taught human rights and basic law during their training,” he said.

“So, they cannot claim that they are unaware of these. The department must take stringent actions like suspension and must book them under appropriate laws. The opening of shops beyond the lockdown timing is not a big crime amid the pandemic,” he said

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