Death of a disabled Dalit in custody in TN evokes horror of police torture yet again
It was just another normal day in the life of a disabled Dalit tailor and his small family in Salem that would brutally take a nightmarish turn. On January 8, 2022, around 3 pm, P Hamsala, 40, was busy with her household chores when three men along with a woman barged into their house located at Karuppur in Salem district. They did not bother to introduce themselves but cornered her disabled husband A Prabhakaran (47), a tailor by profession, who was at work.
They started to verbally abuse the bewildered couple in front of their children and roughed them up forcing them to hurry up and change their clothes.
“By that time, our neighbours heard my husband’s cries and had gathered around our house. It was only then they told us that they were police officials and were taking us to the police station for an inquiry related to a theft case. Being disabled, my husband had to be carried out of the house and made to sit in their vehicle. I followed him,” related Hamsala, in an exclusive interview with The Federal.
The couple assumed they would be taken to the nearest Karuppur police station. Instead, they drove them to the Sendamangalam police station, which is 57 km away in Namakkal district. “We were hardly there for a few minutes. After which, we were taken to the nearby police quarters and it is here the beatings began,” she claimed.
Hamsala said they remained at the quarters until they were produced before the judicial magistrate on January 11, 2022. During this time, she said, the police beat them continuously to force them to accept the crime. “They beat us with a stick on several parts of the body, especially on the sole. They hit me so hard on my foot that one of my toenails came off and it started to bleed. They kicked my husband on his chest and private parts,” said Hamsala, who started to cry as she recalled the beatings.
She tried to inform the judicial magistrate when they were presented before him about the illegal detention and police torture but the policemen prevented her from talking and answered all the questions on her behalf. Later that day, Hamsala was taken to the Salem Central prison, while Prabhakaram was lodged in the Namakkal sub-jail.
The next day, on January 12, Prabhakaran complained he was unwell to the prison authorities. According to government official sources, Prabhakaran was taken to Namakkal government hospital and then to Salem Government Mohan Kumaramangalam Medical College and Hospital where he died that night. The post-mortem was conducted at the hospital a day later and the body was handed over to the family members. But the report is yet to be submitted.
Meanwhile, the family members were frantically searching for the couple after the Karuppur police officials told them they had not detained anybody. This has been mentioned in the FIR filed by the Salem city police on the complaint made by Prabhakaran’s relative Sakthivel.
The FIR in fact stated that “as Prabhakaran and Hamsala were not produced in any of the courts in Salem and Namakkal districts on January 10, we registered an online missing complaint. (They were produced before the magistrate only on January 11) On January 12, we received a call from a person who introduced himself as a policeman. He said that my brother was admitted to Salem Government Mohan Kumaramangalam Medical College and Hospital in a serious condition. When we rushed to the hospital, we were informed that he died”.
What led to the arrest of Prabhakaran and his wife?
A Namakkal police official, who preferred to remain anonymous said that this case pertains to a burglary. “The Sendamangalam police officials had arrested Kumar, a resident of Dharmapuri district for breaking into the house of a grocery store owner at Sendamangalam in Namakkal district and stealing gold jewels weighing 20 sovereigns in December 2021. During the inquiry, he had confessed that five others including the Prabhakarans, had helped him in the act. Based on this information, the police officials had detained them on January 11 and remanded them on the same day,” the police official told The Federal.
Kumar’s friend – Natarajan, who is Hamsala’s relative and residing in Dharmapuri district was involved in the theft case and he had given the stolen jewellery to the couple, explained the official, adding that Natarajan and his wife are absconding.
When questioned on this, Hamsala however claimed that Natarajan had sought help to pawn a gold jewel weighing four sovereigns because they were in desperate need of money. “We had helped him. The jewel was pawned on December 4 and it was returned on December 16. This was the only time they had sought help from us. We don’t know how they had got the jewellery. Now, we have lost touch with Natarajan and his family.”
An Inquiry into the cause of death
After the death of Prabhakaran, family members, political parties and several outfits raised a hue and cry. Based on the complaint of the deceased’s brother Sakthivel, a case under section 176 (inquiry by magistrate into cause of death) has now been registered by the Salem city police.
Subsequently, the Salem range deputy inspector of police (in-charge) Najmul Hoda (who has been transferred now) suspended three police officials – L Poonkodi, sub-inspector of Pudhuchathiram police station, A Chandran, sub-inspector of Sendamangalam police station and Kulanthaivel, grade 1 police constable of Trichengode rural police station – based on the recommendations of the Namakkal Superintendent of Police, Saroj Kumar Thakur.
Human rights activists view this death as nothing but a repetition of the Sathankulam custodial deaths in Tamil Nadu’s Tuticorin. On June 18, 2020, a father and son – Jayaraj and Bennix – were brutally beaten by four policemen for allegedly violating lockdown restrictions. A few days later, they died and it subsequently sparked outrage over police brutality in the state. A murder case was booked against five policemen including the then Sathankulam police inspector and they were arrested. CBI is currently investigating the case.
A recent Tamil movie Jai Bhim, starring Suriya, based on a real incident that occurred in 1993, focused on police brutality against a tribal community. The movie had created a lot of furore and was acclaimed by people from several quarters. Tamil Nadu Chief Minister MK Stalin too had praised the film.
The CM on Monday (January 18) has ordered a probe into Prabhakaran’s death, which is to be transferred to the Crime Branch – Crime Investigation Department (CB-CID). He also announced a solatium of Rs 10 lakh to the family members.
“Involvement of officials from different police stations in Namakkal district indicates that a special team was formed. The team had crossed the city border and made arrests out of their jurisdiction. Importantly, they were not in uniform when the detention was made. It shows nothing but the lawlessness of the police department,” said Henri Tiphagne, an advocate and founder of human rights organisation People’s Watch.
In this case, the judicial magistrate too did nothing but repeated what the Sathankulam judicial magistrate Saravanan had done. Ideally, he should be pulled up for his act but the judicial authorities are maintaining a stoic silence in this issue, pointed out Tiphagne. He added that both the judicial magistrate and the doctors who had examined Prabhakaran before remanding him in prison were equally responsible for his death.
Ideally, a case should have been booked under section 176 1(A) of CrPC which deals with a person dying or disappearing when they are in the custody of the police or any other custody authorised by the magistrate or court, he said.
Pointing out that the guidelines issued by the Madras High Court are not followed while performing postmortem, Tiphagne said, “as per the guidelines, two forensic medical experts from different hospitals should be involved in the postmortem, body of the deceased should be shown to the family members and photos should be allowed to be taken before performing postmortem, and postmortem certificate and its videos should be given to the family before handing over the body. But none of this was followed in this case.”
Welcoming the CM’s move to transfer the case to CB-CID, he said that the inquiry into the case should be completed soon and any delay in the case would mean that they were hiding the truth. “A case under section 302 (murder) of IPC should be booked and Namakkal SP should be pulled up for allowing such things to happen,” he added.
While Namakkal SP Saroj Kumar Thakur refused to comment, the former Salem range deputy inspector of police (in-charge) Najmul Hoda too was unavailable despite several attempts.
Meanwhile, Hamsala, who was a homemaker, is now left to fend for herself. Seeking justice for the death of her husband, she said, “No other person should undergo what I am going through now. With two small children, I don’t know how I will manage for the rest of my life. The government has given us solatium. But is that enough? Our loss cannot be compensated at all,” said the inconsolable widow.