Sathankulam to Salem: Brutal cops indulge in atrocities with impunity

The ones who are charge-sheeted are hardly ever convicted, and the Police Dept backs them, say experts; recent action against errant police in Tamil Nadu offers hope

Social media is bringing to light several cases around police atrocities. (Representational image)

The recent incident in Salem district, where a policeman beat up a farmer from Edayappatti village, has rekindled dark memories of the Sathankulam incident that occurred last June.

The video, which is going viral on social media, shows a group of cops surrounding A. Murugesan, the 47-year-old farmer, and a senior police official beating him mercilessly using his lathi in broad daylight, on a busy road. The video was taken by Murugesan’s nephew who was with him that day.

The incident occurred at Pappinaickenpatti check-post, which comes under the Yethapur police station limits in Salem, on June 22. The victim, in an inebriated state, got into an argument with the police, following which Special Sub-Inspector Periyasamy lathi-charged him.

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After the incident, Murugesan was taken to a government hospital, where he succumbed to head injury on June 23. The same day, Periyasamy was arrested.

Also read: Power play: Frequent outages come back to haunt DMK govt in Tamil Nadu

In a similar incident last year, Tamil Nadu heard the shocking news of the custodial death of father-son duo Jayaraj-Bennix. The latest tragedy has reiterated fears that ‘police raj’ prevails in the state.

Low conviction rate

Regardless of who is in power, be it the DMK or the AIADMK, the police is always seen to hold an upper hand, letting it resort to any level of atrocity, say experts. Interestingly, the police department comes under the direct control of the Chief Minister, which may be the reason the personnel assume they have the ‘power’ to carry out acts of violence.

Year No. of complaints received No. of police personnel charge-sheeted / sent for trials No. of police personnel convicted No. of police personnel acquitted
2009 141 NA NA NA
2010 366 NA NA NA
2011 259 NA NA NA
2012 378 100 1 5
2013 259 85 1 9
2014 138 60 1 8
2015 139 68 0 1
2016 114 42 1 1
2017 116 23 1 4
2018 71 19 0 3
2019 123 28 1 2

 

Though Periyasamy has been arrested, it is doubtful whether he will be convicted. Data from 2009 to 2019, collected from Crime in India, a publication of the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), reveal that just six policemen were convicted between 2012 and 2019. Unfortunately, there is no data on the number the cops convicted from 2009 to 2012.

The data show that the number of policemen charge-sheeted or sent for trials were in two and three digits; it is shocking that the number of police convicted is in single digits. What happened to the remaining cases remains unclear.

In the Sathankulam case, for example, it has been a year since the CB-CID arrested five policemen. The CBI included nine policemen in the charge-sheet. There has been little progress since then in the case.

Little follow-up is done

“It is mostly because the victims won’t stand against the police for long. There are various reasons for it,” said S Balamurugan, an advocate and human rights activist. “The police department itself works in the background to free its men. They try to settle the case out of court by paying the victim some money. They threaten the witness and try to destroy the evidence.

“The caste outfits of the victim try to cajole the family to withdraw cases against the police. Besides, the activists who show an interest in the initial stages of the cases move on to other issues. The media, too, is not following up on the cases. So, in most cases, the perpetrator goes free.”

The Law Commission has recommended that when a custodial death happens it be presumed to be death caused by police atrocity. But that recommendation is not followed by most police forces. Booking the police official on murder charges, as has been done in the Salem incident now, is a welcome move, said Balamurugan.

“For a ‘rule of law’, this kind of action will set a precedence for future cases. Generally, in cases like this, there would be no cases filed. Even if they were filed, they would be charged under CrPC Sec 174 for ‘suspicious death’ and IPC Sec 320 for ‘grievous injury’. They won’t file murder charges,” he said.

Even the use of lathi comes with protocols. But wielding the stick gives the police a sense of absolute impunity, said Balamurugan. He expressed hope that by filing cases against the police immediately under proper sections like the recent case will break that mentality.

Social media, a torch bearer

I Pandian, founder of human rights organisation Witness for Justice, said cases around police atrocities are coming to light mostly because of social media.

“Today, we have cellphones, CCTV cameras, etc. So, these kinds of atrocities immediately get attention. These become evidence and cases are being registered. But a decade or so back, we had to rely only on the police version and most of the policemen went scot-free,” he said.

He added that how the police treated a common person depended on his or her religion, caste and financial status. “If the same victim came inebriated in a car, the way the police treated him would be different,” he remarked.

Need for periodic assessment

What can be done to prevent such incidents?

According to S Ramadoss, professor at the Department of Criminology in the University of Madras, the existing police training programme focuses fairly well on human rights violations.

“During training the recruits are sensitised on law and human rights. Nowhere do the training centres teach them to resort to third degree treatment. But what is lacking is periodic assessment after they join the forces. They need to be reminded of human rights and violations every now and then,” he said.

To a query on why the conviction rate is very low, Ramadoss said it is because of judiciary delays.

“Already there are crores of cases pending before courts. We need more, separate courts for different kinds of cases like murder and sexual offences. If the courts are increased, then there are chances that the conviction rate will be increased. That results in bringing down such atrocities,” he added.

Higher officials in the police department were unavailable for comment.

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