India’s ‘George Floyd’ moment: Tamil Nadu custodial death shocks the country

NHRC reported 1,589 cases of custodial deaths (police and judicial) between January and November, 2019. ACHR report held that in 2017-18, five people died each day in judicial and police custody

Photo courtesy: Twitter
Photo courtesy: Twitter

Ankur Dang

During the lockdown, policemen across the country have been working night and day to catch alleged ‘curfew-breakers’. In some cities they have been busy naming and shaming the “miscreants” on social media, elsewhere they arrest the miscreants or let them go after a beating. But the police in Tuticorin resorted to medieval barbarity and killed a man and his adult son.

The horrific details are emerging a week after the nightmare started for the duo on June 19 and four days after they were declared dead on June 22 last Friday.

P Jayaraj, 59, closed down the shutters on his mobile repair shop, only to get in trouble with the local police who accused him of flouting the state’s lockdown rules by keeping his shop open past the permissible hours. The police took him in remand and when his son, J Bennicks, 31 (aka Fennix) went to secure his father’s release, he was taken in too.

On June 22, Fennix passed away at the Kovilpatty General Hospital. The next morning, his father Jayaraj passed away as well in the same hospital.

What happened between the evening of June 19 and the morning of June 22, is a horrifying account of brutality, horror, and the absolute abuse of power.

For hours, the father and son were subjected to third-degree torture, including extreme sexual violence, at the Sathankulam Police Station. For the entirety of the night, their lawyer S Manimaran waited outside with their friends, listening helplessly to their screams.

“We were standing out and we were seeing the whole incident from outside through a glass gate,” Manimaran said. “Fennix and his father were beaten. In the morning there was blood all over the place where they were sitting.”

They were allowed to see Jayaraj and Bennicks around 6:30 in the morning on June 20, before being taken to the govt. hospital and then to the judicial magistrate’s office.

Their condition was appalling according to eyewitness accounts.

“They (Jayaraj and Bennicks) came out of the station with torn pieces of cloth and were covered in blood,” said their friend Rajkumar. “Between 7 am and 12 pm on June 20, the father and son had changed at least seven lungies each as they had become wet due to blood oozing from their rectum.”

The hospital refused to give them fitness certificates, alleges Rajkumar. But the inspector of Sathankulam, forced the attending doctor to issue a certificate stating that the duo were fine.

Jayaraj and Bennicks were then produced before the Judicial Magistrate P Saravanan but the police allegedly placed them at a strategic distance from him, because of which he could not/did not see the true extent of the damage inflicted upon them. The magistrate ordered for them to be placed in a 14-day judicial remand. The same evening, both Bennick and Jayaram were admitted to the Kovilpetty General Hospital as their conditions worsened, leading to their eventual deaths.

Bennick’s elder sister Persis confirmed the witness accounts to reporters, when asked about the condition of the bodies.

Munnadiyum pinnadiyum onnume illeh (there was nothing left of the front and rear of their bodies),” she said. “As a girl and as an elder sibling, I cannot describe it at all. They were severely tortured and killed. I didn’t even tell my mother of this. We need justice. It should not happen to any other family.”

As details have unfolded over the last few days, people in Tamil Nadu have been up in arms against police brutality and custodial deaths. In response to the raging protests, especially in Tuticorin, the Madurai Bench of the Madras High Court ordered a video-graphed post-mortem, which was conducted in the presence of a three-member medical team. The chief minister Edapaddi K. Palaniswami announced INR 10 lakhs as compensation for each of the victims.

Meanwhile, the two policemen held responsible for the deaths have been suspended and the inspector of Sathankulam is being kept under compulsory wait. The next hearing will be on June 30.

According to data of the National Human Rights Commission of India (NHRC), 1,589 cases of custodial deaths (police and judicial) were registered between January and November, 2019 alone. The Asian Center for Human Rights (ACHR) reported that in the year 2017-18, five people died each day in judicial and police custody.

The cases of custodial torture that doesn’t end in death, are perhaps even higher but vastly underreported because of the fear of police backlash for speaking out. And since the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) maintains no data on custodial torture, it is difficult to make even an educated guess. Several reports on custodial violence suggest that such excessive force is often reserved for Dalits, Adivasis, and other marginalized communities.

However, news reports and local on-ground information make it clear that custodial violence is a highly common malpractice that plagues most police departments across the country. This, despite the existence of laws that prohibit such excesses by any part of the state machinery.

In 1997, India became a signatory of the UN Convention against Torture or Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (UNCAT). But it hasn’t been ratified yet, which is why India is not legally obligated to create laws that align with the convention’s provisions.

Despite claiming to be the land of Buddha and Mahavira, in the mainstream Indian narrative, torture remains a necessary evil, and an-eye-for-an-eye remains the crude ideal of justice.

This bloodthirsty, retributive idea of justice is the root cause of weak anti-torture legislation in India.

The hashtag #JusticeForJayarajAndFenix is trending on Twitter, but one wonders if this will lead to a people’s movement like the #BlackLivesMatter in the United States.

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Published: 27 Jun 2020, 9:31 AM