Sathankulam custodial deaths: Plea in Madras HC to constitute effective Police Complaints Authorities
It is noted that according to a report based on the Central government’s statistics, there were 76 custodial deaths in Tamil Nadu in 2018, the highest among the southern state
In the wake of the Sathankulam custodial deaths, a petition has been filed in the Madras High Court urging for directions towards establishing effective Police Complaints Authorities (PCA) and to strike down provisions of the Tamil Nadu Police (Reforms) Act, 2013 which are argued to have diluted the powers of the PCA.
The petition moved by AG Maurya, general secretary of the political party Makkal Neethi Maiam highlights the need for police reforms in Tamil Nadu in the backdrop of various instances of police excesses in the state.
"The state of Tamil Nadu has maintained an abysmal record in checking police excesses and custodial deaths... custodial violence has been a burning issue national wide, with the state of Tamil Nadu unfortunately featuring high among the human rights violators absent an adequate institutional mechanism to identify and counsel troubled officers and prevent such crimes trough proper independent supervision," the petition states.
It is noted that according to a report based on the Central government’s statistics, there were 76 custodial deaths in Tamil Nadu in 2018, the highest among the southern state. Of these, 65 died in judicial custody, it is noted.
It is pointed out that the Supreme Court in Supreme Court in Prakash Singh & Ors. v. UOI & Ors had had issued guidelines for police reforms to be complied with until appropriate legislation was put in place.
This included the setting up of a Police Complaints Authorities at district and state level to look into complaints made against police officers. Inter alia, the court had also clarified that there must be effective functioning of the PCA with members who “work whole time”, the petitioner states.
However, it is pointed out that it was only seven years later in 2013 that the State Government finally brought out the Tamil Nadu Police (Reforms) Act, 2013. Even then, it is contended that the legislation existed merely on paper.
Pertinently, the petitioner has contended that the powers of the PCA as originally envisioned by the Supreme Court has been diluted in the 2013 Act in the following ways, i.e.:
• There is a difference in the members specified to be appointed to constitute the PCA
• Involvement of the Superintendent and the Additional Superintendent of Police as part of the PCA
• Recommendations of the PCA are not binding on the State Government
• Reports of gross or serious misconduct against police officers can be looked into by a Police Complaints Division, which comprises of serving police officers themselves
• The Act strips the Police Complaints Authority of their powers of investigation and even field enquiry, with a staff of their own, as envisaged by the Supreme Court and instead provides the fulcrum of investigative powers with the Police Complaints Division which consists of serving police officers.
Raising grievance to the ineffective implementation of the Prakash Singh ruling, the petitioner asserts that, "There exists and urgent need for an independent dedicated authority that can effectively investigate and prosecute instances of serious misconduct by police officials… In the absence of such an authority, there is a risk of such heinous crimes repeating and/or continuing unchallenged."
Referring to the recent Sathankulam custodial deaths, the petitioner submits, "The need for an impartial and effective Police Complaints Authorities has been further exacerbated by the recent custodial deaths of Mr Jayaraj and Mr Bennix who were allegedly brutalised by police officers for keeping their mobile shop open after the permitted time."
Other incidents of police excesses cited by the petitioner to buttress his case include the following:
• Death of N Kumaresan while the custody of the Veerakeralampudur Police;
• The 2018 massacre of 13 unarmed protestors in Thoothukudi amid demonstrations against the Sterlite Copper Factory;
• The custodial rape of a woman in Udumalaipettai police station in 2015;
• Custodial death of Anthonisamy in 1995.
The petitioner adds that "While some measure of reactive justice is achieved in some of these cases due to public or media outrage, proactive or actual institutional reform by the State Government has been sorely wanting, despite being urgently needed."
Therefore, the court has now been urged to issue directions to:
• Implement and enforce the directives laid down in Prakash Singh’s case
• Declare Sections 10, 13, 14 (2), 16 and 19 of the Tamil Nadu Police (Reforms) Act, 2013 as unconstitutional, illegal and bad in law.