They were transferred first. But as public outrage mounted, the policemen were reluctantly suspended. And after the Madras High Court referred to the eyewitness account of torture by a Head Constable, the five policemen accused of torturing Jeyaraj Ponraj and his 31-year-old son Beniks Jeyaraj were finally arrested 10 days after the two had died.
Policemen attached to the Sattankulam police station in Tamil Nadu’s Tuticorin district had arrested the duo because they had allegedly kept their mobile accessories shop open beyond permissible hours.
After filing a First Information Report (FIR) against the father and son, the police allegedly battered them in custody till their skin pealed and their knee caps shattered. They were also reportedly inflicted sexual injuries, leading to their deaths, Beniks succumbing to his injuries on 22 June and his father passed away the following morning.
Indians have of late been revolted by the unprecedented acts of violence by the police against the public, which has included migrant workers, students, peaceful protestors, journalists, civil society and social media activists, minorities, and even children and women with infants.
Unlike the United States, where people stung by George Floyd’s murder by a white policeman, have hit the street in protest and a mass movement driven by the slogan, Black Lives Matter, has unsettled President Donald Trump’s election campaign, sporadic protests in India have petered out.
Police brutality was most trenchant when millions of migrant workers deprived of work and resources by the abruptly imposed lockdown stepped out in their desperation to return home or earn a living.
Policemen in Mumbai and many other places also overturned pushcarts laden with fruits and vegetables, while farm produce rotted in open trucks at places where they were blockaded by the police.Police in Bihar shot a truck-driver in the foot when he refused to pay a bribe of Rs5,000 to allow his vehicle to transit.
Dismissing in April a plea for guidelines to restrain the police from assaulting those who ventured out during the lockdown, a three-judge bench of the Supreme Court observed that the police authorities were working hard to implement the lockdown order and would be unsuccessful without the cooperation of the citizens.
Police highhandedness became recently institutionalised when the force was unleashed nationwide against protesters rallying against the discriminatory Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) introduced by the BJP-led government. At least 23 protesters died in police action in Uttar Pradesh and 53 lost their lives during the agitations in New Delhi.
The “Status of Policing in India Report 2019”, jointly prepared and sponsored by Common Cause, Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS), Tata Trusts and Lal Family Foundation, points out, “Unfortunately, India has not only failed to ratify the UN’s convention on human torture, but has also refrained from passing the Prevention of Torture Bill, 2017.”
It added, “…India’s future as a democracy and an economic powerhouse cannot be secured by an obsolete criminal justice system where the police work for the rulers of the day and not for the real masters, the people of the country.”
Policemen have been encouraged to take law in their own hands by provocative statements and slogans raised by political leaders. At an election rally in Jharkhand last December, as protests against the CAA were intensifying, the Prime Minister had declared that the people “creating violence” could be “identified by their clothes”, a reference to the traditional attire of Muslims.
Home Minister Amit Shah, in turn, warned, “The tukde-tukde (rag tag) gang led by the Congress Party is responsible for violence in Delhi and the time has come to teach them a lesson.” Modi too had blamed the Congress for the protests in the national capital, declaring at an election rally, “The Congress and its allies — some urban Naxals — are spreading rumours that all Muslims will be sent to detention centres.”
The police have neither taken cognisance of any of these provocations by political leaders, nor have restrained the use of terms like “deshkegaddaron”, tukde-tukde gang” and “urban naxals” etc. that can instigate violence.
Never before have police been this brutal, so unaccountable, and so brazen in India, while being seemingly indoctrinated to serve their political masters at the cost of the public at large.
The Status of Policing in India Report reveals that many policemen themselves believe that common people hesitate to approach them even in times of need, that they would not advise their daughters to go alone to a police station outside their jurisdiction, that killing dangerous criminals is better than a legal trial, and that there is nothing wrong in the police beating up criminals to extract confessions.
Releasing its annual Crime in India Report (2017) last October, after a delay of two years, the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) noted that 786 civilians had been killed and 3,990 injured in police action, the number of killings being more than six times the number in 2016, with the number of those injured being nearly four-fold.
Casualties caused by police action have surged since 2015, civilian deaths tripling between 2015 and 2016 and spiralling by six times the next year. The tally of those injured has rocketed from 39 in 2015 to 1,110 in 2016, and then more than tripled in 2017.
A plea by eminent lawyer Prashant Bhushan seeking urgent hearing for implementing the 2006 verdict on police reforms was deferred by the Supreme Court last February.
The apex court, while deciding the PIL filed by two former DGPs in 2006, had issued several directions, ranging from fixed two-year tenures for state police chiefs and merit-based and transparent appointments of police officers.
It had also recommended a state security commission to ensure that the government does not exercise unwarranted influence on the police, and had ordered the setting up of a Police Establishment Board to decide on transfers, postings, promotions and other service-related matters of police officers of the rank of Deputy Superintendents of Police (DSPs) and below.
The court had also ordered setting up of a Police Complaints Authority in each state to look into complaints against officers of and above the rank of SP in cases of serious misconduct, including custodial death, grievous hurt or rape in police custody.