With a history of brutality in handling suspects in custody, the ongoing lockdown has empowered the Tamil Nadu police – also the state bureaucracy. Various incidents are coming to light, but the death of a father and son in Sathankulam, Thoothukudi district, allegedly due to police excesses in custody, has created outrage across the state.
A highly disturbing video of the father, Jayaraj, hung by a rope, with a lathi inserted into his rectum, is being circulated on social media. The violation of human rights by the police is being defended by the state government.
Political parties and human-rights organisations have demanded that perpetrators in the police department be booked under Section 302 of the Indian Penal Code (Punishment for murder). The demand for an enquiry into the role of a few ‘Friends of Police’ volunteers is also being mooted in connection with the incident.
Picked up for an Alleged Lockdown Violation
Jayaraj was picked up by the police on June 19 for not shutting down his mobile shop on time, on the night of June 18. The shop was reportedly kept open till 8.15 pm, fifteen minutes beyond the time permitted by the lockdown. On being informed that his father had been picked up by the police, Fenix, his son, rushed to the police station.
The son was detained by the police as well, after he questioned them for the reason behind his father’s arrest, leading to an altercation. The duo was then allegedly beaten up by the police before being produced before the magistrate at 2 a.m. on June 20.
The manhandling allegedly continued later, up to 2.30 p.m. the same day. They were finally admitted to a hospital in the evening, for treatment. The injuries they suffered in custody finally led to the death of Fenix on the night of June 22, while Jayaraj succumbed early morning on June 23.
Family Alleges Sexual Torture
The relatives and friends of the duo gathered in front of the police station, asking for an explanation for the physical torture they endured. Their clothes were soaked in blood and they were repeatedly beaten on their back, leading to severe internal and external injuries.
The family members of the deceased also alleged that they were subjected to sexual torture while in custody. Both of them were bleeding from the rectum; their clothes required frequent changing.
Thoothukudi District Secretary of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) (CPI(M)) K.S. Arjunan said: “The family members informed us of the police asking for dark-coloured clothes to hide the excessive bleeding they suffered in custody. They were brutally attacked while in custody, showing third-grade methods followed by the state police.”
‘Magistrate Failed to Verify Physically’
The father and son were produced before the district magistrate by 2 a.m. on June 20. The magistrate, however, allowed them to be taken to the Kovilpatti Sub Jail, without verifying their physical condition. Why they were sent to Kovilpatti, more than 120 kilometres (kms) away, instead of being lodged in the district jail (64 kms) or Thiruchandur Sub Jail (34 kms), which are close by, is also being raised.
“The police made the victims stand behind them. Instead of checking on their physical state, he allowed them to be taken into custody. The magistrate should have instead sent them to hospital for treatment. The lethargic approach has led to the death of two people,” added Arjunan.
K. Chandru former judge of the Madras High Court, has demanded the dismissal of the magistrate for not following the Supreme Court’s direction on permitting arrest, said a report in The Indian Express.
Meanwhile, the state government denied any police high-handedness in the lead up to the deaths. Ministers in the state government rejected the allegation of custodial deaths, with one claiming only deaths that occur in police stations should be considered as custodial deaths.
However, the Thoothukudi District Superintendent of Police has suspended two sub-inspectors, Balakrishnan and Raghuganesh, and two constables and transferred the circle inspector attached to the police station. Two FIRs have been filed against the cops involved in the incident, but no charges of murder have been registered.
The demand for a probe into the role of the inspector of police, Sridhar, has been asked for. A video, in which the inspector, seemingly under the influence of alcohol, was seen addressing the agitating family and friends, has also been uploaded on social media.
The family members and traders also alleged that a few members of the ‘Friends of Police’, a voluntary organisation helping the police, were also involved in the incident. The Madras High Court has taken suo-moto action; it has ordered a probe and demanded the district superintendent to file a status report immediately.
Support Pours in for Family
The custodial death of the duo garnered unconditional support from across the country, with many celebrities condemning the incident and demanding a detailed enquiry. Traders across the state downed their shutters in protest of the brutal deaths.
The CPI(M) led a protest in the city against police brutality. The state secretary of the party, K. Balakrishnan, was detained for holding a protest in Cuddalore district as part of a state-wide protest on June 26. The CPI(M) General Secretary, Sitaram Yechury, demanded a minimum of Rs 1 crore as relief for the family, and demanded political accountability.
Member of the Lok Sabha from Thoothukudi and Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam leader, K. Kanimozhi, met the family of the victims and handed over Rs 25 lakhs on behalf of the party. The party has also demanded an enquiry from the National Human Rights Commission.
Despite denying any police brutality, the state government sanctioned Rs 20 lakhs as relief to the family.
High Number of Police Brutality Cases in State
The state occupied the second spot for the number of custodial deaths in the country in 2018, next only to Gujarat. The Tamil Nadu police are known for using torture on suspects. Recent incidents of suspects slipping in bathrooms and fracturing their hands were widely reported.
During the COVID-19 lockdown, police officials were seen harassing those violating curfew by locking them in ambulances with ‘fake’ COVID-19 patients, for creating awareness.
Even while the Sathankulam incident has gained national attention, an auto driver in Tenkasi district has allegedly died due to police brutality.