Covid-19 is wreaking havoc in Tamil Nadu, with the State recording second highest number of cases in the country. It has now hit the headlines for the notoriety of its police force. The heart-wrenching story of Jayaraj and his son Benicks who were tortured to death by the police in Tuticorin sends shivers down the spine. Their bodies bore bruises all over and their clothes were soaked in blood. Their crime: Alleged violation of lockdown timing. As details of this ruthless police action are emerging, more skeletons are tumbling out of the cupboards of other police stations in the State. Often such extra-judicial incidents are swept under the carpet. As a newspaper reported, it is a practice for the police in Tamil Nadu to cite “slippery toilets” at the stations as the culprit whenever people in custody are left with fractures and bruises.
Custodial deaths are an affront to people’s right to life. The Supreme Court has time and again qualified such incidents as contempt of police towards human life. The apex court has on several occasions torn into police atrocities and made police personnel face the consequences. But judicial censures have not made the expected impact on police personnel, especially at the lower rank. Those who tasted blood refuse to refrain from their dastardly acts. In Jayaraj-Benicks case, the initial action of the judiciary too left much to be desired. The Magistrate, who dealt with the case, apparently failed to apply his mind while accepting the police’s plea for remand.
As in every case of torture in police custody, here too efforts have been made to destroy evidences and save the culprits. The police personnel at the station have refused to hand over relevant documents to those entrusted to conduct the enquiry. Hence the Madras High Court had to resort to the unprecedented action of asking revenue officers to take over the police station. The court also asked the Crime Branch CID to take over the case from the Tuticorin police until the CBI, to whom the case has been handed over, takes charge. This has resulted in the arrest of four police personnel and charging them with murder.
There is no dearth of suggestions by commissions and committees to make the police act responsibly. The Supreme Court has laid down detailed ‘commandments’ for the police to follow during arrest. However, the Tamil Nadu incident reveals that people continue to be at the receiving end of police lathis, batons and boots; and there are police lock-ups where devils rule the roost. What we saw at the Sathankulam police station is nothing less than what the entire world witnessed in Minneapolis in the U.S. where George Floyd breathed his last under the knees of a white police officer. The government and the judiciary should make sure that more lives would not be snuffed out by the guardians of citizens.
However, one cannot paint the entire police force with the same black brush. Across the country, they have rendered yeomen services during the Covid pandemic. There are innumerable cases, like the one reported from Uttar Pradesh, where police personnel have sacrificed their lives in the line of duty. A few rotten apples should not be allowed to spoil the barrel.(Published on 06th July 2020, Volume XXXII, Issue 28)