Thoothukudi custodial deaths: How the Tamil Nadu media prompted action against the cops
Media

Thoothukudi custodial deaths: How the Tamil Nadu media prompted action against the cops

Media reports emphatically condemned the deaths of Jayaraj and Bennix, pointing out how the police’s version was ‘mysterious’ and ‘suspicious’.

By Swathi J Reddy

Published on :

The custodial deaths of two men in Tamil Nadu’s Thoothukudi district has spotlighted police brutality in India. P Jayaraj, 59, a timber trader, and his son J Bennix, 31, who ran a mobile phone shop, were allegedly brutally tortured and killed in Sathankulam town on June 23, sparking outrage across social media.

The police cited lockdown violations as the reason behind the arrests, and also claimed that both deaths were due to medical issues.

But the constant pressure built by the media over the last two weeks forced the administration to take action against officials at the Sathankulam police station. A probe has been initiated, the case has been transferred to the Central Bureau of Investigation, and five police officials have been arrested so far.

This is the second instance of police brutality in Thoothukudi in recent times. In 2018, 13 people were killed in police firing during a protest against the proposed expansion of the Sterlite copper smelting plant. In the case of Jayaraj and Bennix, details emerged on how they were allegedly assaulted, physically and sexually, by police personnel, leading to their deaths.

Media reports in Tamil Nadu emphatically stated that the custodial deaths should not go unpunished, and that the deaths must not be attributed to suicide, health issues, or natural causes. There was some speculation while piecing together the timeline of events, but news organisations remained vocal in their condemnation of the police.

Here’s a rundown of how some of the major media houses reported on the deaths.

The Hindu

The top half of the front page of the Chennai edition of the Hindu on June 24, a day after the deaths, was devoted to the China-India conflict in Ladakh. The custodial deaths featured in the bottom half, with details from relatives on how father and son were assaulted.

The story quoted a relative as saying: “While the police brutally assaulted Bennix and inserted a baton into his anus that triggered uncontrolled bleeding, they smashed Jayaraj and kicked him on his chest multiple times.” It included the police’s version of events: that Bennix purportedly had “heart ailments” and Jayaraj was “running a high fever when he was arrested”.

An editorial on June 26, titled “Senseless deaths: On Tamil Nadu custodial deaths”, said: “If the death of Jayaraj and Benicks are ultimately established as custodial murder as a result of torture or assault by the police, it would only mean that the problem is much deeper than the mere lack of professionalism in investigative methods. It might indicate a different pathology among police officials that makes them inflict violence and harm against the weak.”

The editorial also flagged the “failure to have guidelines to handle lockdown violations”.

Dina Thanthi

On June 24, the front page of Tamil Nadu’s largest-selling Tamil newspaper, Dina Thanthi, predominantly filled with ads, with a brief story on the India-China conflict. Jayaraj and Bennix’s deaths featured on Page 3, headlined: “Father, son died in custody. Relatives who were in protest claim that the duo died because of police attack.”

An editorial on June 25 called for the need for changes in the police and their training. “The Sathankulam incident is not just an incident that should pass by. We need to ensure that this is not going to happen in future. The steps by the government and police department to bring justice to the family would be monitored closely, and by upholding justice, both the government and the police department can gain the people’s confidence.”

Dinamalar

Tamil daily Dinamalar carried the custodial deaths on its front page on June 24, in an abbreviated story with basic details of what had happened in Sathankulam. The prominent story on the front page was about an ongoing case in the Madras High Court on school fees.

The paper’s subsequent coverage was thorough, including this letter from a reader. Titled “A drop of poison in a pot of milk”, it said: “We are not against all the policemen. Some really save lives that are in danger, but some black sheep out there need to be eliminated, or else the department will be like a milk pot that has a drop of poison.”

The Times of India

An editorial on June 29 called Jeyaraj and Bennix “our George Floyds”.

It said: “In a country where the police to population ratio is well below ideal and the judiciary is inundated with backlog cases, police malpractice isn’t uncommon. These factors have been further compounded by the Covid-19 induced restrictions...According to the National Human Rights Commission report for 2017-18, around 15 cases of custodial violence and torture were reported every day with nine people dying every 24 hours in judicial and police custody. This can only be addressed through police reforms, including boosting police numbers, better training and prosecution of custodial malpractice.”

The New Indian Express

From the start, the New Indian Express placed the custodial deaths at the forefront of its reports. On June 25, for example, the newspaper pieced together eyewitness accounts and accounts from friends of Jayaraj and Bennix. It also reported in detail on how the two police sub-inspectors suspected in the deaths have a history of being summoned by the state human rights commission, alongside other stories of alleged custodial deaths in Tamil Nadu.

In an editorial on July 3, the New Indian Express said there is an "urgent need" for reforms in the police force. "Their disproportionate powers have been drawn from the Police Act, 1861, a draconian legislation brought into effect after the revolt of 1857. The present lockdown seems to have made them more aggressive, which is not done as the restrictions ought to be people-driven."

The Indian Express

Apart from reports on what happened, the Indian Express wrote about Jeyaraj and Bennix in its “Explained” section, noting:

“Historically, the Tamil Nadu police is notorious for highhandedness and third-degree torture methods. Senior officers would call it a normalised practice for several decades, from the British era. In Chennai city, it is a normalised practice for police sources to release photos of the accused in police custody with fractured arms and legs. ‘Slippery toilets’ at the station would be cited as a reason for their fractures, the same would be reported to the magistrate during the remand process, a normalised extra-judicial punishment ‘to criminal elements’...”

Television debates

While the print media condemned the deaths through their editorials, the broadcast media took the issue directly to its audiences. Every single news channel covered the deaths extensively, including primetime debates on police brutality.

Thanthi TV

Thanthi TV, which is part of the Dina Thanthi family, was one of the first news organisations to break the news at 11 am on June 23.

“A father-son duo, taken into custody by the police in Sathankulam for violating the lockdown restrictions, died suddenly. This incident is really shocking,” the news report began. “What exactly happened? How did the father and son die?”

The channel’s reporter, Dhamodharan, noted that father and son had been locked up in the Kovilpatti sub-jail on the morning of June 20. Bennix died of a heart attack at a government hospital on the night of June 22, he continued, while Jayaraj died the following morning.

The channel conducted a primetime debate on June 24 on who should be held responsible for the deaths. “After this, no custodial deaths should happen, and the affected should get justice,” the anchor said. “Not just one life, the family lost two lives. That is very painful. Justice for the affected is the need of the hour.”

Thanthi TV also aired an interview with an autorickshaw driver, who was an eyewitness to what happened on June 19 in Sathankulam. “The FIR is fabricated,” he said.

Even when the channel moved on to coverage of Covid-19 and India-China, it continued airing bulletins with updates on the case.

News18 Tamil Nadu

One of Tamil Nadu’s leading news channels, News18 Tamil Nadu covered the deaths in detail, calling them “mysterious” right from the start. The case was front and centre of its “crime time” bulletin, and debates were conducted on custodial deaths.

In a special crime bulletin on June 23, the anchor said: “The father-son duo who was kept in police custody died, and their death is a suspicious one. Relatives complained that both were brutally beaten to death with lathis by the police. Will action be taken against them?”

On June 24, the tickers on most channels were dominated by the Covid-19 outbreak and the lockdown in Madurai, but News18 Tamil Nadu included the Sathankulam deaths in its morning bulletin. The anchor reiterated that the deaths were “suspicious”, and cited relatives as saying they were due to “excessive police brutality”.

The report quoted Jayaraj’s sister as saying: “My brother said, ‘If I got 100 beatings from the police, my son got 250.’ The people residing on the street [near the police station] could hear Bennix’s cries. He was bleeding from the rectum. Even when they changed his lungi, the chair he sat on was soaked with blood.”

Puthiyathalaimurai

Puthiyathalaimurai aired a series of debates and reports on Jayaraj and Bennix. A report on June 23 said that the state human rights commission had sought a detailed report on the Sathankulam custodial deaths, based on coverage by Puthiyathalaimurai and other channels.

A debate on June 25 on deaths in police custody included an advocate as a panellist, who asked: “Who holds the responsibility? The chief minister, as the head of the police department, has to answer. It’s not natural. It is a brutal killing. If you see the records, two of the so-called police officers have many pending cases with the human rights commission since 2012..."Independent media is on the frontlines of the coronavirus crisis in India, as elsewhere, telling stories that need to be told and asking questions that need answers. Support independent journalists by paying to keep news free. Subscribe to Newslaundry today.

As matters stand now, the crime branch of the state’s Criminal Investigation Department has amended the FIR filed in the case to include charges of murder. Though the state government has transferred the case to the CBI, the Madurai bench of the Madras High Court directed the crime branch to begin its investigation in the interim, fearing that evidence might be “lost or tampered with”.

A woman police officer from the Sathankulam police station also gave evidence to the Kovilpatti judicial magistrate that both Jayaraj and Bennix had been brutally assaulted.

Update: This piece has been updated to include coverage by the New Indian Express.

Swathi J Reddy is a freelance journalist and a member of 101Reporters.

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Independent media is on the frontlines of the coronavirus crisis in India, as elsewhere, telling stories that need to be told and asking questions that need answers. Support independent journalists by paying to keep news free. Subscribe to Newslaundry today.

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