When J Persis was offered a government job in July, she could not bring herself to work in the town she grew up in.
The job was that of a junior assistant in the revenue department, offered as part of the compensation for a tragedy that had struck her family. Her brother J Beniks and father P Jeyaraj were allegedly tortured to death by the Tamil Nadu police.
The taluk office at Sattankulam, Thoothukudi, where Persis could have chosen to work, is located right opposite the police station, where the alleged torture took place.
“I did not want to be reminded of the incident while going to work everyday,” said Persis, 34.
The family home in Sattankulam also contained memories of her parents and brother. She herself lived in Vijayawada with her husband, and had made the 24-hour journey by road during the lockdown when she heard the news of her brother’s death. By the time she had reached home, her father was dead too. “Living in that house will be a constant reminder of that,” she said.
So, Persis packed her bags and moved to Puliyangudi in Tenkasi district, over 100 km away. She took along her three daughters, her mother and Jeyaraj’s widow, J Selvarani. They live in a house belonging to her husband, set at the end of a narrow lane which stretches from an unpaved road near a church. And Persis plans to stay here for the foreseeable future. She got a government job at the Kadayanallur taluk office, and travels about 15 km every day to work and back.
But the tragedy that engulfed her family is far from behind them.
‘Justice should not be delayed’
On the night of June 19, Jeyaraj, 58, and his son Beniks, 31, were taken away by the police from their mobile accessories shop in Sattankulam. Their offence was trivial: their shop was open past curfew, in violation of the Covid regulations issued during the lockdown to contain the pandemic.
Jeyaraj was picked up and Beniks was asked to follow them to the police station. There, according to news , they were severely thrashed and sodomised.
The next day, they were taken to the Sattankulam government hospital before being produced before a magistrate, who reportedly did not examine their injuries and sent them to a sub-jail for custody. The family discovered what had happened only two days later when Jeyaraj and Benks were admitted to the Kovilpatti government hospital. Here, Beniks died on June 22 and his father succumbed the next day.
A public outcry followed. A raft of politicians from across parties visited the family, including state information and publicity minister Kadambur C Raju, Thoothukudi MP Kanimozhi Karunanidhi, DMK leader Udhayanidhi Stalin, and Tamil Maanila Congress chief GK Vasan. The Madurai bench of the Madras High Court initiated suo motu proceedings.
Ten police officers, ranking from constable to inspector, were arrested. Nine of them are currently in prison, one has died of Covid.
The Central Bureau of Investigation took over the case in July from the state police’s criminal investigation department. The CBI filed its chargesheet against the accused on September 26, shortly before the expiry of the 90-day period after which the accused are eligible for statutory bail. The charges include murder and wrongful confinement.
Persis hopes for justice at the earliest.
“Imagine this: a father was beaten in front of the son, and the son was tortured in front of the father,” she said. “How much would they have suffered, physically and emotionally? Shouldn’t they get the harshest punishment?”
Persis (right) and her mother Selvarani.
Her mother, Selvarani, painfully recounted how Beniks’s wedding had been postponed after the lockdown was imposed in March. “We were planning the wedding in the month of Avani,” she said, referring to the period between August and September.
The family hadn’t expected Beniks and Jeyaraj to die; even after hearing about the torture they hoped they would recover after treatment.
“My daughters keep asking me if her uncle would never talk to them or video call them again,” said Persis. Her eyes welled up and she fought to regain composure.
“Justice should not be delayed,” she added. “And it should not only help us, but also serve as a lesson for others.”
But she feels the sense of “urgency” about ensuring justice that followed the deaths has dissipated. “Once things settle down, everyone forgets about the incident except the family of the victims, like in the case of the anti-Sterlite protests.”
The protests against the Sterlite Copper plant in Thoothukudi took place in 2018, culminating in the police shooting dead 13 people and leaving many permanently disabled. The CBI’s in its investigation into the incident does not inspire confidence. This confidence ebbs even further when you look at the track record of convictions in cases of custodial deaths.
An ugly history of police brutality
From 2014 to 2018, Tamil Nadu reported at least 35 custodial deaths. And none of the accused has been convicted so far, according to data from the National Crime Records Bureau. The nationwide record is equally abysmal: there were 452 deaths in the same period and no conviction.
The numbers might actually be much higher.
From April 1, 2019 to March 30, 2020, the National Human Rights Commission recorded 1,697 custodial deaths across India, 1,584 of them in judicial custody and 113 in police custody. Tamil Nadu had the ninth highest tally — 12 deaths in police custody and 57 in judicial — after Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, West Bengal, Bihar, Punjab, Maharashtra, Rajasthan and Haryana, according to the home ministry’s to a question by Congress MP Karti Chidambaram.
The official records do not reflect the myriad cases of grievous hurt and injury in custody. In fact, countless cases do not see the light of day.
Off the top of her head, Persis listed a handful of other torture cases from Thoothudi district — S Mahendran, 29, from Peikulam, who , and S Raja Singh, who was . They were both allegedly tortured by the same Sattankulam police.
Then there’s Martin from Sattankulam, who, again, was by the Sattankulam police in August. In September, S Selvan, a lorry driver, was by the police after his brothers filed an affidavit alleging that they had been tortured in police custody. In Tenkasi, an auto driver named N Kumaresan died on June 27 by the police.
In early June, Habeeb Mohammed of Kayalpattinam after being assaulted by the police. News reports stated that Habeeb, an auto driver, was detained by the Arumuganeri police for blowing smoke in a police officer’s face when he was confronted for entering a Covid containment zone without wearing a mask.
“I was taken to the police station and beaten with a plastic pipe on my bottom, thighs, feet,” Habeeb told Newslaundry. “After hitting me on my feet, they asked me to jump up and down, and do sit-ups. A woman officer also kicked me in my face.”
Seriously injured, Habeeb took over 90 minutes to trudge back home. On another day, it would have taken him 15-20 minutes to cover the distance, he said.
Habeeb went to a private hospital, but when the doctors found out that it was a case of police torture, they sent him to the Kayalpattinam government hospital. There, he referred to the Thoothukudi Medical College Hospital. At Kayalpattinam, though, his case was noted in the accident register and the local police were informed as per the protocol.
“The police arrived and threatened us, and even sent away the ambulance that was summoned to take me to the Thoothukudi Medical College Hospital,” said Habeeb.
Finally, he sought treatment at a private hospital where he was told he had rhabdomyolysis, caused by muscle injury, which results in the release of a damaging protein into the blood, leading to kidney damage. The doctor told him he needed dialysis and his family shelled out over ₹1.7 lakh on around 13 dialysis procedures. Though his dialysis has now stopped, he is still on medication.
On June 29, Habeeb’s family filed a complaint at the Arumuganeri police station, overcoming their initial reluctance to report the incident. The family made up their mind to pursue the case after a panel advocate was nominated by the district legal services authority for legal assistance to Habeeb, after a petition was filed by Tiphagne. However, no action was taken, said Mohammed Salihu, secretary of the Mass Empowerment and Guidance Association, or MEGA, a local NGO. Family members had contacted MEGA a few days after Habeeb’s assault, asking for help.
On July 22, the family approached the superintendent of police, S Jeyakumar. Still, an FIR was not filed.
Finally, the family approached the court of the Tiruchendur judicial magistrate, who ordered an FIR to be filed against the accused police officers, two of whom were subsequently transferred out.
“Incidentally, the then Tiruchendur DSP, who visited the family to convince the family against pursuing the case, has also been transferred,” said MEGA’s Salihu.
There have been allegations of evidence tampering as well. “A line mentioning that the incident took place at the Arumuganeri police station has been crossed out in a duplicate copy of the accident register sourced through an RTI from the government hospital, while a picture of the original copy mentions that the injury took place at the station,” said Salihu.
Habeeb, along with MEGA, has been demanding an investigation by the crime branch. The inquiry is currently being led by a deputy superintendent of police attached to its anti-land grabbing cell.
But police brutality and impunity is an endemic problem in Tamil Nadu. Under the Code of Criminal Procedure, custodial deaths are typically followed by magisterial inquiries, but policy responses from the state or police departments are rare. However, a , stating that arrests can be deferred except in heinous crimes, and suspects arrested in non-bailable cases should be taken to a sub-divisional detention centres instead of a police station. This came after the that a high-level committee comprising the chief secretary, home secretary, and law secretary would be created to implement the standard operating procedure to be followed by the police in the aftermath of the custodial deaths.
Additionally, track records of statutory forums to deal with issues like these leave a lot to be desired. The state police complaints authority, for example, was set up in 2019 to look into allegations of misconduct in police custody, to do so. In brazen violation of the apex court’s directive, the Tamil Nadu authority is chaired by the home secretary instead of a former high court judge. Its members include the additional general of police, law and order, and the director general of police — the very representatives of the people it is meant to hold accountable.
Similarly, district-level bodies under the police complaints authority are to be headed by retired district judges. In Tamil Nadu, these are headed by collectors.
The National Human Rights Commission too has been criticised for its inaction in cases of human rights violations. “NHRC has a record of ordering compensation over the last 25 years without a single case of recommendation for prosecution,” said Henri Tiphagne, executive director of the People’s Watch, a human rights organisation based in Madurai.
People’s Watch is one of the intervenors in the suo motu PIL filed in connection with the Sattankulam custodial deaths in the Madras High Court. Following the deaths, 90 organisations in Tamil Nadu and Puducherry, including 23 political parties and movements, floated a forum called the Joint Action Against Custodial Torture.
“The forum does not campaign against torture. We are here to fight torture,” Tiphagne said. “Therefore, we have taken up several cases of torture and are following them up directly or indirectly.”
Some interventions, but not nearly enough
On June 29, less than a week after the deaths of Jeyaraj and Beniks, V Balakrishnan, a senior police officer, decided to take some action.
Balakrishnan, then the deputy inspector general of Tiruchi, announced a counselling programme for 80 police personnel in his range who needed “behavioural correction”, who had records that were “found wanting”. Police personnel were selected on the basis of their previous conduct, intelligence inputs, and complaints from the public.
Balakrishnan didn’t see his pet project through — he was transferred the next day — but soon a group of police personnel gathered in Tiruchi for counselling sessions with experts from the National Institute of Mental Health and Neuro-Sciences, among others.
“The police were under a lot of stress during the Covid lockdown period which they weren’t able to handle. During the programme, we handled sessions on personality development and stress management,” said P Anitha, assistant professor at Tiruchi’s Holy Cross College, who handled some of these sessions.
Yet, this was not what Balakrishnan had in mind.
“We had planned to provide cognitive behavioural therapy for a month to the police personnel to bring out changes in their behaviour. For this, we devised a module with the help of psychologists, which consists of classroom training, simulated exercises, and other activities. If you have to change any habit, it takes at least three weeks. Unless you do it over a period of time, the behaviour may not change,” said Balakrishnan, currently a joint commissioner with the Greater Chennai police.
On July 2, the Madras High Court directed the government to continue these police wellbeing programmes in collaboration with NIMHANS. But how effective are these interventions when it comes to police brutality?
“While counselling of policemen is important to improve the mental health of police officers who are under tremendous pressure, we shouldn’t confuse this with violent, unlawful and corrupt behaviour of police officials,” pointed out V Suresh, general secretary of the People’s Union for Civil Liberties. “One should not whitewash corrupt behaviour or violent police response in the name of mental health.”
Importantly, while individual police officers and private organisations have taken well-intentioned steps, there has been no concerted effort by the government to tackle the problem.
Suresh also pointed out the lack of interest from civil society, including the media, in seeking accountability from the police. “Unless citizens realise that it is their duty to demand responsibility and seek accountability, things aren’t going to change and the police will remain brazen in the abuse of law,” he said.
This is perhaps one of the reasons why India is one of only five countries – along with Brunei, Haiti, Palau, Sudan – that haven’t ratified the UN Convention Against Torture way back in 1997 despite signing it. The treaty requires the ratifying nations to take effective steps against torture.
Anti-torture bills also do not translate into law. In 2010, the Lok Sabha passed the Prevention of Torture Bill. The Rajya Sabha referred it to a select committee to make it compliant with the UNCAT, but the bill lapsed with the dissolution of the 15th Lok Sabha.
“We have good drafts of anti-torture law. The best draft of a law is what was prepared by the Law Commission in 2017. Another draft bill was proposed by the standing committee of the Rajya Sabha in 2014. It is important for the draft to ensure that the definition of torture is given as per the UNCAT,” said Tiphagne. “We should also ensure that there is no time limitation on complaints against torture, and there should be no repercussions against false complaints that may deter victims from reporting cases of torture. Further, superior officers should also be made liable for torture.”
But laws alone cannot change the attitude of the police who think citizens must be violently suppressed, said Suresh. He calls this part of the “colonial hangover, which will not change overnight or on its own”.
“The democratisation of the police and institutional transformation – which includes changing mindsets and attitudes, shifting perspectives among police officials, elected representatives and the people, and transforming the working culture – has to be planned, implemented and nurtured for lasting changes in the functioning of the police,” he said.
Tiphagne also suggested a similar multi-pronged approach. “There is a need for domestic national law against torture and to ratify the UNCAT, and there is a need simultaneously for a broad-based movement against torture. We need all of them linked together,” he said.
What Persis and her family want now goes beyond justice for Jeyaraj and Beniks. “We know that my father and brother won’t return. For as long as we live, we will continue to bear the pain,” she said. Even as she recounts the horrid details about the incident, she has a constant refrain, “It should never happen to another soul.”
This is the first part of a multi-part series on custodial deaths in India.
This story is part of the NL Sena project which 68 of our readers contributed to. It was made possible thanks to Anjali Palod, Sonali Singh, DS Venkatesh, Yogesh Chandra, Abhishek Singh, and other NL Sena members. Contribute to our next project, , and help to keep news free and independent.