The public outcry that followed the was rare. The father and son were allegedly tortured to death in June while in police custody in Thoothukudi’s Sattankulam in Tamil Nadu. The story made national headlines, the CBI took over the investigation, and 10 police personnel were arrested.
But far too many deaths at the hands of the police slip under the radar in India.
Between March 25 and April 30, 15 people died across the country after being allegedly assaulted by the police. One of them was Tibu Meda, 65, an Adivasi from Gothaniya village in Khargone district, Madhya Pradesh. Tibu died on a street, 20 feet away from his son-in-law, who watched as policemen beat Tibu with sticks.
The police claimed he died of a heart attack. But Tibu’s family knows better.
Assault, and a hasty investigation
At 7.30 am on April 4, the day of his death, Tibu went out to buy groceries with his son-in-law Sanjay Dawar. They headed to Gujri village in Dhar district, about six km away, since the shops in their village of Gothaniya were running low on supplies.
It was Day 11 of nationwide lockdown instituted to contain the spread of the Covid pandemic.
Sanjay and Tibu went to the market in Gujri. “There were about 20-25 people there, buying groceries and vegetables and so on,” Sanjay told Newslaundry. “Suddenly, two or three vehicles of police arrived. The police personnel went berserk on the people there.”
The police reportedly arrived to clear the shoppers, citing the lockdown. But lockdown restrictions were relaxed from 7-9 am to allow people to buy what they needed. It was only 7.30 am when Tibu and Sanjay were at the market.
The police began “beating people”, Sanjay said.
“My father-in-law was going to a medical store. They beat him and beat me also with sticks,” he said. “I was about 20 feet from my father-in-law. Four police kept beating him for about five minutes. He collapsed.”
Sanjay himself was hiding, he said, and saw Tibu lying on the ground. He saw the police bring a vehicle and take Tibu’s body away. Other locals then told him that the police had taken Tibu’s body to a community medical centre in Dhamnod.
According to Sanjay, Tibu’s body was taken to a community medical centre in Dhamnod. Sanjay called Raju Meda, Tibu’s son, who went to the medical centre and found his father’s body lying in a corner.
“The police did not call us,” Raju said. “We would never have known what happened to my father if my brother-in-law had not been there.”
Raju said his father’s body had bruises and injuries on his back, shoulders and thighs. Meanwhile, a postmortem was conducted at 3 pm but the family was not given the postmortem report. Instead, Raju alleged that despite Tibu’s injuries, the police said the cause of the death was “cardiac arrest”.
“They wrote that in the postmortem report too,” he claimed. “My father was not a heart patient. He did not have diabetes. There were marks of serious injuries on his body but the doctors and police were in it together. They called a murder a ‘cardiac arrest’. They even declared the cause of death before the autopsy, which otherwise the police never does.”
The family tried their best to register an FIR against the police, according to Sanjay and Raju, but their complaint was not registered at the Dhamnod police station. Public representatives, including the local MLA, then raised objections and the district magistrate directed the local sub-divisional magistrate to investigate the case.
Oddly, despite eyewitnesses stating that the police had assaulted Tibu, the investigation was closed seven days later, concluding that Tibu had died of a cardiac arrest.
But the investigation report cited these eyewitnesses too. Ganesh Bheel and Radheshyam Bheel’s accounts clearly stated that the police started “swinging their sticks” at everyone in the market, leading to “panic and chaos”. During this chaos, Tibu began running but the police started beating him. He died during this assault, the report said.
Tibu’s family told Newslaundry they don’t trust the sub-divisional magistrate’s investigation.
‘The investigation was a sham’
Activists like Medha Patkar have also .
“Tibu Meda’s death is an illegal and criminal act of the Madhya Pradesh police,” Patkar told Newslaundry. “Tibu was a respected man and a member of the village council for 20 years.”
Patkar also pointed out that Tibu had gone shopping between 7 and 9 am, when lockdown restrictions were relaxed.
“He also had to buy medicine for his wife,” she said, adding that Tibu’s wife died soon after his death. “When he was going to the medical store, the police started beating everyone without warning. Tibu and his son-in-law were beaten too. Tibu collapsed because of the beating and died at the very same place...No one was violating the lockdown but still, the police beat them."
Patkar said the police “never investigated” the incident or “acknowledged his death”. “The police should have taken up the matter within 24 hours and started investigating,” she pointed out. “Some of the shopkeepers also gave false statements in the sub-divisional magistrate’s investigation.”
Patkar has now filed an application calling for a fresh investigation.
“In my application, I’ve attached a picture of Tibu’s body that clearly shows his injuries,” she said. “The truth is that the sub-divisional magistrate’s investigation was just a sham. The main thing to note is that the police did not register an FIR. We requested the magistrate to include this fact in his report. The matter should have been investigated by senior police officers and not the sub-divisional magistrate. It is obvious that the police are trying to save the culpable policemen.”
Patkar said the matter has also been reported to the national human rights commission.
“A special committee has been set up to investigate incidents like this, of victimisation by the police during the lockdown,” she said. “That committee should investigate this case.”
Raju Meda said the family has filed an appeal in the Indore High Court for a judicial investigation into the matter. He said his mother died on April 18, “shocked” by Tibu’s death.
‘Marks on his body were from stretcher’
Two senior police officers had been present the morning Tibu died: NK Kansothia and Rajkumar Yadav. Kansothia is Dhar’s sub-divisional officer and Yadav the station in-charge of Dhamnod.
Newslaundry asked Yadav why an FIR wasn’t registered in Tibu’s death. He countered: “Why are you so interested in this case? We didn’t register the FIR because the police didn’t kill him. Nobody beat him. He collapsed on his own and died. If his family blames you for their father’s death tomorrow, would I register an FIR against you? We do not register fake FIRs.”
Divya Patel, the sub-divisional magistrate of Dhar, also claimed that the police did not kill Tibu.
“Whatever evidence I gathered, the statements collected from the local shopkeepers, indicate that the police did not kill Tibu,” she said. “The postmortem report also said he died due to cardiac arrest. According to the report, there were no marks on his body. The marks we see on his body would have come from the body lying on the stretcher for long.”
Newslaundry has copies of the images of Tibu taken at the medical centre. The marks on his body are clearly from physical assault, not from lying too long on a stretcher.
Raja Bagga, a member of the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative, said: “It’s been over five months since Tibu lost his life to the police’s brutal tactics. But still no action has been taken against the police. This despite Tibu being beaten to death in broad daylight and in front of many eyewitnesses.”
Bagga said they appealed to the national human rights commission in May. The commission asked the superintendent of police to submit the investigation report. Three months on, that hasn’t happened.
He added: “On September 22, it was 14 years since the famous Prakash Singh judgement in which courts asked the states to reform their police. Sadly, this remains just an instruction and not a reality yet.” The judgement in 2006 led to the Supreme Court directing states to set up police complaint authorities as well.
Devyani Srivastava, a social worker associated with the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative, said the police, by law, are required to register FIRs in cognisable offences.
“The police are at fault if they haven’t done it,” she said. “It is possible he died from a cardiac arrest, but what was the reason for the cardiac arrest? Probably it was triggered by the police’s beatings. If so, that should be noted on record. According to the NHRC guidelines, the autopsy must be videotaped and performed in the presence of a family member. The reality is that there are several procedures which must be adhered to, but they are not followed on the ground.”
Madhya Pradesh does not have a police complaint authority, Srivastava said. “An organisation like that becomes central in cases like this,” she said, “where the kin of the victim could have taken their complaints to them.”
This is the third part of a series on custodial deaths in India. Read and .
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