The death of a father and son, allegedly due to torture in a police station near Thoothukudi, Tamil Nadu, a few days ago, raises serious questions about the conduct of the police. Three inspectors attached to the Sathankulam station have been suspended and an inquiry instituted against two head constables. The state government now wants the CBI to probe the case. More than two weeks ago, the same set of officials was accused of beating up some persons, allegedly leading to the death of one — a district judge asked for a detailed inquiry, describing it as a “disturbing incident of custodial torture” in his report to the Madras High Court. The two incidents, reprehensible in themselves, also point to a wider culture of impunity that prevails in the law and order system, emboldening police officials to flout due process and perpetrate violence on citizens in the expectation of getting away with it.
It is not incidental that recent complaints of police brutality have come in the backdrop of the restrictions imposed by the government to contain COVID-19. The pandemic has evidently become a pretext in cases like these to short-circuit the rule of law. Many cases of police excess, including thrashing of migrant workers, hawkers and shop keepers, have been reported during the lockdown. In the Sathankulam incident, the police had detained P Jeyaraj, 62, a shopkeeper, and his son, Bennix, 32, on June 19 for allegedly violating lockdown restrictions. Three days later, they died in judicial custody, allegedly due to injuries suffered during their detention. Initially, the government denied a police role in the deaths and agreed to a probe only after public outcry. Coming in the wake of the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, US, and the worldwide protests it sparked, large sections of civil society in Tamil Nadu have expressed outrage and demanded action against the accused policemen — including film director Hari, who apologised for glorifying police brutality in blockbuster films such as Singam. This genre of popular cinema that celebrates the brutal cop who takes the law into his hands to deliver instant justice, has arguably contributed to shaping attitudes within the police force as well as in the public. According to data submitted by state police before Madras High Court, there were 157 custodial deaths in Tamil Nadu between 2012 and 2016.
The CBI must urgently fix accountability for the deaths in Sathankulam. As for the government, it needs to do more to send out the message that police excess will not be tolerated under any circumstances. It must not only end the prevalent culture of impunity but also impress upon the force that due process must be upheld and that it is not a privilege but the citizen’s right.
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