The brutal custody death of two men in Tamil Nadu has given us our #livesmatter moment. Book errant cops, now
If the ugly face of police brutality and the killing of George Floyd in the US incensed us in India, then we should be venting vociferously on the excesses in our own backyard, namely Tamil Nadu. A father and son in Tuticorin, who were booked for running their shop 15 minutes beyond closure during a lockdown — a minor infraction by any stretch — ended up dead after the local police subjected them to a long, brutal and sustained interrogation, torture and sexual abuse in custody. Fifty nine-year-old P Jayaraj and his son, 31-year-old J Fenix, were booked under Section 188 of IPC (Disobeying the time restrictions ordered by a public servant), Section 383 (Extortion by threat) and Section 506 (Criminal intimidation). However, disobeying Section 188 is not so serious an offence that requires sustained questioning and night-long torture in custody. Apart from that, there were no witnesses to back up the need for the police to book the two men under Sections 383 and 506. But witnesses living 500 metres away from the police station, where the two men were held, did hear their screams and cries for help through the night. The next day, when the men were released from custody, their clothes were found ripped and they were bleeding profusely from their private parts. Yet, they were given a clean bill of health by the doctor on duty, who obviously did not want to incur the wrath of the all-powerful inspector. And then they died within hours for lack of critical care. However, believing this has happened for the first time is ignoring the years of abuse and custodial deaths that common citizens have faced at the hands of the police. Particularly at the local levels of administration, the policing system has internalised the right to be the judge, jury and executioner. With Black Lives Matter protests erupting around the globe condemning police brutality, it is high time India, too, takes up the cudgels, raises its voice against rights violations and makes a common cause with the family of Jayaraj and Fenix. To our shame, the numbers of victims just keep rising. During the lockdown necessitated by the pandemic, incidents of excessive use of force by the police have become common news. Carts of fruit sellers have been overturned, vendors thrashed and rickshaw pullers beaten mercilessly. Migrant workers on long treks home have not been spared the humiliation and injury either. Anyone without the power to defend or stand up for himself is facing the ruthless hostility of the new enforcers of authority for the smallest of transgressions. Of course, the brutality during the lockdown isn’t the only example worth noting. Visuals of the ferocious crackdown on dissenting students of Jamia and Aligarh Muslim University during the anti-CAA row haunt thousands of families even today as we wait for those responsible to be held accountable for the heinous misuse of power against peaceful demonstrators. And while the cases drag on in courts, the offenders would never be put on trial or would have been moved out of the public eye to other posts. Simply because the police has been reduced to being a malleable tool of the powers that be and is increasingly being used to serve their political will and agenda. Over the last few years, rarely have errant cops been held accountable for overreaching their powers, especially in cases with a decidedly communal tilt, like those involving protesters against the new citizenship law. In the Mumbai of the 80s and even later, “encounter specialists” were treated as heroes of the forces for delivering instant justice and were even endorsed by civil society. And while we may flood social media championing the cause of Black lives and the unjustness of a racist police system condoned by White supremacists, at home we are equally guilty of being ivory-tower trapped ourselves. We may rave and rant but never get out on the streets. Hence there is no pressure from civil society.
The onus is now on the Palaniswami-led AIADMK Government to bring the killers of Jayaraj and Fenix to justice. Neither a CBI probe nor suspensions and transfers are enough. The family of the deceased is demanding the perpetrators be charged with murder. The main Opposition party in Tamil Nadu, the DMK, too, is escalating the demand for swift justice. But this has to be more than just political profiteering from a tragedy that has left a family bereft of its breadwinners. The chargesheeting of the four police officers in the George Floyd case should act as an example for law enforcement officers all around the globe that along with the people they have sworn to protect, they, too, themselves are not above the law. Sadly, for all the recommendations on police reforms and the Supreme Court’s directive to set up police complaint authorities at the State and district level, compliance is a far cry. Till we as a society demand a rule of law over rule of force, such transgressions will continue and we will remain in a colonial trap that the police system has perpetuated.