Saturday, April 13, 2024

Lockdown Terror

The brutal killing of a father-son duo in Sathankulam by the police shows the deep rot within the system. But the Madras High Court moved fast by ordering a judicial probe and handed the case to the CB-CID

By MG Devasahayam

Sathankulam (meaning “Devil’s Pond”) is a dusty little town not far from Kanyakumari in Tamil Nadu. While the northern part of India was boiling over the butchering of 20 soldiers at Galwan Valley by the Chinese, its southern tip was enraged over the barbarous murder of two civilians—P Jayaraj and his son, J Bennicks—by the police. This is a fallout of the draconian powers given to the police during the nationwide lockdown imposed on March 24, 2020.

The Sathankulam narrative runs like this. On June 18, at around 7.30 pm, Sub-Inspector Balakrishnan arrived at a shopping area where Bennicks was running his mobile phone shop and asked him to shut it. Bennicks agreed to do so. His father, a timber trader, came to the shop after the SI left and asked his son what he had said. When Bennicks narrated the exchange, Jayaraj is said to have told him: “Don’t we know that we have to close at 8 pm?” This was conveyed by a constable to Balakrishnan and he took it as an affront to his authority.

According to sources, there was an earlier altercation between Jayaraj and Balakrishnan where the latter had asked for a free mobile which was refused.

The next evening, Balakrishnan came back, this time in a Jeep. He allegedly asked Jayaraj: “I heard you questioned my authority?” Jayaraj replied in the negative. Balakrishnan then abused him, pulled him by the collar, hauled him into the Jeep and took him to the police station. RK Venugopal, president of the Sathankulam Town Congress Committee, who was standing in front of the police station, said the time was around 7.40 pm.

Venugopal reportedly added: “Benicks came rushing shortly afterward. His lawyer, advocate S Manimaran, came in soon after. Regardless, the police started beating Jayaraj. Bennicks saw this and in an emotional moment, he went inside and held SI Balakrishnan’s hand. At this, Inspector Sridhar said: ‘How dare you lay hands on the police’ and asked everyone to beat him… The Inspector ordered all of us to go out and shut the doors of the station…We could see what was going on through a glass wall which had a light inside. The Inspector called volunteers from ‘Friends of Police’, two to hold Bennicks’ hands, two to spread his legs and pressed against the wall they began beating him. They made Jayaraj sit down on the ground. The Inspector made some volunteers stand on his knees and others beat him on the soles of his feet… This continued till 10 pm. Then SI Raghu Ganesh came in and took over the beatings from SI Balakrishnan.”

Worse, the “lockdown terror” had even afflicted the judicial magistrate who took orders from the police and remanded the fatally injured duo to judicial custody without even seeing them. Eyewitness accounts in the judicial magistrate’s court have this to say: “Both of them (Jayaraj and Bennicks) were badly injured and bleeding and they were not taken out of the vehicle…The police asked us to bring them to the Kovilpatti sub-jail in our car because they were bleeding. We had to change three lungis for them—there was so much blood flowing from the rectum. Even prison officials did not check on their health.” The doctor who “checked” them before they were lodged in Kovilpatti sub-jail also succumbed to this terror as he certified them fit.

By June 22, neither could pass stool or urine. Their stomachs began to bloat. They were unable to eat. Prison officials then took them to hospital. Bennicks breathed his last at 8.30 pm that night. His father, Jayaraj, died at 8 am on June 23. Soon after, Bennicks’ sister, Percy, openly stated that the police had tortured her brother and father by stripping them naked and thrashing them with batons so much that it crushed the bones and ripped the flesh off the back, thighs and genitals. Advocate Manimaran, who saw the torture, said that the victim’s rectum bled profusely.

While these are the facts as per eyewitnesses, on June 24, SI Raghu Ganesh registered an FIR putting the entire blame on the dead father-son duo. It talks of them obstructing constables Murugan and Muthuraj while they were on patrolling duty, when they found the mobile store open at 9.15 pm, exceeding the lockdown limit by 15 minutes. The FIR even read that the two “rolled on the ground” and in this action, they “suffered internal injuries”. It further added that the duo threatened to beat and kill the police officers on duty if they compelled them to shut the store. So, they were booked and arrested under IPC Sections 188, 353, 269 and 506(2).

This was the concocted story that theTuticorin District SP fed to his superiors in Chennai. There was no fact check done at the levels of the DIG and the IG. Had there been any police leadership or governance worth its name in Tamil Nadu, the top brass in Chennai would have obtained the truth through other reliable sources and initiated immediate and effective steps to bring the culprits to book. Instead, they fed the incompetent political leadership and the chief minister blatantly false information, saying that no torture took place and the father-son duo died out of breathlessness in the sub-jail. The chief minister paid no heed to the public outcry seeking registration of a murder case against the policemen responsible for this barbarity. Instead, he took the police lie hook, line and sinker and made a public statement reiterating it.

Immediately after, the CM announced a Rs 20-lakh compensation to the victims’ family and as a knee-jerk reaction, transferred the case to the CBI. The order in this respect, signed by the home secretary, took the false FIR registered by the Sathankulam police as truth and sent the case to the CBI “in order to facilitate a free and fair investigation” as recommended by the DGP. With these hasty steps, the police top brass and the Tamil Nadu government thought that they had hushed up the matter and that by the time the CBI moved in at its own pace, all evidence would be destroyed and public anger, reduced.

Heartless and insensitive as they were, top police, bureaucrats and politicians had not factored in the Madras High Court. Public anger and anguish found resonance in its Madurai Bench where Justices PN Prakash and B Pugalendhi moved fast, took up the case suo motu and ordered a judicial inquiry.

According to the report submitted by the judicial magistrate, when he went to the police station for an inquiry, ADSP D Kumar and DSP Prathapan who were present there ignored him. He further wrote: “D Kumar was exhibiting body language to show his physical strength and did not seem to behave like the court was closely examining this case. “Even constable Maharaja dared the magistrate: “You can’t do a damn thing to us.”

The report said that the police had already deleted the CCTV recordings of the incident. The only valuable evidence that the magistrate could record was that of a lady head constable, Ms Revathy, who courageously chose to stand up and be counted. In her statement, she said that Jayaraj and Bennicks were beaten through the night of June 19 and that lathis and tables had blood stains on them. She further stated that the police were trying to destroy this evidence and that these objects should be taken by the magistrate immediately. When the magistrate asked the constables to surrender the lathis, they either refused or ran away.

Based on this report, the High Court came down heavily on June 30 through a series of orders/directions, including invoking Section 302, IPC against the police officials. Sensing the foul game of delaying the matter and destroying evidence, the High Court virtually overturned the state government’s move to transfer the case to the CBI. Observing that “the CBI is essentially an organisation equipped to deal effectively with corruption and white-collar offences”, the Court appointed a CB-CID officer to investigate the case. The Court also ordered the district collector to take over the Sathankulam police station to secure the evidence.

Since then, things have moved fast. A team headed by the tehsildar took charge of the police station. The entire staff (numbering about 30) of the police station was shunted out. The CB-CID investigation is on full swing. Section 302, IPC has been slapped on the concerned police officials and within 36 hours, Inspector Sridhar, two sub-inspectors and a few constables were arrested. IG, CB-CID, is personally supervising the investigation and arrests.

Given the alacrity with which the Tamil Nadu police is acting now, why was this barbarity allowed to happen and hushed up? Sources speak of a deeply distressing dimension—corruption, communalism and casteism—prevailing in the police force. Both the victims being Christians, there is a possibility of police officials instigating a Hindu-Christian divide. The fact that ‘‘volunteers” who carried out most of the torture were “Friends of Police”and carried ID cards issued by senior police officials gives credence to this apprehension. These “Friends” are part of Seva Bharathi, an affiliate of the RSS. The method adopted by them is akin to  communal lynching in the north, only more gruesome.

There is also a caste dimension. Though all these were within the knowledge of the top brass, they did not do anything to halt this blatant criminalisation and communalisation of the police force under their watch. This has resulted in a culture of all-pervading immunity among the police, which has become a dangerous pan-India phenomenon. The Madras High Court saved the day and hopefully justice will ultimately prevail.

—The writer is a former Army and IAS officer

Lead picture: Fenix Photo- @WorkingClassIn1

Lead picture: Public protest against the killing of Jayaraj and his son Bennicks


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