Only a few cases of police brutality ever come to light and the number for those convicted for such brutality does not exceed single digit in any given year. The treatment meted out to Jayaraj and his son Benicks by the Sathankulam police has again brought out a conversation on how our police treat its citizens.
The details of the case are heart-wrenching. Jayaraj was arrested on June 19 by the Santhakulam police for an altercation that allegedly happened between some policemen and him a day before. Some media reports, as well as police’s account, say that they were arrested for keeping their shop open beyond the 8 PM curfew in place at that time. On being informed of his father’s arrest, Benicks rushed to the police station, where he saw his father being thrashed. Upon intervening, the police took the duo into a room, where they were repeatedly assaulted with brutal force. A woman head constable present at the station has stated that they were beaten all night with sticks. She has now been provided police protection and her testimony in court could lead to the conviction of erring policemen.
The public must ask itself why they are shocked. Is it because the actions of the policemen were disproportionate to their alleged crime i.e. keeping a shop open beyond stipulated time? Or because it is one of the duties of the police to protect our lives? Or is simply by the barbarity with which humans treated fellow humans?
The incident must not shock us so much that we blind ourselves to police’s past failings; such inhumanity is meted out by it with alarming frequency. Government’s own data shows that a total of 1,727 people died in police custody between 2001 and 2018. Out of this, only 26 officers have been convicted so far, most of whom are out on bail. Furthermore, a recent report from National Campaign Against Torture (NCAT) says 1,731 people died in custody in India during 2019, around 5 each day.
India is one of only 5 countries in the world to have signed, but not ratified the UN Convention Against Torture, that aims to prevent torture and other acts of cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment. A weak bill incorporating some of the principles of this convention was passed by the Lok Sabha in 2010. Upon being introduced in the Rajya Sabha, it was sent for review to a Select Committee whose suggestions were never implemented. The bill eventually lapsed.
As per Section 176 (1A) of CrPC, every case of custodial killing shall be investigated by a judicial magistrate. That inquiries against the police take place only in about a fourth of all reported cases is a reflection of our institutional apathy.
There are several hurdles that exist if a police personnel is to be brought to book. A sanction from the state government concerned is required to start the prosecution. With the state relying on the police to enforce its interests and the police relying on the state for immunity, sanctions either come years later or not at all. Also, the prosecution must conclusively prove that death was caused by police misconduct or negligence. Our police, being master storytellers, weave intricate stories that blame the deaths of the accused on suicide, illness, or natural causes; and reports of the medical check-up are forged to support their claims.
Though, DK Basu’s (1997) guidelines on arrest and custody procedure have been incorporated in the Criminal Procedure Code, statistics show that merely adhering to the rules on presenting people before the magistrate within 24 hours and mandatory medical check-up does not necessarily spare the accused from being tortured as the police find a way to work around prescribed procedures.
Madras High Court quickly stepped in, noting that there’s sufficient evidence of assault on Jayaraj and Benicks’ bodies, despite police’s claim that the duo rolled on the ground and injured themselves. It also transferred the investigation to CB-CID expressing fears of evidence tampering, but the order was superseded on July 7th when the Centre issued a notification handing over the probe to CBI. Meanwhile, 5 policemen involved in the custodial killing have been arrested.
Calls for systemic reformation in situations such as these are often rebutted by arguments that target only “a few bad apples”. Right now, it seems the policemen who tortured the father and son were the baddest of apples. These apples rot the system without the even system realizing that it is rotting.
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