Tamil Nadu custodial death case puts focus on another victim’s 14-year fight for justice
In a June 28 judicial probe into Bennicks and Jayaraj’s alleged custodial deaths, a police head constable testified that the two were thrashed with lathis in the police station through the night of June 19.Updated: Jul 17, 2020 05:12 IST
Selvarani and her three daughters have had a stream of visitors at their modest home in Sathankulam, a small town in Thoothukudi district of Tamil Nadu, ever since her son J Bennicks, 31, and her husband, P Jayaraj, 59, were killed due to alleged police torture last month. One of her visitors last week was 39-year-old Femina Sweety Babitha, whose brother Arun Bharath had died due to alleged torture by police from the same station, 14 years ago.
“Everyone understands our suffering, but only those of us who have lost people we love to police brutality truly understands the pain,” Femina told Hindustan Times over the phone.
Bharath’s case came up in the Thoothukudi district fast track court in 2008, after the Tiruchendur Revenue Division Officer (RDO) conducted an enquiry, following which a government order allowed prosecution proceedings to be initiated against sub-inspector Srikumar. Since then the case has dragging its feet, mired in procedural items. In March 2019, the high court directed the home secretary of Tamil Nadu to appoint a special PP to handle the case. This has still not been done.
“Srikumar filed a discharge petition that the Revenue Division Officer (RDO) [of Tiruchendur who conducted the enquiry], made him a scapegoat by not naming other police officers from the station. But it was dismissed,” Subbu Muthuramaligam, who represents Femina’s family, said.
Eyewitness accounts of the night Bharath died said that at least seven more policemen were involved.
A gruesome death
Bharath, then 20, and his brother, Vijay Amarnath, who worked in the neighbouring state of Kerala, had come home to Sathankulam on leave in May 2006. On June 1, Bharath filed a complaint at the police station against a certain Johnson for allegedly stealing his two-wheeler. “When Johnson was released on June 15, he made an oral complaint against Arun,” Femina said.
Two days later, Srikumar allegedly knocked on Bharath’s door. It was around 10 pm, and his mother Ganana Ramani and two brothers, including Vijay, had just finished their dinner. Femina lived in another house. According to eyewitness accounts, Srikumar dragged Bharath out, and seven other policemen including a sub-inspector Kala beat him. Vijay, who tried to stop them, also got injured. One of the policemen reportedly kicked Bharath in his genitals causing him to collapse.
Bharath and Vijay were bundled into a police van and driven to Sathankulam police station. Upon reaching, the police allegedly asked Vijay to take Bharath home since he wasn’t moving. Vijay took his brother to the government hospital instead with the help of his friend Murugesan. There, Bharath was pronounced dead on arrival.
Murugesan went to two homes to break the news that night: Femina’s and his neighbour’s, Maharajan Elango, who worked as a journalist. Elango later turned witness in the enquiry conducted by the Tiruchendur RDO.
“My physically disabled mother helplessly watched [Bharath] and Vijay being thrashed,” Femina said. “She told me everything when we met two hours later at the hospital. The men in our family didn’t allow us to see [Bharath] because he had bled so much and his skin was peeled-off in several parts.”
“It is common for several instances from the past to come up when a case like this (Jayaraj-Bennicks) is on-going,” Thoothukudi superintendent of police (SP) Jayakumar said, when asked about Bharath’s case. “We have to conduct legal enquiries and if there is wrong-doing, action will be taken,” he said.
Jayakumar was posted to Thoothukudi after the incumbent Arun Balagopalan was shunted out on June 30 as a result of the public outcry that followed Bennicks’ and Jayaraj’s deaths.
In a June 28 judicial probe into Bennicks and Jayaraj’s alleged custodial deaths, a police head constable testified that the two were thrashed with lathis in the police station through the night of June 19, when they were arrested for reportedly keeping their shop open longer than the curfew hour and for preventing the policemen from discharging their duties. Friends and family members who shifted the duo to the hospital, shortly before they died on June 22 and June 23, respectively, said that they had to change their lungis several times because of the blood that oozed from their wounds.
Their deaths have rekindled the conversation on police violence. According to the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC), there were 117 deaths in police custody across the country in 2019.
Some measures are being taken. The National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences (Nimhans) in Bengaluru has been conducting a wellbeing programme with the Tamil Nadu police since 2018.
“Only through such wellbeing programmes can violent propensities in individuals be stymied,” a Madurai bench of the Madras High Court, which took suo-moto cognisance of the case on June 24, noted.
After taking charge, Jayakumar said he has introduced behavioural training for the 52 sub-inspectors in Thoothukudi, and will be scaled up to cover higher officials. They are being instructed to register accurate sections at the police station and have been advised not to hit people. “We are motivating them to be real police; not act cinematic,” Jayakumar said.
However, new institutional measures on top of already established procedures to prevent custodial torture — such as one in the Kerala Police Act 2011 which mandates any police officer who witnesses torture or corruption must report it without fear of reprisal — are needed, Devika Prasad, programme head, police reforms for Delhi-based Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative, said.
In such cases senior police barely get caught in the prosecution net. “A transfer order is hardly punitive punishment,” she said.
On June 29, the court initiated contempt proceedings against Thoothukudi’s deputy superintendent of police C Prathapan and additional deputy superintendent of police D Kumar and Sathankulam police station constable Maharajan (who was later suspended) after the investigating judicial magistrate reported that they were obstructing the investigation. However, both senior officers got new postings on June 30. The constable remains suspended.
The Crime Branch Criminal Investigation Department arrested 10 policemen in connection with Bennicks and Jayaraj’s death; five have been charged with murder. The Central Bureau of Investigation took charge of the case on July 10.
“Seeing policemen arrested in this case (Bennicks) gives me hope that my brother’s killers too will be punished,” Femina said.
High price for justice
An FIR was registered under against sub-inspector Srikumar under section 302 at the Sathankulam police station, following which the RDO began his enquiry.
“Why didn’t the RDO report name sub-inspector Kala and the six constables from the station? All the 8 policemen should have been accused,” Muthuramalingam said. The court dismissed petitions against the other policemen stating that evidence has to be produced to include them in the charge sheet, both lawyers said.
Ganana Ramani passed away a year after her son, Bharath’s death. Vijay died by suicide in November 2009. The remaining family — brother, Rajesh Vinod and father, David Inbaraj — live and work in Erode and Chennai, respectively. Femina, a single mother, belongs to a women’s self-help group run by the Thoothukudi collectorate.
Mirroring the events that followed after Bennicks’ death, local residents, lawyers and activists had also come together to protest at the same Kamarajar statue near the Sathankulam police after Arun’s death. But back in 2006, without social media and a 24x7 news cycle, it didn’t blow up.
“Their family is broken and shattered like mine,” Femina said of her meeting with Bennicks’ and Jayaraj’s family.
“I told them not to give up until they get justice. There are going to be delays, everyone will move on but we have to stay strong.”