Killing of father-son P. Jayaraj and J. Bennix by Sathankulam police in Tuticorin district of Tamilnadu has led to widespread protests in Tamilnadu. On June 18, Police had found Bennix keeping his mobile phone & accessories shop open 15 minutes after the notified time for closure. Next day i.e. on June 19, police arrested father of Bennix, Jayaraj, and took him to the police station. Learning of this Bennix too reached the police station of Sathankulam with a friend and finding the police beating his father, tried to intervene. What followed was inhuman, though quite routine for police in India- beating and torture in the presence of witnesses including Bennix’s friends. Police, these govt. appointed Corona warriors, did not bother to even hide its brutalities. Indescribable torture followed including inserting iron rods in the rectum leading to profuse bleeding. Continuous physical torture led them to the edge of death. When they were taken to the Judicial Magistrate, practicing physical and judicial distancing he reportedly waived from the first floor to remand them to judicial custody. He neither enquired about their physical well being nor ordered their medical examination. From the injuries suffered in police torture, both of them, Jayaraj (62 years) and Bennix (38 years) died in Jail on June 22.
This patent police cruelty led to widespread anger among the people. People demonstrated in large numbers and a campaign for punishment for the police personnel guilty of this crime gathered wide support among the people. Madurai Bench of the High Court took cognizance of the matter and ordered a Magistrate to enquire into the incident. The Magistrate was not permitted to enter the police station. Then the entire staff was transferred from the police station and five policemen were arrested for murder of father and son. Wide public outrage aroused the conscience of Judiciary too. Facts of the case are being daily and extensively reported in the newspapers.
Focus has been on the culture of impunity among the police and security forces in dealing with the people. But more focus must be brought on the systemic nature of this impunity; how it is promoted and protected by the state machinery; how it is built into the legal framework governing criminal law; how the whole ruling system fosters and aids police crimes against the people, occasional interventions due to public outrage notwithstanding. In fact, they bring to light the fact that impunity is ordained in the system and remedial action only addresses the incident and never the systemic nature of this impunity, always avoiding actions which may have lasting impact. Justice is reduced to meting out punishment in the case, though even that is rare, and never to reducing the rights of the police which make such crimes take place in the first instance. In fact what is called as impunity is general police behaviour. Who does not know the common saying which advises both friendship and enmity with police?
There are a number of cases of police brutality almost every day. People have their everyday experience of the same. There are reportedly five custodial deaths every day in the country. Despite some judicial pronouncements, the situation remains the same, rather it has worsened. Even during the Corona pandemic, who has not witnessed the police brutalities on people, particularly migrant workers? Govt. tried to portray as if these lathis were being wielded against the Corona virus! And flower petals were showered and lamps were lit for this behaviour, including the police among ‘Corona warriors’. This was a not too subtle attempt to legitimize police state in the country.
This ‘impunity’ by police and security forces is maintained by the ruling classes to save and reinforce their anti-people rule. However, this also brings into focus the rights of the people to the extent enshrined in the Constitution and the socio-economic reality of the existing system which militates against them. Hence a periodic outcry but no systemic redressal!
The role of the Magistrate who waived his hands to indicate judicial custody without even enquiring about injuries which he was legally bound to, has also come into focus. There is little acknowledgement leave alone understanding behind the Constitutional mandate of an arrested person being presented before a Magistrate within 24 hours of arrest. (Article 22 (2) of the Constitution) That police should not be allowed to send a person to jail was one of the foremost demands of the democratic movement in the feudal period. People stormed the Bastille to free those who were arbitrarily and capriciously kept in jail. But in India, there was no storming of Bastille, but a ‘peaceful’ transfer of power from colonial rulers to the political representatives of the big landlords and big capitalists. This requirement of a judicial officer scrutinizing the police action has been reduced to almost a formality devoid of all content. Magistrates routinely imprison people on police demand for keeping books and literature which is legally available. Magistrates do not even go through the police record of the accusation. Magistrates relegate to final adjudication what is necessary for prima facie case. This fact was again recently brought into focus by Justice Muralidhar, then in Delhi High Court, that the Magistrate granting transit remand for Gautam Navlakha could not have gone through police records as those were in Marathi and the Magistrate did not know the language. Such an approach allows prosecution of a large number of innocent persons against whom there is not even a valid charge. It renders the act of prosecution an act of persecution; it renders the legal process itself as a punishment. Though implied in the very provision of custody beyond 24 hours being only with the approval of a judicial officer, the provision has been rendered only formal with the practice of magistrates not applying their mind to see whether a prima facie case is made out. Provisions of Article 22 (1) and (2) have remained without value in the face of the reality of how these are put into practice, giving a semblance of rule of law but really being lawless rule.
Here the role of higher judiciary is also very relevant. In the instant case also there is action against police personnel but no mention of action against Magistrate who has played an important role in the sequence resulting in death. If these innocents could have been sent to a hospital, their lives could have been saved. Why this reticence in taking action against judicial officers when they are patently guilty of dereliction of duty contributing to death of innocents? No action is taken against judicial officers even when their actions cause irreparable damage which cannot be remedied through appeal like in the instant case. Judiciary has a duty towards those in judicial custody. But higher judiciary in India has been quite insensitive towards this duty. They have turned down pleas for release on bail even for those who are charged for dissent despite many of them being aged and very vulnerable during these Covid times when Corona infections are being daily reported from jails. Does it not amount to exposing them to life threatening situations and hence meting out punishment without trial? The apex Court itself has turned down pleas for keeping them in custody at their homes for saving them from being exposed to Corona.
The role of higher judiciary has also come into sharp focus in dealing with Bhima Koregaon (Elgaar Parishad) case and in the recent case of conspiracy in North East Delhi violence. They have refused to scrutinize even the basic aspects of police case and have just dittoed the police version. The apex Court itself has not upheld the right of protest when police is routinely foisting sedition cases against the participants in protests against CAA-NRC-NPR. It has not found it appropriate to pronounce how participation in protests against a Govt. decision or even a law is seditious or can invite provisions of any criminal law, leave alone charges under UAPA. Such a simple observation, basic as it is, can avoid a lot of harassment to those being framed by the police and a lot of time in prosecution. Higher judiciary has also been a mute spectator to the large scale abuse of the provisions of the Epidemic Diseases Act. It appears that Supreme Court is following what was enunciated by Chief Justice that this not the time to uphold fundamental rights.
However, the higher judiciary in this regard is following the lead of the political representatives of the ruling classes. The whole criminal jurisprudence is essentially kept in the form it was enforced by colonial rulers. IPC (1861) is one of the least amended legislation. It has large imprint of colonial rule i.e. provisions meant to suppress the people. There is a whole gamut of sections whose sole purpose is to suppress the people. Law on sedition is one of them but there are provisions prone to abuse like those dealing with collective punishment or offence against govt. officers and many such others. The leaders of Congress to whom the power was transferred in 1947 had been vocal against many of them especially against law on sedition. But after coming to power they kept these provisions intact. It only shows the character of transfer of power. Those who came to rule after 1947 needed these arbitrary and unbridled power to suppress the people as they were to betray the promises they had made and aspirations they had roused among the people. This was also in the context of rising struggles of the people and growing strength of communist movement in India. In order to consolidate their rule over the people, ruling classes inherited and embraced the whole colonial machinery and its repressive laws. The laws that were used to suppress them also earlier were retained by them to suppress the people and the struggling forces. Under this framework, people are taken as subjects who are to be suppressed as enemies if they complain against their exploitation or oppression. It is not just the culture but whole system of impunity.
The Constitution was adopted but the laws of colonial period were given continuity. As was the case with Article 22 dealing with arrest, the spirit behind this was not incorporated in the Criminal Laws. This only reflected the needs of the ruling classes who had supported people’s aspirations in the course of freedom movement for securing their support to buttress their claims in the negotiations with colonial rulers. They were aware that they would need the tools chiseled by the colonial masters to suppress the people. In fact over the decades, they have made the criminal laws even more repressive. The enactment of TADA, POTA and later almost wholesale adoption of its provisions in UAPA showed the need of the ruling classes of the black laws. These are besides NSA, ESMA and a host of other repressive laws and measures. Not only adopting more draconian laws, the ruling classes initiated fake encounter killings which even their colonial masters had not done. These cold blooded killings in the name of encounters, initiated to suppress the communist revolutionary movement, were later extended to struggles of nationalities and other people’s movements.
All this shows that police brutalities are no exceptions but part of the framework of the present system. Some window dressing is done when people’s anger boils over in some cases but care is taken to ensure that it does not spill into any change in the framework of policing or criminal laws. The whole discussion is confined to so-called political interference, thus an attempt to restore the pristine glory of colonial era i.e. a police raj. People’s rights are absent from any discourse on transparency of their actions. This need of unbridled police powers is amply supported by big offensive by the ruling classes which showcase law as supportive of crime and only lawless police as an answer to the growing crime in society. Ruling classes support the criminals, bring them to positions of power and then use their example to strengthen police powers. These apparently contradictory aspects are basically supplementary. Over the decades movies after movies, serials after serials have amplified the need to remove check of law over the police. ‘Law and order’ stars have adorned the tinsel towns though many of those who have made careers and crores out of this have come out in support in the present case; this too to save their fan base which is generally a victim of police highhandedness and is made to admire those glorifying the same police highhandedness. It is not that people support police brutalities, rather they are the victims, but a campaign is orchestrated to buttress this claim, social divisions are also pressed into service in support of such a campaign.
Impunity of the police and security forces, promoted and protected by the ruling classes has continued to grow. Govt. has promoted use of torture to suppress the opposition, particularly of the oppressed, as well as to economize on policing by avoiding following the clues and collection of evidence scientifically rather than by forcing through torture friends and family members besides the accused. Not only are the police personnel practicing torture and encounters praised for control of crime, they are also rewarded and awarded. Even if a case is made under public pressure, it is soon brushed under the carpet. The govt. of India has been endorsing torture as a method which is amply corroborated by Govt. having not yet ratified International Convention Against Torture. Even the NHRC report of 2018 admitted a “lack of accountability for misconduct persisted at all levels of government, contributing to widespread impunity.”
Tamilnadu has been among the states known for custodial deaths and killings in encounters. There is a long list of deaths caused by police in such manner and it is not devoid of their caste overtones. No wonder it is mainly Dalits, Muslims and Tribals who are subject to such brutalities and this is the pattern all over India. Particular mention must be made of firing by police on protesters in the same district who were demanding closure of the Sterlite Factory in Thoothukudi, killing 13 people and injuring over a hundred. Thoughwidespread protests were held, but no action has been taken against those who ordered that firing without fulfilling the legal requirement. On the other hand, activists who campaigned for closure of the factory or punishment for the officers have been hounded. Obviously such an attitude has only contributed to the increase in police brutalities.
There has been a campaign that the people support police brutalities though they themselves are victims. Even social divisions are pressed into service to buttress this claim. But the fact is that this propaganda owes less to support among the people and much more to powerlessness, or lack of willingness, of the institutions that are supposed to protect them from police atrocities.
While this police system is being kept in place by ruling classes and their successive govts. but it is being elevated to a higher level by the ruling fascist RSS-BJP. They are seeking to portray police as the saviors of society. They have pressed even nCorona into service for this objective. This is meant to fortify a police state so necessary to consolidate their fascist rule. Despite such enormous power to the police and such protection given to them by the ruling classes to suppress the people, there was a wide propaganda by these forces that India was a soft state. Such a propaganda was supported and amplified by the corporate controlled media and other means of mass propaganda to manufacture a public perception of this having general approval.
The current spate of police brutalities has its roots in the anti-people rule of the ruling classes in general, and that of fascist RSS-BJP ruling group in particular. A wide campaign and people’s movement is necessary to oppose this systemic impunity. Democratic rights movement also needs to be strengthened and made broad-based for meeting the demands of the emerging situation. It is vitally important to develop people’s struggles against the oppression and the movements for democratic rights need to be strengthened.
ND June 2020