About Thoothukudi and Other Custodial Police Violence During Lockdown: Part 4

  • July 17, 2020

A documentation of the custodial deaths during lockdown that also looks for the answer to some such questions around the class nature, caste nature and religious nature of such deaths. This is the fourth part of the Groundxero report.


The Thoothukudi murders have once again drawn our attention to custodial and other forms of violence perpetrated by the police. Although India is currently facing a public health crisis, the police have been used during this period for playing the roles of admonisher, abuser, torturer, and murderer instead of a guide that helps coordinate medical aid and other forms of relief. Although few expected otherwise, perhaps some of us have been waking up to the fact that the naked violence and apathy of the Indian administration for its citizens is not necessarily reserved for the military zones of Kashmir and the forests of Chhattisgarh and Manipur, or even the minority ghettos, that is, for the others. The deceased in Thoothukudi are after all not so different from us – the middle class Hindu. Although they are Christians, the identity of Jayaraj’s family was strongly rooted in a powerful land-owning caste. Also, unlike the migrant workers – a wide range of socio-economic-cultural-religious groups that have been artificially clubbed together into a large, faceless category during the lockdown – Jayaraj and Bennicks belonged to an established class of traders. Had it not been the case, would their deaths have prompted widespread media coverage and social media outrage? This article is a documentation of the custodial deaths during lockdown that also looks for the answer to some such questions. For the purpose we also reread some works by K. Balagopal, the late civil rights activist, who has written extensively on the subject of police and torture.


Part 1 : A trail of habitual and systematic atrocities by the Thoothukudi cops

Part 2 : Thoothukudi murders in the light of the general lockdown scenario

Part 3 : How do we react? What do we react to?



4. What can the police do?


This part of the article talks about the extent, meaning and possibilities of reform. We already saw how reforming the police in an isolated fashion does not resolve anything. There are a number of deeply interrelated issues both external as well as at the level of human consciousness that need to undergo revolutionary changes for any kind of ‘reform’ to make sense.


Law and Constitution: It is well-known that the custodial torture/murder violates Articles 20(3), 21, 22(1) of the Constitution and that there are enough laws nationally and internationally that oppose such atrocity. In general, there are laws against casual arrests without prior investigation, use of force without prior permission (that too minimal necessary force for exceptional cases), and extortion of information by force; in short, there is a law against every violent action committed by the Indian police. But it is also well-known that this is all only on paper. A 2018 report says 133 out of 136 IPS officers failed in at least one subject, including Indian Penal Code and Criminal Procedure Code, in their revaluation exam. While examinations do not fully capture a man’s abilities, this point can be noted for what it’s worth. It is also to be noted that the Indian police has no training in respecting human rights, except as a subject perfunctorily discussed at the very beginning of their police training.


Inclusiveness within the force: While keeping in mind the important question whether oppressed sections of society should join the same administration that oppresses them, the Indian police force must recruit Muslims, Dalits and Adivasis to ensure their proportional representation. According to 2013 data, 53% of the Indian prisoners are Muslims, Dalits and Adivasis, even though they add up to only 39% of the Indian population. The IPS currently has only 3-4% Muslims among their recruits. According to a report in The Wire, only four Indian states have SC prisoners in proportion to or less than their population in the State and in case of STs, it is only three states. The fact that 68% of the seats reserved for SCs were left empty at the end of last year’s recruitment drive in UP, despite mounting crime, shows the dire need of countering such a trend. The presence of women and transgenders must be increased by a considerable amount as well. Just as until 1902 Indians were not allowed to apply for officers’ positions, the present Indian police barely has representation of various oppressed sections as one goes higher up in the ranks. Moreover, it is not enough to just include these sections in the force in all the ranks; they should also be deputed appropriately so as to enable them to implement their deeper understanding and empathy with oppressed communities.


Self-critique and punishments for custodial murder: While the Delhi Police Commissioner is most likely the only official who has (surprisingly) apologized for the brutality of his police during the lockdown, several retired police officers and IPS officers have expressed their opinions about custodial violence in a somewhat self-critical manner after Jayaraj and Bennicks were killed. The suggestions included the use of body cameras for recording both the actions of the police and the accused, appointing counsellors for police officials, developing better ‘people skills’, applying ‘scientific methods’ for interrogation etc. Although knowing how all these methods can potentially be appropriated and compromised or tampered with, it is unclear how any of it could really be useful on a mass scale. In particular, the Madurai Bench of the Madras High Court that has taken the suo moto cognizance of the two deaths has suggested counselling and Yoga for the police, though there was no mention of arranging counselling for the victim of custodial violence.


A retired police officer, who declined to disclose his name, suggested a change of attitude and strategy, speaking to The Lede:


The underlying principle is that arrest for relatively minor offences should be reduced. In such cases, the investigation officer may issue a notice to the accused to appear before him for the purpose of investigation. This can be seen as an extension of the principle that bail is the rule and jail is the exception.


A retired Judge told The Lede:


It is surprising that the accused policemen have only been suspended. They should have been arrested, as was done to the killers of George Floyd in the United States. The inquiry and trial should thereafter be completed expeditiously, and if the accused are found guilty, harsh exemplary punishment must be given, so that policemen throughout India know that they cannot continue behaving as they did during the British Raj.


In a few rare cases the offender cops do get punished. The Thoothukudi SI – Srikumar from the Nadar community who had beaten the innocent youth to death in the same Sathankulam police station, was suspended and during that phase he attempted suicide. Perhaps it was the anxiety of losing his career, or perhaps it was his internal sense of justice and self-critique – we will never know. But he is now back to his job.


The terrorism cases are more difficult to discuss, thanks to the collective consciousness of uncritical hatred and fear that the State, police, army, and mainstream media has cultivated among the masses. However, as has been seen in the case of Afzal Guru and the recent release of three Kashmiri men – acquitted of all charges after 23 years of imprisonment – and in the cases of thousands of falsely charged Adivasi men and women, there is undoubtedly a desperate need for collective criticism.


Understanding human rights and humanity:


“Manvadhikaar karyakartaon ko sadak par kuchal dena chahiye (human rights activists should be crushed on roads).” – WhatsApp post shared by former Bastar Inspector General of Police SRP Kalluri


As stated in an opinion piece in The Wire, “The persistence of inhuman treatment makes it apparent that India is determined to protect violence by the police.” India is one of nine countries that have yet to ratify the 1987 UN Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment. Naturally, the Indian State-Corporate nexus makes all efforts to keep the police de-humanized, including suppressing the data of police atrocity. Especially in rural areas, there are also systematic checks conducted by pro-Hindutva grassroots teams to see if certain police personnel are sympathetic towards the local people and, if found guilty, are summarily transferred. Moreover, the hypermasculine administrative system keeps forcing every employee to be “sufficiently cruel” or else, perish.


On the other hand, a concerned civil society group or an NGO counselling the police to evolve it into a more humane and just entity, as has been suggested now and tried earlier in many places without any significant effect, is unlikely to work, or even to be considered with seriousness by the State. In any case, such a step requires a complete philosophical and practical shift in the police routine (and runs contrary to the function police forces perform as an enforcement arm of the State) and allotment of a considerable amount of funding for the already underfunded department. It suffices to say that it has been repeatedly tested and proved that “official tolerance can reduce arrest rates” all across the world, but such measures have remained rare, isolated examples of a social experiment.


In general, in every part of the world, the constitution of a police force by the ruling class has been essentially inhuman and used for the purposes of oppression and extraction. The police came into existence to intimidate and control the working masses as they are systematically deprived of their rights and turned into slaves and bonded labourers or a source of cheap labour. Historically, just as the role of the police in the US was from slave patrols serving the white slave-owners, the Indian police came to exist as a weapon of the British colonizers. The model was based on the 1822 paramilitary model of the Royal Irish Constabulary – a “‘practical prototype’ for policing indigenous populations who, in the main, required a coercive arm.[2] Replacing the lethels hired by the Zamindars, the police in British India were appointed for collecting revenue from the poor rural Indians along with acting as security guards for the British officers and their families. Since its inception till date, just like the Royal Irish Constabulary, the India police were kept isolated from any human contact with the locals as a strategic rule. Unlike the Russian police during the 1917 revolution, they never really joined forces with any mass movement and continued to side with the rulers – serving them as well as enjoying their own power at the cost of the citizens.


Thus, history clearly shows that the police is ‘an arm of the State’ and not constituted to ensure the ‘security of the people’, so it would seem that raising a hue and cry about police atrocity and violations of human rights is practically meaningless unless one is ready to question in some form the inherently violent nature of the State itself. Moreover, one must come to terms with the fact that raising protests or even questions is bound to face retaliation from the State irrespective of how peaceful the process of questioning is.


There are innumerable examples of when the State turned a deaf ear towards peaceful protests and moreover, represses them. The recent communal Delhi pogrom led by the Hindutva terrorists, vehemently supported and aided by the Delhi police, that led to the vandalization of peaceful protests (heavily led by Muslim women) and the death of more than fifty people including a 80 year old woman and a 15 year old boy – is a good example of the police willingly helping the State with its anti-constitutional ploy. As for Tamil Nadu, other than the case of lathicharge on peaceful anti-CAA protesters in Washermenpet, one must also recall the police violence on the peaceful Jallikattu protesters as well as vandalization of private property of the local residents by the police in 2017. The incident of violence was preceded by the first few days of friendliness feigned by the same police that made many protesters wonder whether even the police had been swept over by the Tamil Nationalist sentiments. No such luck. Countless such examples can be found against strikes for wage-hikes, resisting forced evictions, amendments to the law, and so on.


In fact, to the contrary, the governments’ interests lie in actively keeping the ‘conflicts’ alive so that when they need to distract from their inhumane anti-people activities like selling off forest lands or diluting labour laws, there are always ready-made enemies available to be presented to the people. The police or the army can then dominate these enemies and win brownie points for the State. Once again, the police have their path paved for them; this is no place for discussing humanity.


Going almost two decades back, one may recall the efforts of the Committee of Concerned Citizens (Hyderabad) in Andhra Pradesh in bringing the Government of AP and the guerrilla members of the CPI(ML)PW together to a peace talk in 2002, hoping for an end to the killings on both sides. Whereas PW, advertised by the State as a group of ‘bloodthirsty ruffians’, respected the five week ceasefire, mutually decided upon as a precondition for the meeting, the state police continued its brutal repression of civilians and fake encounter killings. It was one such killing of six activists that finally ended the ceasefire on the side of PW.[3] The next such effort failed as well due to the “stubborn attitudes shown by the state government”, which was not seeking peace but only ways to usurp the Adivasi lands. This case is a good example of how the police serve the government, which in turn serves the corporate houses.


Part 5 : What can we do


[2] The ‘Irish’ policeman and the Empire: influencing the policing of the British Empire—Commonwealth, Irish Historical Studies, Vol. 36, No. 142, Ireland and the British Empire-Commonwealth (November 2008), pp. 173-187

[3] Understanding Maoists, N. Venugopal, Setu Publication

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