There Isn't Anything 'Shocking' About Official Apathy in the Jayaraj-Bennicks Case

Five die in police and judicial custody every day in India, so it is safe to say that the system is comfortable with this routine.

I read somewhere that the barbaric double murder of Jayaraj and his son Bennicks at the Sathankulam police station has sent shock waves across the country. I feel otherwise. True, its savagery caused a momentary revulsion. The nation wanted to know what had happened. But that was all. For a few days, the hue and cry flashed across media. But it was a nine-day wonder. Soon more important business like a catfight with political benefits between Bollywood frenemies absorbed viewership. I am not shocked.

On June 19, the father and son were taken into custody for keeping their shop open 15 minutes past curfew. Four days later they were dead. Thirty separate deep lacerations and contusions were found on their bodies. Between being called to the station and ending up at the morgue, father and son spent 12 hours in the police station, were pronounced fit by doctors at Sathankulam hospital, then presented before a magistrate and finally dropped at the jail – in a vehicle paid for by the family. Here they lay dying for two days until in their last hours they were shifted to Kovilpatti government hospital where they died.

Still, not one of the 27 police personnel, inspector and ‘friends of the police’ in that station saw or heard anything that night. The people outside pleading for their family did. But not the DSP Prathaban, who just before midnight told the anxious crowd that both were in a good condition.  Next morning, the doctors at the hospital saw nothing of 30 injuries. The magistrate too somehow missed this. And for two days, the jailors saw nothing. No one saw the agony. No one saw the law. No one saw their duty. Still, why should I be shocked: data shows that there are five deaths in police and judicial custody every day, so it would be safe to say that the system is comfortable with this routine.

Also read: Justice for Jayaraj and Bennix Means Ending a Culture of Impunity

The Madurai bench of the Madras high court though was moved enough to take cognisance of the matter suo moto the next day. Without its immediate oversight, the statutory inquiries that followed, the appointment of the revenue authorities to take over the police station so as not to lose evidence, the direction to the crime branch CID to take over the investigation that finally led to arrests, would not have been initiated. As it was the police were so uncooperative and disrespectful that the court slapped an additional SP, a DSP and a constable with criminal contempt.

Still, the court was not shocked enough to dip into the role Saravanan, the judicial magistrate, Sathankulam might have played, given that the diligent application of his statutory duties had a direct bearing on life and death outcomes for father and son. In fact, it dismissed as “non-maintainable” a public interest litigation (PIL) seeking that very answer on a technical ground. Saravanan, meanwhile, continues to sit and perform his duties in a manner uninterrupted by any administrative or penal inquiries or sanction. It does not seem right and proper for the public to be subjected to his services while this unresolved cloud about his contribution to the fatalities of two people hangs over his competence. No less a personage than a former judge of the Madras high court, K. Chandru, is clear that Saravanan needs to go, due to judicial impropriety, misconduct and violation of Supreme Court guidelines on arrest. Yet three months later, there is little concern to be seen. Certainly, there is no shock and horror from his peers or his seniors.

A chilling regularity of torture unto death cases in Thoothukudi

The police too are not much shocked by the habit of torture unto death in Thoothukudi district. It took a week before the CB-CID – at the instance of the court – filed FIRs in the case. Finally, nine policemen have been chargesheeted. But other responsible officers who were on the spot or in the know are merely transferred: the SP to the cyber wing in Chennai, another as additional superintendent of police prohibition enforcement wing to the cool and quiet Nilgiris and the third to the anti-land grabbing special cell near Pudukottai. Their quick transfers without a loss of a day’s pay or a night’s sleep demonstrates the top brass’s usual tendency to shield their own, and not insist that they assume responsibility for their actions. A mere transfer without punishment signals a collective acceptance of wrongdoing on the part of the Tamil Nadu police force and its leadership. But not so unusual as to be shocking.

Villagers stage a protest in solidarity with Thoothukudi custodial death victims in Sathankulam. Photo: PTI

The pattern of impunity is more than clear. In 2018, Tamil Nadu registered the second highest reported cases of custodial deaths but none were chargesheeted. Suspicious custodial deaths are often attributed to innocent causes. This time too, at first the chief minister brushed aside the double murder as a case of respiratory illness or heart attack.

Despite examining father and son bleeding from the rectum for more than five hours, the imaginative Dr Vennila at Sathankulam government hospital managed to write a fit certificate for them. The appalling and very visible injuries were seen as simple scratches or abrasions perhaps due to a fall. Last heard, the good doctor was back from a sudden medical leave, posted to a hospital in the nearby district for a while, and is now back to Sattangulam. It remains unclear whether any departmental enquiry has been initiated against any of the hospital’s doctors.

Also read: Tamil Nadu: Social Media Outrage, Protests Over Brutal Thoothukudi Custodial Deaths

The national and state human rights commissions were quick enough to take the matter on board and call for post mortem, police and magisterial reports. But none have been submitted yet. Delay and defiance of commissions’ orders is the habitual ploy to exhaust them into torpor – especially since few consequences flow from the endless back-and-forthing of notices. At National Human Rights Commission (NHRC), from January to August, 65 more custodial death matters await glacial movement forward. No shocking rush to justice here.

Truth be told, this author would have been truly shocked if even one person at the police station that night had cried foul; if the doctors had recorded the horrible injuries; if, with hand on heart, the magistrate could say he had cast a glance at the broken and bleeding victims he sent to remand; if the jailors had insisted on their care; if afterwards all had hung their heads in shame and repentance and promised to do all they could to clean the stables of the offal so it never happened again.

But here’s the kicker. There is a sequel. After all this, in August another young man Martin, speaking to a magistrate after being spirited away to the safety of a distant hospital bed cited torture at the time of remand as the reason for landing up there. Young Selvan from close by Thattarmadam police station was not so lucky. He was killed in September: the FIR alleges it was at the instigation of a police inspector –  again within Sathankulam police sub-division – well named Sathankulam – the Devil’s Pool. I will mourn him and say a prayer. But I am not shocked.

Maja Daruwala is a senior advisor to the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative.