Interview: Tuticorin MP Kanimozhi Says Custodial Deaths of Jayaraj, Bennix Saw 'Failure at Many Levels'

From the DGP to the district collector to the NHRC, Kanimozhi has met and sent representations to various officials and institutions in the past few days.

The arrest and custodial deaths of father and son Jayaraj and Bennix in Sathankulam of Tamil Nadu’s Tuticorin district has sparked off dialogue and outrage across the country.

Tuticorin Lok Sabha MP and DMK’s Women’s Wing secretary Kanimozhi was among the first of political leaders to travel to Sathankulam and reach out to the family of the victims. She handed over a relief of Rs 25 lakh on behalf of the DMK to the family, and has been vocal about the need for justice in this case.

From the DGP to the district collector to the National Human Rights Commission, Kanimozhi has met and sent representations to various officials and institutions in the past few days. In her second petition sent to the NHRC on June 29, Kanimozhi demanded that the rights body take action against multiple incidents of custodial violence in the same station.

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

In this interview to The Wire, Kanimozhi speaks on why it is time to introspect as a society about our responses to police violence.

It looks like the case might be transferred to the CBI now. What are your thoughts on this?

The state government has recommended that the case be transferred to CBI. But it is a clear case of blatant murder. What has the state government done till now by way of action in this case? Why has an FIR not been filed under Section 302 [of the IPC]? Why have not there been any arrests?

How do the police officials who could commit such heinous crimes enjoy this kind of impunity?

The NHRC has laid clear guidelines about custodial deaths. These have been violated at all levels. The failure to register a case accordingly is a direct violation of NHRC guidelines. This is not even being treated as murder. The suspensions of the police officers responsible for this came about only after mounting pressure. I had met the DGP and given him a letter.

Even before the autopsy could happen, the chief minister said the deaths happened because of breathlessness. Kadambur Raju – a minister from this region – said these are not lock up deaths.

Do you think the statements are motivated?

I don’t even want to accuse the chief minister or his council of ministers, but they are not giving me any choice. It is evident that they want to cover it up.

The violence is gruesome. Reports suggest that they have been sexually tortured.

It certainly is. This violence is the result of the policemen’s urge to show their power – to show who is the boss.

Nobody deserves violence, not even the worst kind of accused. Jayaraj and Bennix were ordinary traders, running a shop. Their family was waiting for them to come back. Why should this happen to them?

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Their crime, if true, is that they had kept their shop open for a few more minutes than was allowed. It did not even deserve an arrest. It is not a crime for which you will be sentenced to seven years of imprisonment. Why should they be arrested, especially during a pandemic where there are demands to release undertrials?

The Sathankulam police have a history of custodial violence, according to reports.

It is now emerging that there have been many incidents of violence perpetrated by these policemen. We are talking about Jayaraj and Bennix because they have died.

One Mr Mahendran who was unlawfully taken into custody and badly beaten by the Sathankulam police in connection with an investigation of a crime died recently. He was not even an accused. I am told there are people who have been maimed for life, people who have been disabled [due to police torture]. Their entire life has changed just because one policeman thought it was okay to use violence on a common person to establish his authority.

You have mentioned in your petition to NHRC that there are have been 15 custodial deaths in Tamil Nadu in the last two years.

True. Also according to statistics, there are 1,730 custodial deaths happening every year in India. That means an average of five deaths every day. It is certainly not a small number. We cannot afford to ignore it. And these numbers are just about deaths. We have not even started to talk about disabilities and other kinds of problems caused by such police violence. Imagine the mental stress of a person who has suffered the police violence.

You have been meeting officials and sending petitions to institutions like NHRC.

I have met district officials, DGP and others. They keep saying the law will take its course. I wish it did. Nevertheless, I think the district SP should take responsibility of this and act accordingly. He did not communicate to NHRC about the occurrence of deaths within 24 hours, as is mandatory

Also read: NHRC Blames Jamia Students for Police Violence, Wants ‘Real Motive’ of Anti-CAA Protest Probed

What about others?

I would say it is a failure at many levels. How could any doctor give fitness certificate in a case like this? It is now clear that the victims were bleeding from their rectum and there was no skin on their backs.

We know now that they have been changing clothes and continued to bleed. After all this, there has been medical certificates. What happened at the Magistrate’s? The prison records say they were bleeding and their legs were swollen. How could they be taken into jail, in that case? And now, there is an elaborate attempt to cover up the entire thing.

There have been reports of increased police violence during the lockdown.

We [the society] have always overlooked violence, we have always sought to justify police violence. We always thought it was okay to beat criminals, or to even shoot them. It is okay to kill them because they could otherwise come out on bail and be denied justice. In our films, if the hero is a police officer, he has every right to kill.

Also read: Every Custodial Death a Reminder of Why India Must Ratify the Convention Against Torture

When the lockdown started, there was an acceptance about police violence because many of us thought it was the only way to make people stay at home. Now we suddenly find it outrageous because it has gone beyond some beatings, it has taken two lives.

We should also remember that those who have died are from the middle class, they are educated. It is not an auto driver or a daily wage labourer who has been killed. And that is why it has shaken our conscience. Why are we never talking about someone who has committed suicide because of constant harassment at the hands of police? There are many such cases. There is increased domestic violence under lockdown. Why is this not part of our narrative anywhere?

What do you think should happen now?

Here is a case where finally everybody thinks that a wrong has been done. This is the time for us to stop, introspect and make sure that it is just not enough to punish the people who were behind this, we have to make sure that this does not ever happen again.

We have to make existing checks and balances functional enough to achieve this. We need stringent laws in place to punish these kind of crimes.