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Tamil Nadu Custodial Deaths Are a Reminder Not to Miss the Forest for the Trees

The events cannot be fully explained by readymade answers such as “caste conflict”. Instead, it is the slip-ups on the part of the state machinery that need to be problematised.

The infamous custodial deaths of two traders, Jeyaraj and his son Bennix, in Sathankulam town, Thoothukudi district of Tamil Nadu has sparked a country-wide discussion on impunity and excesses of the state. The incident in question is a manifestation of the decaying integrity of institutions, and reflects the incompetence of the executive wing and its lack of political imagination.

A section of the media has taken recourse in conventional discourse on caste conflict to explain these deaths. However, several complex factors are at play here, as social relations between communities in the state have been going through changes. This progression of events cannot be fully explained by readymade answers such as “caste conflict”. Instead, it is the slip-ups on the part of the state machinery that need to be problematised. Like anywhere else in the country, inter-community relations are at times marked by restiveness and mistakes on the part of the state have a cumulative effect on social harmony.

Custodial deaths as a worrying symptom of incompetence

According to the National Crime Records Bureau annual reports, between 2001 and 2018 there were over 1,727 custodial deaths in India in which 26 policemen were convicted, 334 charge-sheeted and 810 had cases registered against them. Over the same period, TN and four other states – Andhra Pradesh, Gujarat, Maharashtra and West Bengal – recorded over 100 custodial deaths each and zero convictions.

Also read: What Public Reactions to Police Brutality in the US and India Say

In TN, it is widely perceived that the police force under All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) in comparison to Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) is stronger and enjoys greater autonomy. The organisational structures of these parties and their governance styles correlate with this perception.

Table-1 presents year-wise and term-wise breakup of custodial deaths in TN, which reaffirms this viewpoint. On a broader note, it has been argued that the socio-political movement in the state has ushered in a sense of tolerance and effectively contained inter-community conflicts. Therefore, recent rise in incidences of police excess and the spike in average custodial deaths squarely point towards the inability of the executive to manage the police and absence or failure of checks and balances that curb impunity.

Table 1: Custodial Deaths in TN 2001-2018

Year Total Deaths (TN) Average

DMK vs AIADMK Govts

2001 5 AIADMK

 

5

2002 6
2003 4
2004 7
2005 3
2006 6 DMK

 

3.2

2007 2
2008 1
2009 5
2010 2
2011 6 AIADMK

 

7.6

2012 7
2013 15
2014 7
2015 3
2016 5 AIADMK

 

8.3

2017 8
2018 12
Total 104 5.77

The Sathankulam episode is an apt example of this: we have a seemingly concerted communiqué by state officials, elusive responses from the chief minister, a delay in initiating a probe against the alleged offenders in the police force. The Madurai bench of the Madras high court suo motu ordered a probe into the deaths and the officials at Sathankulam police station refused to abide the ruling. Consequently, for the first time since independence, revenue officials were directed to take over the police station and police officers concerned were transferred.

While the CB-CID has made arrests and is investigating this case, the indifference of ministers and spokespersons of the ruling party, who all but refuse to acknowledge the crisis at hand, is a worrying departure from how their predecessors had responded to similar incidents.

Sathankulam as a misfit in the prevailing discourse on caste conflicts

The deceased father and son were Christian Nadars, a merchant backward caste. As news of their custodial death found its way to TV screens and sparked social media chatter among Tamil-speaking people, there surfaced a slow crystallisation of the public imagination in alignment with conventional caricatures of caste enmity. That is, the history of clashes between Nadars and Mukkulathors briefly became the focal point of the discussion on why the duo was killed in custody.

Soon, however, there were reports regarding the caste identity of the policemen involved – the two sub-inspectors and the inspector – which did not match the earlier Mukkulathor-Nadar narrative. It turned out that the sub-inspectors and inspector are not Mukkulathor. So now it came to be widely speculated that two of the police officers involved were Konar and Naicker by caste. But there is a problem with this version too, for there is no history of pronounced antagonism between Konars and Nadars. Therefore, the Sathankulam incident has to be analysed above caste binaries, especially given the similar social status of the parties involved.

Selvarani, wife and mother of the deceased duo, mentioned in her complaint that members of a Joint Governmental Organisation (JGO) for community policing, Friends of Police (FoP) were involved in this incident of custodial deaths. Once this came to light, a debate was kick-started in the mainstream and social media on the role of community policing volunteer outfits including FoP and their association with local religious and caste groups from where they draw volunteers. There is widespread speculation that Seva Bharati, an affiliate of the RSS, had a role in this incident too. Along with FoPs, the Seva Bharati has been providing local police assistance in enforcing the COVID-19 lockdown. However, the FoP has categorically denied the role of its volunteers. With these two organisations now in the crosshairs, a religious angle entered the existing institutional and caste angles.

Also read: Sathankulam Case: Tamil Nadu Government Bars Activities of ‘Friends of Police’

The primary question being raised is with respect to how volunteer groups (like Seva Bharati) find their way into the policing system and engage with (or influence) the nature of policing of any given region. The apparent emergence of parallel extra-constitutional policing structures at a time when checks and balances in formal police structures face a breakdown raises serious questions.

The third TN Police Commission Report submitted in 2008 had cautioned against possibility of undesirable elements taking advantage of the FoPs arrangement. The Sathankulam custodial deaths warrant a relook at community policing, keeping in mind the interplay of religion, caste, and institutional integrity of the police force.

With chief minister Edappadi Palaniswami in charge of home affairs, it is imperative that he redresses this situation, so that the people of the state can be convinced of the integrity of public institutions. At the same time, approaching such incidents through a narrow caste-conflict framework trivialises patent social complexities. In other words, the discourse on the Sathankulam incident serves as a timely reminder to not miss the forest for the trees.

Vignesh Karthik KR is a doctoral researcher at the King’s India Institute, King’s College London. Jeyannathann Karunanithi is a political analyst based in Chennai.