The custodial murder in Tamil Nadu of P Jeyaraj and J Beniks has triggered public anger. Madras high court advocate and national general secretary of the People’s Union for Civil Liberties, V Suresh, speaks to Jiby J Kattakayam about it:
How did the system totally fail Jeyaraj and Beniks?
Let’s start where institutional safeguards kick in. Taken from the police station to Sathankulam general hospital, a medical officer gave a fitness certificate despite their injuries. This is abdication of responsibility and criminal negligence. Then comes the remand magistrate who missed spotting the signs of torture. This is a huge lapse that cost two lives. The next violation is taking the victims 100 plus kms away to Kovilpatti sub-jail despite other sub-jails available closer. The postmortem records several injuries unlike the sub-jail entry register’s silence on injuries. Then for two days these men would have writhed in pain before jail officials. It still doesn’t get over.
The district police chief claims that Jeyaraj and Beniks died of pre-existing conditions. But once the postmortem report revealing injuries became public he could have admitted his mistake and conceded the torture allegations. Under the Constitution he has an obligation to act by the law and truth. This is an unusual case. Both victims had no criminal antecedents. The ex-Tuticorin SP did three things here: covering up for juniors, dereliction of duty, and abdication of responsibility. Within one month he will be rehabilitated. Justice demands making all these officers accountable.
How prevalent is custodial torture in TN?
It may be one of India’s most developed states but custodial violence is very common. TN is a police state, like an iron hand in a velvet glove. The state tops south India in custodial deaths in NCRB data. We are forced to rely on the same police mechanism that perpetrates custodial violence. Naturally investigation and prosecution will be shoddy. So even a good judge has no option but to acquit cops. But TN does have specialised departments like CB-CID with excellent policing skills.
Why are magistrates failing to avert torture?
Let’s go step by step. The maximum torture happens between the time the police apprehend a person to when they actually record his arrest. I call this the extra-legal stage. Then comes the remand stage, where law is very clear that magistrate must peruse the remand application and FIR, and reach judicial satisfaction whether the offences made out are justified and custody is warranted. The magistrate is the sentinel of our constitutional rights at this stage. Unfortunately, 95% of magistrates in India have reduced this key judicial function to a procedural and mechanical rite. Magistrates are failing their duties because they do not know the law too well and their training isn’t sufficient.
Second, linkages between the local police officer, judicial magistrate, public prosecutor and medical officer are very strong, even cosy and chummy, especially away from big cities. Third, when cops complain about magistrates the latter rarely secure higher judiciary’s support. The magistrate is at the bottom of the hierarchy while a senior district police officer has influence in power centres. Magistrates have told me they know the laws but following the rule book will cause trouble.
What is the way forward for police reforms?
Police reform needs three changes: changing work culture, systemic changes, and democratising the structure. The working culture in police is extremely violent, brutal and debasing. I say this from personal observations. The swear words superior officers use on subordinates is absolutely filthy. This is a British Raj relic but officers think this helps control subordinates. When a citizen goes to the police inspector he/ she will be treated like dirt unless you have connections. The citizen is treated as an enemy to be controlled and hence the violence.
The working culture is not one that respects scientific investigation because cops do everything from bandobust, VIP duty, traffic, court appearances to solving crimes and attending civic issues. They are inhumanly overworked. Caste and community biases also run deep. Then there are political pressures which breed corruption. The law has no provision to dock police officers who sabotage a probe. On systemic change, our demands to make the chain of command accountable for investigation failures is going unheeded. Poor conviction rates stem from shoddy investigation because of compromises and impunity, not talent deficit. My third point of democratising the police involves improving the interface between police, political leadership and citizenry.
How is TN’s political leadership complicit?
Dravidian parties have governed for the last 50 years. Both parties use police as the centrepiece of their rule. Police play a key role in not just spying on radical elements or opposition parties but also rival factions within ruling parties. So there is a quid pro quo: Ruling politicians depend on police for their dirty work and allow the police a long rope. Sathankulam is the culmination of such egregious corrupt practices.
DISCLAIMER : Views expressed above are the author’s own.