Custodial deaths should spur police reforms

The barbaric torture by the police at Sathankulam in Tamil Nadu, resulting in the death of a man and his son, is a routine reminder of the existing gap between the rule of law and the role of law, too wide to be bridged otherwise. Police reforms are pointless unless these are directed at the police stations and further complemented by the judicial reforms.

Custodial deaths should spur police reforms

Tragic: The death of two men in Tamil Nadu after alleged police torture following arguments over closure of a shop has caused outrage.

Vikash Rarain Rai

Former Director, National Police Academy, Hyderabad

HIDDEN in plain sight, patronised hierarchically, peer-motivated! These three dimensions of a rogue phenomenon called police high-handedness, securely entrenched in our law and order culture, were on glaring display in the custodial murder of P Jayaraj and his son J Fennix in Sathankulam town near Thoothukudi in Tamil Nadu. The duo was tortured on June 19 inside the local police station after an argument with the beat police the previous day over lockdown closure of their modest mobile shop within the prescribed time limit.

Despatched to a sub-jail 100 km away the next day, both were spotted bleeding profusely from the rectum. Fennix was admitted to Kovilpatti General Hospital on June 22; he died within a couple of hours. His father passed away on the morning of June 23.

The offences in the FIR against them also included causing obstruction to the police and intimidation, none punishable with imprisonment exceeding seven years, not requiring arrest, since there were no exceptional circumstances as enumerated under Section 41 (b) of the Criminal Procedure Code. To cover up the torture, the FIR mentioned the internal injuries self-inflicted by the accused by rolling on the ground during the confrontation with the police. Their obviously serious injuries, nevertheless, failed to make an impact on the examining doctor who discharged them as fit, and did not deter the remanding magistrate from mechanically sending them to judicial custody or the sub-jail authorities from quietly admitting them in incarceration.

Faced with public outrage, the two sub-inspectors directly involved, both with an earlier record of atrocities, were placed under suspension. The Madurai bench of the Madras High Court ordered a judicial inquiry on June 26. It also directed to arrange professional counselling for the police personnel in these trying lockdown times. The Tamil Nadu DGP has, after the incident, issued standard operating procedures (SOP) to be followed for dealing with lockdown violations, while the CM announced Rs 10 lakh solatium and a government job to a member each of the deceased families.

No case was registered even when a month back, the same set of police officers was involved in a similar sequence of custodial torture and death of another young man, Mahendran, a construction worker whose family was too poor and too frightened to agitate. Back in June 2006, another case of custodial death had taken place at the Sathankulam police station. The case is still pending in the sessions court.

The barbaric torture at Sathankulam is only a routine reminder of the existing gap between the rule of law and the role of law, too wide to be bridged otherwise. I have always shared the view that the police reforms are pointless unless directed at the police stations and further complemented by the judicial reforms. Justice K Chandru, a former judge of the Madras High Court, commented, “The police have a modus operandi. Take the accused to a pliable magistrate, get a remand order, put them in a jail where they have some extra-constitutional tie-up and then forget everything.”

Sudhanshu Sarangi, Police Commissioner, Bhubaneswar, chose to zero in on the aspects of reorganising the police stations, “The bottomline is we haven’t been able to conceptualise the basic units of policing, that is police stations, any differently. These excesses are mostly located in police stations. So, we know where and how?”

By mostly operating below a convenient social threshold, the present system breathes vitality and sustenance into such practices. The momentum is broken once in a while by an odd hue and cry campaign against a repulsive killing. That, however, is never enough to trigger the critical energy explosion required to shake our society into a now or never reform mode, as is presently being witnessed in the US in the wake of the George Floyd stir with former President Barack Obama suggesting that the protest and politics need to move together in that direction. May be that’s too idealistic. In comparison, President Trump’s response is too evasive — an executive order that aims to accomplish three things — to incentivise police departments to use modernised best practices, to increase information sharing by tracking people who have ‘excessive’ use-of-force complaints, and to address mental health, homelessness and addiction, severely limited to the familiar boast, “Nobody hates bad cops more than the good cops.”

The much-hyped American reform measures like de-funding and disbanding belong to the administrative genre and not law and order. The one, apart from tracking users of excessive force, that seems likely to make a serious impact on police high-handedness, useful even in Indian police stations, would be to cast an individual mandate to intervene in a situation of excessive or illegal force. But, unlike America, India is not tech-ripe to claim such seismic criminal justice reforms as integral to civil rights.

Like the countering of racist American politics has catapulted itself in the forefront of their reform movement, there may arise someday an urgency to link the momentum in India too with negating the communally divisive politics. But, let us face it, the culture of high-handedness in police is resting on a wider pedestal than just the politics of social and economic discrimination. The malady is basically historical and organisational. Be it India, America or any other country, the elements conditioning high-handedness will have a more focused linkage with the respective training models — standalone, regimented, authoritative, militaristic, integrated, community oriented, democratically sensitised, culturally compatible, demographically representative, constitutionally conditioned, etc. Choose your mix of training bag and accordingly suffer or enjoy the character of policing.

Here is a comparison between two developed societies, with a history of cultural stresses, but opposite in policing skills and orientation. In Germany, where two years of training is required to become a police officer, 267 people have died in police shooting since 1990. In the US, where a high school diploma and 21-24 weeks of training are enough for the purpose, the police have killed 1,004 people in 2019 alone. Back in India, the nonsensical logic of the police being compelled to be a source of indiscriminate justice has been perpetuated for too long. The moot question should be whether the feeble uproar around the Sathankulam killings will give any fillip to wider police training reforms.

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