Police Brutality, Custodial Deaths, and (Un)Just System

Police, as an institution, is like an organ in a body. It is designed to perform a certain function, i.e., catch the bad guys. 

As millions of Americans march on the streets of Oklahoma, Washington D.C., Minneapolis, etc. to protest the institutional murder of George Floyd, the world’s attention now needs to shift towards the custodial deaths of Jayaraj and Bennix in India.

The Police system in India is in a dangerous state of disrepair with skyrocketing cases of human rights violations, encounter killings and institutional murders. The custodial death of a father-son duo has sparked a nation-wide outrage against the police brutality in Thoothukudi district of Tamil Nadu.

Their crime: Violation of COVID-19 guidelines.

Earlier this week, P. Jayaraj and his son Bennix were arrested for reportedly keeping their shops open and thereby, allegedly violating the lockdown guidelines. Bennix owned a small mobile store in Sathankulam town in Thoothukudi.

On June 19, the police patrolling the town had visited the shop and argued with Jayaraj. They took him to the police station thereafter. When Bennix rushed to the police station to meet his father, he was arrested as well. The duo was booked under the IPC Section 188 (disobedience to order duly promulgated by public servant), and 353 (use of force to deter public servant from duty) among many others.

Two days after the arrest, both Jayaraj and Bennix died in the police custody. Several eyewitnesses have accused the police of brutally harassing and sexually assaulting both men. A friend of Jayaraj recounted the incident and said: “When we saw the two, they were dripping with blood and badly hurt. Their clothes were soaked in blood.”

The incident has triggered a nation-wide outrage against police brutality. In India, it is largely “vulnerable” who become the victims of police brutality. Here, we take actions of institutional murders in the form of extrajudicial killings, lockup deaths, and police brutality as a given. In our society, we have normalised police brutality and encounter culture.

In the weeks following the COVID-19 lockdown in India, the police used their lathis on the poor and vulnerable to adhere to the guidelines, while the rich had complete impunity. In the Indian city of Pune, an ambulance driver was beaten up by the police on suspicion that he was illegally transporting passengers in his vehicle, which he was not.

In another instance, a man in West Bengal was assaulted for stepping out to buy milk, who later died from his injuries. However, there has been no outrage against the police brutality all through the anti-CAA protests, and the lockdown that followed. The brutal custodial death of Jayaraj and Bennix has enabled many Indians to express their anguish on social media.

There is no denying that torture and beating up of suspects to extract confession remains a major source of police legitimacy in India. This legitimacy is derived out of ignorance of the people towards their constitutional rights, and the unfortunate arrogance of police as an institution. Policemen, who engage in such acts, are rarely punished by the system. In many instances, they are transferred from one district to another, bestowing them with clear impunity for their crimes.

The National Campaign Against Torture (NCAT) in its “India: Annual Report on Torture 2019” reveals that as many as 1,731 people have died in police custody during 2019, i.e., death of above five persons daily. The torture methods, the report highlights, include hammering iron nails in the body, applying roller on legs and burning, beating on the feet, stretching legs apart, and hitting on private parts.

In a most striking admission to Human Rights Watch in 2009, a police officer said: “This week, I was told to do an encounter.” He continued, “I am looking for my target, and I will eliminate him.” There are police officers, who derive their pride in the total number of encounters they have carried out in their career. Many of the “super-cop” Indian cinemas romanticize torture, beating and encounters as an “ultimate justice”. This romanticisation gets strongly engrained in our minds that we tend to accept that police has legitimacy over violence.

Another report by Common Cause and the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies notes that there is a significant bias against Muslims among the police, where half of those interviewed said that Muslims are naturally prone to committing violence.

Vulnerable become an easy target for the police brutality: Muslims, farmers, Dalits, Adivasis, poor, transgenders, and migrant labours. People in the villages have a certain stigma attached to the police institution. It is often believed that “an honourable man will not enter a police station or courtroom”. Police itself has become an institution of oppression, an enforcer of fear, and a spear-header of morality.

Police, as an institution, is like an organ in a body. It is designed to perform a certain function, i.e., catch the bad guys. If one were to explain in a sophisticated language, the police function is to protect the citizens from crime. But what if an institution designed to protect citizens, becomes the perpetrator of the crime?

Michael Foucault, in his influential work, Discipline and Punish pointed out: Even when we believe that the prisons have failed at their tasks, we tend to keep them. Perhaps, we should not ask why the prison fails, instead what it actually succeeds at?

When we ask the same question regarding the police, we will know that the police succeed at treating the way you are intended to. If you are an educated elite, they do their best to keep you safe. In this process, they also succeed in suppressing the “vulnerable.” They suppress those who question the status quo. It is a result of a broken police system. A system that allows the police to investigate, prosecute and pass judgement for a crime at the same time.

To truly confront the problem of custodial death in our society, we need to completely overhaul the institution of policing. Improvised training is an essential element in that regard. The police officials ought to strictly abide by the procedural conduct, and have the utmost respect for human rights. The government should empower independent committees to investigate the matters of human rights violations and reduce impunity. The government also has to enact and enforce strict laws against torture, and inhuman treatment of the criminal suspects.

Picture Credits: The Guardian/Illustration by Nathalie Lees

3 thoughts on “Police Brutality, Custodial Deaths, and (Un)Just System”

    1. Well, police brutality is very much embedded in the society in India. Civil society movements have been suppressed during the Corona crisis. However, we all surely can contribute in preventing such an institution from sustaining. I am doing my bit with this article. But, this isn’t enough! We sure need to reform our society and educate people about it. Only then, we will be able to deal with it.

      Liked by 1 person

  1. If I quickly analyze the situation in the US, I would say fear/mistrust of one another is at the core of the violence. The over-abundance of guns also adds to this fear as every civilian can be seen as lethal.

    I don’t know much about the situation in India. What would you say is at the core of the violence there?


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