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police brutality in India

Police Brutality and the Dreadful Practice of Custodial Deaths in India

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 nationwide outrage against police brutality in the 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 allegedly violating the lockdown guidelines. Bennix owned a small mobile store in Sathankulam town in Thoothukudi.

On June 19, the police patrolling the town visited the shop and argued with Jayaraj. They took him to the police station after that.

custodial deaths
11,656 people died in custody (police and judicial) between 2016 to 2022. While 22% of these took place in Uttar Pradesh, 5 big states have a much higher per capita incidence of deaths. | Credits: Twitter/Stats of India

When Bennix rushed to the police station to meet his father, he was also arrested. 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, Jayaraj and Bennix died in 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.”

Incidences of Police Brutality in India

The incident has triggered a nationwide 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 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.

police brutality in India
Police violence and custodial deaths in India

In another instance, a man in West Bengal was assaulted for stepping out to buy milk, and he later died from his injuries. However, there has been no outrage against police brutality throughout the anti-CAA protests and the following lockdown. 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 significant source of police legitimacy in India. This legitimacy is derived from people’s ignorance of their constitutional rights and the unfortunate arrogance of the police as an institution.

The system rarely punishes police officers who engage in such acts. In many instances, they are transferred from one district to another, bestowing them with clear impunity for their crimes.

Statistics on Police Violence in India

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 the legs and burning, beating on the feet, stretching the legs apart, and hitting 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 will eliminate him.” There are police officers who derive their pride in the total number of encounters they have carried out in their careers.

Many “super-cop” Indian cinemas romanticize torture, beating and encounters as an “ultimate justice”. This romanticisation gets so strongly engrained in our minds that we tend to accept that the police have legitimacy over violence.

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

Vulnerable become an easy target for police brutality: Muslims, farmers, Dalits, Adivasis, poor, transgender people, and migrant labourers. 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 as an institution for the oppression of poor

Police have become an institution of oppression, an enforcer of fear, and a spearheader of morality. The 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 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?

In his influential work, Discipline and Punish, Michael Foucault pointed out that 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 does it succeed at?

police brutality in india
Indian police detains the Progressive Organisation for Women (POW) leader Sandhya(C) during a protest against the arrest of poet and activist Varavara Rao in Hyderabad, on August 29, 2018. – Indian police arrested five outspoken lawyers and left-wing activists during raids across the country August 28 that drew condemnation from opposition parties and rights watchdogs who said it was a crackdown on critics of the government. (Photo by NOAH SEELAM / AFP)

When we ask the same question regarding the police, we will know that the police succeed at treating you 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 judgment for a crime simultaneously.

How do we confront police violence and custodial deaths in India?

To honestly confront the problem of custodial death in our society, we need to overhaul the institution of policing completely. Improvised training is an essential element in that regard. Police officials ought to strictly abide by procedural conduct and have the utmost respect for human rights.

The government should empower independent committees to investigate human rights violations and reduce impunity. The government must also enforce strict laws against torture and inhumane treatment of criminal suspects.

Picture Credits: The Guardian/Illustration by Nathalie Lees

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3 thoughts on “Police Brutality and the Dreadful Practice of Custodial Deaths in India”

  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?

    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.

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