This article is written by Vividh Jain, a student of the Institute of Law, NIRMA University. In this article, the author questions the long-prevailing police brutality in the case of Jayaraj and Bennix where a father and his son were brutally killed in police custody.
The gruesome massacres of a father-son duo of P. Jayaraj (60) and Bennix (31) under police custody in the Tuticorin district of Tamil Nadu have sent shockwaves around the country and even in the world. Jayaraj and Bennix were reported to have a mobile business in the city. When P. Jayaraj closed his store around 8:15 p.m. that is, 15 Minutes after the 8 pm curfew levied by the State-Government during COVID-19 pandemic, the patrolling officers arrested him for running the business beyond the time allowed due to lockdown regulations by which the verbal arguments heated up between the victim and police. They allegedly had beaten up the father and son at the police station and then detained them in the sub-jail.
Information related to the case
On June 23, 2020, friends and family of Jayaraj and Bennix were informed that they had died of wounds in the public hospital in Kovilpatti which is more than 100 kilometres from their hometown Sathankulam, in the Thoothukudi district in Tamil Nadu. Four days ago, on June 19, 2020, the father-son duo was arrested by police for allegedly opening the cell phone store after the lockdown curfew period and the police took them to Kovilpatti. Since then they have been arrested by the police. The series and elements of the events that took place are in two versions. A First Information Report lodged claims that when the father-son duo was asked to shut down their shop on June 19, 2020, “Jayaraj and Bennix sat down on the ground and verbally insulted us and rolled up on the ground by which they sustained internal injuries.” It further claims that the father-son duo threatens the police by saying that the officers would be beaten and killed if the police forced them to leave.
On the other hand, eyewitness reports say that the father-son duo was not picked up together, and was instead taken away by police on different days. They further say that there was an altercation between them and the police on June 18, the day before Jayaraj was taken into custody, which later led to police arresting Jayaraj and Bennix on false charges. Again, the witnesses said that several policemen at the station beat them up for hours. Bennix’s friends say that they had heard the screaming of the words like how dare Bennix decided to speak against the police or even think to go against the police. There are reports that they were so severely and brutally attacked that the victims had to change their blood-drenched lungis six times. Bennix’s sister Persis claimed that her father and brother have been sexually assaulted by inserting steel batons in their anus.
The father-son duo was booked under Section 188, Section 269, Section 353, and Section 506 of the Indian Penal Code, 1860. Their health worsened and when it was too late they were just rushed to the hospital. On 22 June, Bennix died of his injuries and his father died the morning after. After seeing the corpses ahead of the autopsy, Bennix’s elder sister Persis told reporters in Tuticorin on 24 June that her father and brother had been tortured to death and she demanded justice for the brutality faced by her father and brother.
A history of police atrocities and recklessness
The lockdown due to COVID-19 pandemic and global mobilization after George Floyd ‘s death has helped to concentrate the attention of the entire world in this case. The Tamil Nadu police are no longer strangers to such controversy. In reality, with its violence and high-handedness, it has gained prominence, typically perpetrated against the hapless poor and the oppressed parts of society. There is a list of high-profile events, aside from several cases that have gained little to no publicity. Even where the accused officers were brought to book, especially in the case of the torturing and killing the Dalit housewife Karuppi, and the village of Vachathi where police routinely raped women and damaged and plundered properties. These cases were closed by the obstruction, harassment, witness intimidation, and took a long time to reach a verdict.
Unfortunately, these justice cases being served are the exception rather than the norm in India. A Human Rights Watch report states that, according to the National Crime Statistics Bureau, 591 people had died in police custody between 2010 and 2015 (the number of the deaths in judicial custody is even higher), but not a single officer was held accused of custodial death in that time period. The study stated that police misconduct essentially represented a failure of the central government and governments of concerned states to enforce the accountability mechanisms.
As in the Jayaraj and Bennix case, it is always up to the victims’ families to pursue judicial redress and expose the facts in the face of police denials and efforts to cover up what has happened. Nor is this obfuscation and foot-dragging restricted to individual behaviour. In reaction to police use of force against individuals, a similar trend can be found. For example, in 2018 police fired into an open crowd demanding the closure of the Thoothukudi Sterlite Factory, in which it killed 13 people and injured another 102. As with Jayaraj and Bennix ‘s deaths, protocols, policies, and procedures were not followed and the police were accused of excessive use of force. A one-man commission was formed to investigate the incident, but no officers were charged in connection with the attack, though the police hounded the activists and protesters.
Police violence thus either goes completely unnoticed or is condoned, because our culture embraces punishment as justice. Even the fact that the case of Jayaraj and Bennix has gained as much attention as it has, seems to be due to the extremely graphic nature of the attack and, more significantly, to the current global outcry against police brutality that followed the murder of George Floyd. Also, they did not notice the facts of sexual violence towards men that happened by police brutality.
Victims of Hegemonic Hetero-masculinity
Jayaraj and Bennix fall victim to hegemonic hetero-masculinity. It is hegemonic since it was the police (as the state tools) that targeted ordinary people. This is heteronormative since anal penetration has been performed in a derogatory manner to humiliate them, as it is considered less masculine and thus humiliating for the body of a man to have been the source of homosexuality in some way, even voluntary or not. Finally, because of the definition of superiority touched on earlier it is masculine. They wanted to show Jayaraj and Bennix their original place. They wanted to show them that they were not to be challenged (hence the many screaming about ‘how dare you both talk against the police’); they also wanted to show them that there is a price to defiance, that they were more strong and powerful than them. Hence, hegemonic hetero-masculinity is something that can victimize the bulk of the population. This is about victimizing people who are living with the LBGTQ community. As a member of the popular male community, it oppressed Jayaraj and Bennix with no individual political influence. Needless to add, patriarchy, whose weapon is hegemonic hetero-masculinity, even victimizes people.
The solution to this, and many others, problems of police brutality is a reconstruction of any structure around the world that is focused on the perpetuation of injustice. There’s something to say in the police reform movement gaining steam in the United States. Most fundamentally, it encourages all to strive and work towards a world that is inclusive, secure and conducive to the flourishing of the most marginalized individual, if it’s not out of the goodness of our souls, at least because such a society would obviously be freer for each one of us in one way or the other.
What the plethora of events that led up to the custodial killing of Jayaraj and Bennix shows is a police department that can not be kept to account. The persistent refusal to keep police to account for egregious violations of their own rules of ethics will only help to erode the confidence and integrity upon which effective policing rests. The consequence is the power which is separated from the people and functions as a statute for itself. India’s tacit tolerance of torture has made it a ‘public secret,’ as Baljeet Kaur claimed in Economic and Political Weekly. The public spotlight gained by these tragic murders sheds a welcoming light on this tumultuous country, but until it will translate into systemic institutional change that requires police conduct to be regulated judicially, revises educational systems that prioritize civil rights, and ensures the end of a system of repression, there will be plenty more like Jayaraj and Bennix.
A culture of impunity
Weak regulatory protections and insufficient enforcement of those that remain exacerbate police excesses, but as untouchability regulations show, legislative legislation alone is ineffective to effect substantive progress. Alongside these initiatives, the institutional legitimation of police brutality has to be discussed. Not only is disproportionate police use of force a ‘true secret’ – the hallmark of film scripts in both South and North India – it’s also glorified on the silver screen. Interestingly, some stars and directors are now showing remorse for having praised abusive cops in their history. Politicians perpetuate the values imparted by mainstream culture and are also eager to applaud the police in ‘encounters’ (often extra-judicial killings) for swift intervention. The result, argues Shubhangi Misra, is that they perceive and accept police brutality as a society.
Although public interest may help to understand the lack of outrage about the systematic existence of police brutality, it is not essential to the authorities’ functioning. As K.S. Subramanian says, independent India has inherited from the British Raj, a state system that was segregated from civilization and stood apart. The policing style originated from the Royal Irish Constabulary, stressing law and order rather than consent-based policing, and its tradition can be seen today. However, Beatrice Jauregui states in her fine-grained ethnographic study of policing in Uttar Pradesh how the police are continuously incorporated into the community they represent. Far too many officers have not been separated completely from the neighbourhoods they represent, rather than the opposite. The caste angle of violence is one of the under-reported facets of the Jayaraj and Bennix murders. Although a lot of police brutality is aimed towards minorities, Ravishankar states that in inter-caste competition, the Sathakulam case was tied up.
The police, that reminds us, are bound to caste and community networks and bring with them their prejudices. In the aftermath of the Southern Districts Caste battles that shocked southern Tamil Nadu between 1995 and 1998, a government-appointed committee found that members of a single dominant intermediate caste were predominant in police and recommended that posts could not be rendered in that direction.
It is concluded that the members belonging to the three caste groups that were engaged and affected in the conflicts should not be posted in the region, and caste leaders from other areas of the country should be posted there in order to avoid potential power abuse. Had these been adopted, among countless other guidelines, we would not now be agonizing over yet another death in detention. Using as an example of this tragic situation, Tamil Nadu has to come down heavily on torture in detention. The prosecution of Thoothukuddi must be investigated aggressively and with effective punishment levied on the victims of torture in detention.
The legislation against custodial killings needs to be made more strict on the part of the authorities. What occurred at Sathankulam Police Station is among the most heinous offences, allowed by a system of immunity. That puts the credibility of the police department itself into question. Madras High Court’s Madurai bench has set a clear precedent for resolute intervention and oversight. Immediate next measures will keep senior officers accountable for the torture under their supervision, beginning with the District SP. Until now, even a court-monitored inquiry has a chance to maintain police immunity.
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