The alleged custodial murder of a father-son duo by the Tamil Nadu Police in Sathankulam of Thoothukudi district has flared up mass discontent throughout the state and in different parts of India as well. P Jeyaraj (63) and his son Fenix Emmanuel (31) ran a mobile shop in Sathankulam. They were brutally tortured in police custody and were allegedly sodomised, which, the eyewitnesses allege, led to their death. The people of Tamil Nadu and other parts of India are vociferously demanding justice for Jeyaraj and Fenix.
The ghastly incident
On Friday, June 19th, Jeyaraj had an altercation with a police patrol team over keeping his shop open beyond 9pm violating the lockdown restrictions. It’s alleged by radio jockey Suchitra, in her interview with Barkha Dutt, that the actual cause of feud between the policemen and Jeyaraj was the latter’s refusal to sell a high-end mobile on an easy instalment plan to one of the policemen. When Jeyaraj was taken in custody and brought to Sathankulam police station, Fenix followed the police and reached the police station. Upon seeing the policemen torturing Jeyaraj, Fenix tried to stop them and rescue his father. This irked the policemen, who also took Fenix in custody and began torturing him along with his father.
The father-son duo was tortured in Sathankulam police station for hours. Their flesh was ripped off and they were sodomised severely in custody. “Between 7 am and 12 pm on June 20, the father and son had changed at least seven lungies each as they had become wet due to blood oozing from their rectums,” Rajkumar, a friend of Fenix reportedly told The Federal. Even when they were taken to the hospital and they had high blood pressure, the duty doctor was forced by Sathankulam police inspector Sridhar to give fit certificates. The duo was taken to Judicial Magistrate P Saravanan’s residence, where the magistrate didn’t even check their condition and allowed judicial custody in Kovilpatti sub-jail. The magistrate’s indifference is questioned and criticised by the bereaved family members.
After another round of torture in Kovilpatti sub-jail, Jeyaraj and Fenix were admitted in a local hospital on June 22nd, where Fenix died in the evening due to immense bleeding and Jeyaraj died in the wee hours of June 23rd. Their death sparked outrage as traders throughout Thoothukudi district began protesting and many shuttered their shops.
The principal opposition party Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) has stirred up a mass movement against the alleged custody killing and the Madras High Court took up a suo motu cognisance of the offence and asked for the postmortem report in a sealed cover. Some of the policemen are transferred, some are placed under suspension, while the government has announced a compensation of two million rupees for the family. The DMK has also announced an additional compensation of Rs 2.5m for the family. The local member of the parliament, Kanimozhi from the DMK, has been at the forefront of the movement and this has placed the ruling All-India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) in a tight spot.
As the victims belonged to the powerful Nadar community, which has strong socio-political influence in the region, there is a clear sign of danger for the ruling AIADMK, which has to face an election next year. As Kanimozhi and the DMK are stirring up mass movements, with the Communist Party of India (Marxist) and other political parties, human rights associations, trade unions, etc, joining the fray, the AIADMK is compelled to act swiftly against the culprits. However, whenever people from marginalised caste-class and communities face police brutality, the cases are simply thrown into the oblivion. They never create a national sensation.
India’s record in custody and extra-judicial killing
India, according to a report by a consortium of NGOs, recorded five custodial deaths daily in 2019. Uttar Pradesh, the north Indian state ruled by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindutva fascist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) with a Hindutva rabble-rouser monk-turned-politician Yogi Adityanath at the helm, tops the list of states in custodial deaths. Tamil Nadu, ruled by the BJP’s ideological ally AIADMK, is second in the list of custodial deaths.
Apart from custody killings, there are numerous extra-judicial killings under the garb of “encounters”, which help the Indian police force, which was designed and deployed by the British colonial rulers and still operate according to the manuals and procedures set during the colonial era, to subjugate and terrorise the masses. Independent United Nations’ experts have expressed alarm at the rate of police killings in the state of Uttar Pradesh and other places. Kashmir, Manipur, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Telangana, etc, states are infamous for custodial torture, extra-judicial killings and general police and military atrocities against the people too.
A few poor accused in a gruesome case of gangrape and murder were killed by the Telangana Police in December 2019. During the same period, the Delhi Police brutally tortured students who were protesting against Modi’s National Register of Citizens (NRC). The Uttar Pradesh Police allegedly sexually abused children in custody and Adityanath’s regime chest-thumped and gloated over the gory atrocities against Muslims protesting peacefully against the new citizenship matrix introduced by the Modi regime.
In February 2020, during the anti-Muslim pogrom in Delhi, the Delhi Police didn’t just remain a mute spectator, it joined the Hindutva fascists in attacking Muslim men and on video it was seen torturing wounded men and forcing them to sing the national anthem. One of those men died in the hospital later. Shedding all inhibitions of ignominy, the Delhi Police has slapped one after another case against students and activists protesting against the Modi regime’s divisive agenda and the BJP’s Hindutva fascist ideology. It has slapped terrorism charges against a pregnant woman like Safoora Zargar and locked her up for two months in custody. Many other Muslim activists are selectively targeted, ironically for the anti-Muslim pogrom that killed more than a hundred Muslims unofficially, while the real perpetrators, like BJP’s Kapil Mishra, remain scot-free and command the allegiance of Islamophobic policemen.
As Modi aims to titillate his followers with blood and atrocities against Muslims, these macabre police atrocities against Muslims and democratic people don’t face massive outrage, unlike what happened in the US, where the institutional murder of George Floyd, a black man accused of using a counterfeit currency, stirred a global anti-racist movement, demanding an end to racial supremacist fascism. Modi’s fascism is so far able to hold together the majority community’s dominant section and through them, he and the BJP are able to control public emotion. But it won’t be fair to blame the BJP alone for the Indian police’s brutality.
The colonial institution of policing
The British colonial rulers erected the edifice of policing while divorcing the policemen from the society and pitting them against it. Though it served their purpose of maintaining colonial hegemony by using a section of hired Indian men to oppress the broad masses of the country, in the post-colonial set up there has been an ardent need to decommission the colonial institution and develop a democratic, modern and humane institution for crime prevention, investigation and law and order maintenance. The subsequent Indian rulers ignored the demand as they needed to maintain the colonial-era terror to consolidate their rule.
From killing cricket spectators during India-Australia series of 1969-70 in Eden Gardens to killing Naxalites from 1967 onwards, from killing Sikhs in Punjab and Assamese youth in Assam in the 1980s and 1990s to killing Muslim youth, falsely accused of terrorism, since the early 1990s, the Indian police didn’t stop its custodial and extra-judicial killing spree ever. The change of rulers didn’t change the colonial mindset, modus operandi and brutal bigoted character of the Indian police force. No wonder the democratic right of Jeyaraj and Fenix to question them, to hold them accountable or to order them from stopping injustice sounded audacious to the policemen and they resorted to the barbaric brutality in which only their counterparts in Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan can compete with them.
The glorification of state terror by the ruling and privileged classes
Since ages, the Hindi film industry has supported and glorified state terror. Following the cue of the Hindi film industry, the Tamil, Telugu, Malayalam, Bengali, etc, film industries have been glorifying police torture and extra-judicial killings, while vilifying human rights and people’s democratic aspirations. Through incessant propaganda using popular film storylines, the idea of state violence has been repeatedly justified, which gives leeway to the police as a section of the population endorses police violence against civilians, often ignoring the peril of such endorsements.
As the ruling classes, the crony-comprador big capitalists, feudal landlords and usurers use their dirty nexus with police and the state machinery to unleash terror against the common people, especially those who oppose aggression on their land, livelihood or environment, there is also an ardent need for them to protect the predatory character of the Indian police. Hence, even after talking about police reforms, more draconian laws are enacted, civil rights are curbed, surveillance on the people have been increased. The Modi regime has enhanced the police state programme’s outreach, however, much before Modi came into politics, the Indian police’s tyrannical hegemony was established.
Black Lives Matter and the Indian people’s democratic movement against police terror
After the Black Lives Matter movement raised the issue of police terror against civilians in the US, which stirred a global movement, Indian political activists opposing Hindutva fascism have also raised the issue of police atrocities in India. The police brutality on Muslims in Delhi and Uttar Pradesh who opposed the new citizenship matrix, the police atrocities on migrant workers and poor people who walked hundreds of miles to their native villages during the COVID-19 lockdown, the police brutally killing a teenager who ventured out to buy biscuits during the lockdown in Uttar Pradesh or policemen in West Bengal killing a man who went out to buy milk for his child, or the police punishing people who went out on lockdown, etc, have been highlighted as symbols of India’s perilous human rights situation.
The amplification of police crimes didn’t reach the size and volume of the American movement in India and there was no demand for de-funding or decommissioning the colonial-era force, unlike in the US or the UK. Rather, the myopic political view of the “liberal” camp restricted the scope of opposition within the ambit of opposing Modi’s rule. Much of these “liberal” anti-fascists end up becoming enablers of fascism as they fail to see that the issue of state terror isn’t linked with a particular party or leader but a systematic entrenchment of a sense of privilege, bigotry and impunity, which allow the police to disregard the rule of law and principles of democracy.
Unlike the Black Lives Matter movement, there is no massive people’s movement in India at present due to the absence of a united and really responsive opposition force, as well as due to the disarrayed state of present-day anti-fascist activists and organisations. While the anti-NRC movement gave a pedestal for unity but the state’s repression, fear of pandemic and absence of a strong, unifying central leadership caused severe setbacks. Hence, India, where the components of a democratic movement against Hindutva fascism and its terror-monger state machinery are present, continues to lack a real democratic resistance programme against human rights violations and divisive political schemes.
What about justice for Jeyaraj and Fenix?
Though there is a strong demand for justice for Jeyaraj and Fenix, there is no clear understanding of the term “justice”. To raise the demand for justice before the Indian state means opening an avenue to a few-decade-long ordeal. To thwart mass movements against itself, the AIADMK can hoodwink the people with the formation of a committee or commission to look into the killing of Jeyaraj and Fenix. Such a committee or commission will continue for years and come to no conclusion, while the accused policemen will finish their tenures and retire peacefully.
Also, the government can blame a few low-rung policemen personally for the murder of Jeyaraj and Fenix and punish them, leaving their officers, the magistrate, the hospital authorities and the Kovilpatti sub-jail authorities scot-free. The individuals may be blamed and –– in exceptional cases like this –– punished as well, but the institution will remain unharmed. One can’t overlook what the Allahabad High Court said in 1963: “That there is not, a single lawless group in the whole of the country whose record of crime comes anywhere near the record of that organised unit which is known as the Indian Police Force.” (The State of Uttar Pradesh vs Mohammad Naim, March 15th 1963). The brutal murder of Jeyaraj and Fenix with utmost impunity proves this once again.
For real justice, not just for Jeyaraj and Fenix, but for thousands of those who suffered police atrocities in India, to ensure that policing is done according to modern democratic methods and not colonial ones, it’s imperative to bring a drastic change at the structural level of the system to ensure that democracy is delivered to the last mile – even there where mobile signals don’t reach.
Jeyaraj and Fenix are neither the first victims of police atrocities and nor the last. But to ensure that the people are liberated from this perpetual fear of being destroyed by the police machinery a massive democratic remoulding of the masses, through democratic movements for political power and structural change by the majority of the masses –– ie, the working class and poor peasantry –– is inevitable. Without a democratic people’s struggle, there will be no end to state violence and its socio-political-economic roots.