29 July 2020
A critical inquiry into custodial killings in the state over the last four years
Civil society has been enraged since the death of Jayaraj (59) and his son Fenix (31) allegedly due to the custodial torture in the Satankulam police station in Tamil Nadu’s Tuticorin district. The police booked the deceased for the violation of curfew imposed during the Covid-19 lockdown. Social media is abuzz with the #JusticeforJayarajAndFenix hashtags.
The incident has brought into the limelight, various delinquencies and unethical practices in law enforcement. It is not for the first time that a law enforcement agency in India is involved in severe civil rights violations. Speaking of truth, various law enforcement agencies have often been accused of grave human rights violations. Reports indicate an average of 5 custodial deaths in India daily. The case has further led to the suspension of five police officers, including an inspector and two Sub-Inspectors and all the police personnel posted at Sathankulam police station earlier have been transferred out. Later on, the CBI took over the case.
It is at the peak of Satankulam killings that a glimpse is required into the state of Kerala across the border. As per a report in HuffPost, 8 custodial deaths have been reported in the state since May 2016, when the Pinarayi Vijayan-led LDF government came to power. Unlike the Satankulam case, custodial killings in Kerala are not celebrated, particularly due to the presence of a resilient ‘cyber army’ belonging to the CPI (M). Criticisms against the state authority and the police brutalities are often undermined and confronted by the party led cyber army. The state has often failed to deliver justice to the victims of the torture and custodial deaths. Sadly, the discourse of torture is accessible only after the deaths in police custody. Soon after the newspaper headlines shift from the incidents, the issue is ignored and often covered up.
Rajkumar (49), a victim of custodial death due to torture in 2019, was a remand prisoner in Idukki arrested by the Nedumkandam police on June 12 and died in custody on June 21. His arrest was only recorded on June 15, 3 days after the arrest. He has been subjected to grotesque torture measures by the police, including the ‘falanga’ treatment wherein the soles of the feet are beaten.
The custodial killing of Sreejith (26) by Varappuzha police (Kochi) is another case that brings into discourse the malignant practices in the Kerala police. It is appalling to know that the police mistook Sreejith for another suspect. The police accounts of the incident are, of course, contradictory.
U. Nawas (27) was another man killed in police custody. Manarcad police in the district of Kottayam took him into protective custody on May 21, 2019, due to complaints registered by his family on alcoholic behaviour. Later, he hanged in the police station washroom. In July 2017, at Pavaratty, Thrissur, Vinayakan (19) employed at a beauty parlour, committed suicide at his home in a day after his release from the police custody. In another case, the excise department arrested Ranjithkumar (35) from Malappuram, and he died on the way to the police station. Later on, his postmortem report revealed multiple internal injuries. On October 23, 2019, another man Kunjumon (39) from Kundara in Kollam district died in a hospital at Trivandrum, a day after leaving police custody. In October 2016, Kalimuthu, (48) from Salem in Tamil Nadu arrested for theft, was found dead in police custody in Thalassery, Kannur. Abdul Lateef (45) was found hanging in the washroom of Wandoor police station in Malappuram. He had been booked into custody the previous day, but the police had not recorded his arrest as per a report in Scroll.in
Kerala, the so-called No.1 state, has witnessed gruesome human rights violations under the current CPI(M) led LDF government. It is to be mentioned that the Chief Minister himself is handling the Home ministry, which is accountable for the police actions. Naïve explanations by the authority overlook the criticisms against the police actions. As per the information of the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) with the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA), Kerala reported eight custodial deaths in 2018-19 while there were three in 2017-18 and five in 2016-17. Kerala holds sixth place in the number of custodial deaths; way higher than Bihar, West Bengal, Chandigarh and Jharkhand. Annual Report published by National Campaign Against Torture finds that majority of the victims of police torture belonged to the poor and marginalised sections of the society who are often the soft targets because of their vulnerable socio-economic status. Also, In custodial death cases, families of victims seeking justice often face intimidation and threats.
It was under the Pinarayi Vijayan government, the extrajudicial encounter of seven Maoists, including two women, took place in 2019. The encounter was alleged to be fake and has drawn severe criticism. According to an investigative report by The Hindu, the Maoists were shot from behind. The presence of cooked food had cited to give some credence to the theory that the police had gunned down the rebels while they were eating in peace. These narratives from India’s most ‘literate’ state is, of course, not a sign of development but an alarm for a withering democracy. The government should be held accountable for their anti-democratic policies which are often leading to the loss of precious human lives and dignity. Violence perpetrated by the state force should be investigated, and respective measures should be taken to forestall the abuse of the state power.
*The writer is with the Dept. of Electronic Media and Mass Communication, Pondicherry University