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Rape, Torture, and Death: The Appropriate Penalty?

What is the appropriate penalty for violating lockdown curfew? A warning? A couple of hours in the lockup? Confiscation of your car and license? Sounds reasonable, right? Rape, brutal torture, and death? Not so much. And the police should be reasonable for all the power they hold and responsibility on their shoulders, right? Unfortunately, the police that arrested Jayaraj and Fenix for allegedly keeping their shop open past permitted hours seemed to have thought that this basic sense of decency didn’t apply to them! Given the rise of cases of police brutality and the protests in the USA, we would’ve thought that our cops would have taken the hint, right? On June 19, in the small city of Thoothukudi, Tamil Nadu in South India, Jayaraj (58) and his son Fenix (38) were arrested by Tuticorin police for violating curfew by 30 minutes by keeping their mobile and electronics shop open. They were reportedly barbarically tortured, beaten, and raped in custody by police officers; and died not long after, allegedly of ‘fever’ and ‘heart attack’.

The only names of those that must be held responsible that have been ascertained so far are Balakrishnan and Pauldurai: sub-inspectors at the Sathankulam police station. Both father and son were subjected to inhumane custodial sexual abuse and an eyewitness states that they were sodomized. Their knees were smashed with sticks until their knee caps were broken and they were pushed up against a wall and beaten until they bled. They were stripped stark naked and steel rods were inserted into them multiple times. Eyewitnesses said their chest hair was ripped out and that their genitalia and backs were gruesomely damaged. They were injured all over their bodies, profusely bleeding.

Throughout the night, blood-soaked clothes were sent back to their house and fresh clothes were demanded: this occurred a total of three times. An eyewitness said, “Throughout the night, the duo cried for help, and people residing about 500 meters away from the station could hear that.” A friend of Fenix, who was also present at the police station, said, “Between 7 am and 12 pm on June 20, the father and son had changed at least seven lungies (waistcloth) each as they had become wet due to bloody discharges.

The judicial Magistrate P Saravanan passed the remand order after an orchestrated trial in a court where the victims could barely stand but were made to do so 50 meters away from the Magistrate and were ‘tamed’ by 4 policemen threatening them to remain silent which prohibited them from narrating their ordeal. While the judicial Magistrate is required to ascertain if detainees are injured or not, P Saravanan failed to do so, exhibiting lucid misconduct. But the corruption does not stop at the hands of the immediate law, rather extending to the doctors under it. Father and son were then taken back into custody and to a hospital. The government doctors provided a fitness certificate falsely stating that the duo was “fit” when they were, in fact, suffering from rectum pain, bleeding, and alarmingly high blood pressures.

Fenix succumbed to injuries at the Kovilpatti General Hospital on June 22 and his father on June 23. The doctors cited ‘self-harm’, fever, and heart failure in their reports: utterly failing to report the damage inflicted on Jayaraj and Fenix. The FIR filed by the police claims that the injuries were self-inflicted; according to this report, the two men rolled on the floor to hurt themselves, though eyewitnesses have proved otherwise. This incident begs the question that in what circumstance is savage torture justified for exceeding curfew and breaking lockdown rules? Some say that it is sadistic, disgusting, and bestial - but to what consequence? The two police officers involved have been suspended and the rest have been transferred. They have not been held accountable for their cold-blooded actions in any way and the public is outraged. Does being a cop justify using torture, brutality, and assault? This is police brutality of the highest order and mere suspension and transferring is not a solution - just as George Floyd’s murderers were not allowed to get away, these policemen, too, must not get away with their crimes. This sort of incident is not rare: it is only one of the few that has come to light. Unfortunately, police brutality in the south is often lost in translation and thus does not reach a larger audience. Justice and accountability are being demanded what has happened. Even the judicial Magistrate paid no heed to the legal system despite promising to uphold these values under oath.

A legal loophole that is perhaps safeguarding him is Section 197 of The Code of Criminal Procedure which states “...any person who is or was a Judge or Magistrate or a public servant not removable from his office save by or with the sanction of the Government is accused of any offense alleged to have been committed by him while acting or purporting to act in the discharge of his official duty, no Court shall take cognizance of such offense” with certain exceptions. This is often bent and misused to provide impunity to those who have violated their code of conduct.

Tamil Nadu Chief Minister K Palaniswami guaranteed legal action as per the orders of the Madurai Bench of the Madras High Court and announced Rs 25 lakh ($33,000) solatium to the family of Jayaraj and Fenix. Nevertheless, the incident has resulted in a valid furor nationwide on social media and prominently in the state of Tamil Nadu wherein protests broke out over the custodial deaths, the people demanding justice and murder charges to be pressed against those responsible. One could easily draw a parallel between the deaths of Jayaraj and Fenix and the death of George Floyd: both were a result of police brutality and have sparked due outrage nationwide. DMK Thoothukudi MP and senior leader Kanimozhi met the family of the deceased and said, “Two people have been killed. The people responsible for this should be punished just like how a person is punished for murder. Similar punishment should be given be it police officials or whoever it is. Money alone won’t equal the lives lost.

They should get justice. A proper investigation must be conducted and the truth should be brought out.” This occurrence could be credited to decades of normalization and problematic glorification of police brutality in India. High-grossing movies celebrate policemen that believe they are above the law and act on their own rules to “bring justice”. Such movies range from Singham to Dabangg to Nayagan to Narasimha: all well-known movies either across India (the former two) or predominantly in the South of India (the latter two). Police brutality is also commanded by deep-rooted discrimination that sets life-threatening bias against Dalits, Muslims, transgenders, and members of other indigenous communities and minority groups rendering them more prone to such cruelty. Police are responsible for keeping the public safe, not posing it further harm, and putting it in danger. Police are meant to prevent and investigate crime, not be the source of it. Police are meant to enforce the law, not take advantage of their position and break it. Police are meant to ensure the protection of citizens, not instill fear in them.

The ill practice of policing is an age-old phenomenon as noted by Amnesty International. In the verdict of a similar case last year, a judge stated that "they (police officers that have carried out misconduct) are confident that they will not be held accountable even if the victim dies in custody and even if the truth is revealed." This speaks for how India needs a systematic change and it needs one now.

Author: Tvisha Aorora

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