The tragic and brutal death of Jayaraj and his son Bennix in police custody has raised a storm of protest in Tamil Nadu and across the country. P.Jayaraj, 62 was picked up by the cops in Sathankulam town in Tamil Nadu from his mobile shop as he had not closed it in time to meet the daily curfew. His son Bennix, 32 followed them to the police station. They were both taken in, beaten and tortured for hours by the police while their family waited outside. They were soaked in blood from the injuries. They were taken to the magistrate and then on remand to Kovilpatti Sub Jail. Nothing was heard of them for two full days until Bennix died on July 22 and his father early July 23 of external and internal bleeding.

The deaths has sharpened the call for police reforms, more so as the concerned cops were suspended but not booked for murder. DMK leader Dayan who has been elected to the Lok Sabha from Chennai Central constituency for three consecutive terms said, in an interview to THE CITIZEN BUREAU that not only had Tamil Nadu slipped into being a draconian state but across the country the police was being used against peaceful citizens. He cited the brutality of the Delhi police against students and other such incidents which made it imperative for reforms to make the police accountable.

Excerpts from the interview:

Q. The terrible death of the two men at the hands of the state police is a bad commentary on governance isn’t it?
.The death of Mr. Jayaraj and his son Mr. Bennix is a tragic reminder of the gross abuse of power and the brutality of custodial torture. Violation of human rights has become a common occurrence in our country today. A family has lost its two breadwinners in a vindictive and cruel assault by criminals who have abused the power of their uniforms. It is pitiable that they cannot even grieve for their deaths in peace and have to fight for justice lest the culprits get away.

We have been seeing repeated media reports over the last few years of police crossing the line and taking the law into their own hands- breaking the bones of people accused of theft, extrajudicial encounters, targeting journalists and students who dissent against the government’s policies and now during the COVID19 pandemic, harassment of the public under the pretext of enforcing the lockdown.

In the last few years we have seen Tamil Nadu slowly slip into a draconian police state of sorts, with the authorities themselves breaking the laws without any fear of accountability and abusing their power because of the poor leadership at the top. This is a systemic issue and is indeed a bad sign of the quality of governance in our state today. The Tamil Nadu Chief Minister holds the portfolios controlling Home & Police and is answerable for their actions and mistakes.

Q. Police brutality seems to run through India ..north to south. What do you say?
We have been pointing out the increase in Police brutality over the last few years repeatedly. When officers of the law, who are supposed to protect the people and uphold the law of the land themselves indulge in thug-like behavior, it brings great dishonor and disrepute to their uniform and the law. Even in Parliament, we have been raising this issue repeatedly.

North to South, East to West, we are seeing more such incidents come to light. This is not an isolated incident or an accident. We saw during the Sterlite protests, how the state used the police apparatus to quell dissent and the tragic death of 13 civilians in the shootings. We are yet to get justice for that.

During the Anti-CAA stirs earlier this year we saw students being beaten up by police, caught on CCTV cameras during the violence in Jamia Millia University. The students are now being blamed for it. During the Delhi riots we saw the brazen abetment by a few officers caught on tape in the media. These are just the few incidents across the country where we at least have some evidence in the public domain that has created awareness about this issue.

The BBC has published an article where they quote NGOs alleging that over 1700 people died in custody in 2019 alone. Imagine the number of cases that are going unreported or are fudged across the country. This cannot be just another news story that we talk about for a week only to forget it and move on with our lives. It is high time we push the government to pass stringent laws and hold the police accountable for the crimes committed by them under the pretext of upholding the law.

Q. How responsible is the political class for this. We have seen as journalists how the police have been politically controlled all across the states?
It is most unfortunate that those in power are turning a blind eye towards this. Whether it is at the central government level- for example control of police in Delhi, or at the state level, we see the police force being turned into a political tool to control and squash dissent and freedom.

Journalists and students are routinely harassed, and false cases are fisted against them. Draconian laws are used against them. They are intimidated into silence. The police are eager to please their political masters to curry benefits and favours, while those in power are hands-in-glove with them to cover up their atrocities so they can continue using them for their own private gains. While at the state level the police are used to intimidate the common man and opposition, at the central level the ED, IT & CBI are used to do the same.

When those in power use these agencies for their own gain and to torment anyone who opposes them, the forces will also be emboldened with the confidence that they will be protected by their political masters come what may. Looking at the way the central government has abused institutions and men in uniform for their own gains in the last 6 years, the state governments have also started to use the police force similarly. This high handedness and capture of public institutions needs to be stopped immediately.

Q. It is now over the danger level clearly.. as the kind of brutality we have seen in recent months is brazen and open?
The whole system of checks and balances has collapsed, resulting in utter lawlessness and atrocious behaviour by the very people who are supposed to be protecting the law.

In the Sathankulam case, we can clearly see that this is not just a gross abuse of power but a sadistic and brutal case of assault. We do not know whether the case is being tampered with or if any attempts are being made to cover it up, and people have lost all faith in the police and judicial system in ensuring justice for the grieving family. We need a thorough & transparent investigation into the case and prosecution of those responsible for their death has to be done quickly.

Ever since the lockdown began, we have been seeing videos circulating on social media about the high handed behaviour of policemen around the country. They have become a law unto themselves, attacking the public with lathis, damaging their vehicles, making them kneel on roads, punishing them on the spot (under whose authority we do not know) instead of filing cases which is what their job is. We have also been turning a blind eye towards this.

Q. There must be some reason why the police are losing their fear of being held accountable? What do you think the reason is? Or are?
They feel that they are the law unto themselves and no one can question them or their methods. This attitude needs to be corrected first. They should realise that they are government servants and are answerable to the public. Their code of conduct and standard operating procedures highlight the rules of engagement, conduct and behaviour but they barely follow it. They have no power or right to raise their hand against anybody. No law gives them the power to physically beat someone or humiliate and insult them or strip people of their dignity and make them sit in station cells without their clothes.

Who gave the police the rights to do such atrocities? For too long have we turned a blind eye towards such incidents, allowing the police to get away with it. It has been condoned for so long that it has become a routine habit for the cops.

The public is also not aware of their rights and the limits of the police officers. They are easily intimidated by men in uniform and some erring officers take advantage of this. They use the common man’s fear of a long winding process to brow beat them into submission. We have all seen videos during the lockdown of the kind of atrocities being committed across the country under the pretext of enforcing the lockdown- police beating people on vehicles with lathis, damaging private property, the language used by police against women and children, all this high handedness comes from their confidence that their political masters will save them from any consequences and at worst it will be a transfer to another department or a mild suspension.

This audacity has to be curbed. This lack of regard for the rules permeates through all levels of the police hierarchy because they do not have an independent authority to reign them in and make them toe the line. Every time any human rights agency pulls them up, they play the victim card and blame the psychological effects of stress and the long hours they have to work, but never once do they accept the mistake and look for ways to correct the problems.

We have not seen any reforms in the police department to help sensitise police officers, there has been no proper audit system in place for years and very rarely do we see proper training and counselling when it comes to dealing with the public in a friendly manner. It has become a matter of habit for them to enforce the laws with the tools of fear & intimidation rather than proper policing.

We need speed track courts to handle cases of police brutality and custodial deaths like we demand for corruption, harassment and rape cases if we are to instill any fear in them, so that such cases do not happen. Which is why we need an independent body that will not bend to the will of the state and conduct a free, fair and transparent probe into instances of police atrocities.

Q. A specific suggestion or proposal that would make the police more accountable. We are hearing of a draft law being put together by the opposition?
Legislation and stronger laws are one way to go but what we truly need is an independent body that can investigate, prosecute and punish errant police officers.

Most of these investigations in the past were botched from the start, doomed to stay in a judicial limbo for decades. The worst part is that this emboldens other errant officers and they do not fear punishment for their misdeeds. The public also loses faith in the process.

We cannot allow errant officers and their abuse of power to destroy the faith of the common man in the law, that will lead to total anarchy and a collapse of the system as we know it.

The world over, protests are erupting because of this issue and we are seeing strong people’s movements gain strength across the world. It is time for the police to start introspecting and the government must set the ball rolling for long-pending reforms in the police department. We need sensitivity training, psychological counselling and most importantly, accountability.

Even with small issues such as FMCG products and consumer electronics we have a consumer court where we can take someone to task. We have TRAI where the public can complain about telecom players. We have the Competition Commission where we can complain about fairplay. When politicians are accused of corruption, JPCs and special courts are set up. What happens when the public has a problem with the Police? Who is the ombudsman authority they can seek justice from?

It was in light of all this that the The Police Complaints Authority was to be established at the state and district levels following the 2006 judgement of the Supreme Court in the Prakash Singh and Ors. v. Union of India and Ors. in response to the huge volume of complaints against the police and the endemic lack of accountability.

Last year, Tamil Nadu had issued a Government Order on November 14, 2019 for the constitution of a State level as well as district level Police Complaints Authorities (PCA) for inquiring into complaints of rape, death or grievous hurt caused to people in police custody, in accordance with Chapter IV of the Tamil Nadu Police (Reforms) Act of 2013. It has taken them this long to just issue the GO and get the ball rolling.

According to a reply filed by the state government in the Madras High Court, the State-level Police Complaints Authority is to be headed by the Home Secretary and district-level authorities led by the Collectors concerned. There is a case challenging this set up and composition of the body. The petition claims that it is not in accordance with the Supreme court orders, which say that the State-level authority should be headed by a retired High Court judge and the district-level authorities should be led by retired judges whose names could be recommended by the Chief Justice of the jurisdictional High Court.

Similarly, the head of the State level Police Complaints Authority was to be chosen from a list of retired High Court judges proposed by the Chief Justice. This was decided to ensure that there is a free and fair trial of the erring officers. Earlier the police themselves would be incharge of investigating and deciding upon the matter, but there is no transparency, accountability nor assurance that they will not be biased to one of their own. That is why a retired judge was to be in charge of the Authority.

Kerala, Maharashtra, Delhi, Karnataka have created the Police Complaints Authority headed by learned judges in their states. But a provision had been inserted in the Tamil Nadu Police (Reforms) Act for appointment of bureaucrats alone to chair the police complaints authority.

Therefore, a petition has been challenging this move in the Madras HC, stalling further progress in the functioning of the PCA. This move is redundant as the problem of the bureaucracy being hand in glove with the police apparatus is one of the basic problems we are trying to address through the reforms. More so, we do not know when this body is going to be fully functional and accessible for the general public to approach it. We are yet to see how this body is going to probe cases and how they are going to ensure transparency.

The police force has turned into an unrestrained beast because of the lack of reforms, lack of accountability and the habit of using force, fear and intimidation. We need stringent reforms and strict monitoring agencies if we are to reign in the alarming cases of atrocities by men in uniform. These incidents will need to be strictly punished if we want to reinstate the public’s faith in the police and the law. The people must not fear the police more than lawlessness itself.

Q. Do you think the opposition which also has power in some states will agree to any legislation that diluted the power of the police?
'Police' and 'Public Order' are State subjects under the Seventh Schedule to the Constitution of India and therefore, it is the primary duty of the State Governments to prevent, detect, register and investigate crime, prosecute criminals. Any steps to correct this issue will have to start from the states. Dilution of power is different from preventing abuse of power.

First of all, the public needs to be made aware that the policeman does not have any “power” or “authority” or “right” to beat you or abuse you. The kind of third degree treatment they subject the general public to, slapping someone to intimidate them, verbally abusing someone, humiliating them by stripping them and making them sit in stations in their underwear- they have no rights to do any of this and all of this is a gross abuse of their authority. So this in itself is a criminal activity that must be investigated and prosecuted.

The police need to understand the limits of their powers and code of conduct. If they have a valid case against someone, let them file a case and remand them. It is for the courts to decide who is right and who is wrong and decide the quantum of punishment if necessary. Who are the cops to punish people? They must realise that they are public servants and are answerable to the public which pays their salaries and arms them. Their duty is to maintain law and order not decide what is the law and what is the punishment. We do not live in some feudal monarchy or a police state. This is a democracy.