The circumstances surrounding the custodial death of a Dalit woman in Tamil Nadu in 2002 serve as a reminder of the difficulties in securing justice when the offenders are government functionaries

This is a case of justice being awarded after a decade. Last month, the Ramanathapuram Sessions Court sentenced eight policemen to rigorous imprisonment, for up to 10 years, for the 2002 custodial killing of Karuppi, a poor Dalit woman, at the Paramakudi police station in Tamil Nadu. It is a landmark judgment, and significant, as she was from the Arundhatiar caste, reckoned to be the lowest among Dalits.

The victim, Karuppi, 48, a domestic servant, had been accused of the theft of a gold chain from the house of her employer. She was interrogated at the police station and tortured for six days. Her body was found hanging from a transmission tower behind the police station in the early hours of December 1, 2002. The police registered it as a case of suicide and disclaimed its occurrence in the police station.

The Tamil Nadu State Commission for Women (TNSCW), of which I was the chairperson at the time, was petitioned by People’s Watch, a human rights organisation, for intervention alleging custodial death and intimidation of witnesses. I spoke to the Collector of Ramanathapuram district to arrange to meet Karuppi’s family. I inspected the police station and was certain that Karuppi could not have slipped out of the station that night and hanged herself. Later, I met her family who were alleged to be facing intimidation.

All of them narrated the same “official” story — having been caught thieving, Karuppi had killed herself out of shame and guilt, the policemen had no hand in her death and so on. My solemn assurances that they could confide in me were to no avail. They must have sounded feeble, weighed against the proximate threat to life and limb they faced from their habitual tormentors. I lost all hope of finding the truth and was ready to leave.

Turning point

Then the turning point. The last member to depose was Christu Das, the husband of Karuppi’s sister-in-law. Another inquiry that should have ended in a few minutes in utter frustration suddenly went on for two hours. The veil of secrecy that had shrouded the doctored depositions so far suddenly lifted and the pieces of a sordid story fell into place.

Christu Das fell at my feet. I was stunned to hear him say: “Amma, please save me and my children. We are in great danger. I have to tell you the truth, otherwise my ‘heart will not burn on my funeral pyre’.”

Once assured of my support, he felt comfortable enough to narrate the details.

On the night of November 26, 2002, Christu Das, his wife, Arumugam, and daughter were taken to the Paramakudi police station without the police furnishing any reason. They saw Karuppi chained in a room and were told that she had been arrested for the theft of jewels.

Christu Das was made to undress with only his underwear on, handcuffed and had his legs shackled to a table. From the next morning the police subjected him to constant physical assault and abuse. He learnt that he and his wife, and later the daughter and son-in-law of Karuppi were there to force Karuppi to confess.

For three days he was witness to her brutal torture by four policemen. She was beaten with lathis and her knuckles pierced with sharp needles. Her pleas that she was innocent cut no ice. Whenever Christu Das interceded, he too was beaten. After three days, the Christu Das family was let off.

On December 1, Christu Das and his wife learnt from a fish monger that the body of a woman had been found behind the police station and was in the hospital morgue.

At the hospital, their fears came true. It was Karuppi. Christu Das added that up till the time of my inquiry, the family members were being threatened by the police not to spill the beans.

Reports

I returned to Chennai, determined to expose the horrific case of a custodial death.

I got copies of the post-mortem report, First Information Report and inquest report from the Collector, Ramanathapuram. He said that five policemen, including an inspector had been suspended and an inquiry conducted by the sub-collector.

I sent the first and third reports to the head of the forensic department of a government hospital in Chennai.

His reply: “Patient died of Asphyxia due to acute ante mortem (AM) hanging with multiple contusions….. the age of the contusion is 1 to 3 days. Probably the wounds were caused by persons standing on the left (mostly in the lower limb) and in the right (mostly in the upper limb).

Opinion:

The victim was subjected to blunt force for a period of 1 to 3 days before her death. The contusion on the right forehead is a last injury caused by blunt force prior to her hanging.”

Armed with this, I wrote to the Home Secretary, with a copy addressed to the Chief Secretary, seeking a fair inquiry by the Crime Branch Crime Investigation Department (CB-CID) or the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI). This letter and its reminders were met by silence.

In my time, the TNSCW was not a statutory body and did not have the powers to summon witnesses and get them to depose under oath. I contacted the Chairperson of the National Commission for Women, Poornima Advani and a joint public hearing was conducted by the National and Tamil Nadu State Commissions in Madurai on October 28, 2003.

There were a number of witnesses, including the family members of Karuppi, the sub-collector, Paramakudi, and the policemen in charge during the occurrence. We found, inter alia, that: Karuppi had been detained and tortured for six days; the post-mortem report showed extensive ante-mortem injuries on her body, making the police version of suicide unbelievable. We recommended compensation of Rs.2 lakh to the family of Karuppi and Rs.1 lakh each to Arumugam and Christu Das for the torture they had been subjected to. Our report was sent to the Tamil Nadu government. There was no action till March 2005, when my term as chairperson of the Commission ended.

In 2006, Sudha Ramalingam, advocate, Madras High Court, and legal counsel of the Commission in my time, filed a criminal original petition in the Madras High Court, on behalf of Mr. Henri Tiphagne, People’s Watch, to transfer investigation of the case from the file of the inspector, Paramakudi police station, to the CBI.

Two years later, in September, Justice K.N. Basha ordered the CB-CID to investigate the case expeditiously. “It is crystal clear that the victim was subjected to inhuman torture, humiliation and physical violence by the police officials. In view of such overwhelming materials available on record, this court is of the considered view that … a thorough investigation by independent agency is very much essential, more particularly in view of the accused involved in this case are the police officials.”

Fundamental rights

The trial of Karuppi’s case finally ended in the sessions court on February 14, 2013. Judge W. Sathasivam awarded 10 years rigorous imprisonment to five of the eight accused police men. Two other policemen were awarded seven and three years imprisonment respectively. A fine of Rs.1 lakh was imposed on Sahul Hamid, the then inspector. It was observed that “The accused, in a bid to cover up the “lock up death” removed (Karuppi’s) body from the women’s cell and hung it in a VHF tower behind the station to give an impression that she had committed suicide…”

I end with a quote in the judgment of Hon’ble Mr. Justice K.N. Basha citing the Supreme Court in D.K. Basu vs. State Of West Bengal: “Custodial death is perhaps one of the worst crimes in a civilised society governed by the rules of law…If the functionaries of the Government become law breakers, it is bound to breed contempt for [the] law and would encourage lawlessness, …thereby leading to anarchism. Does a citizen lose his fundamental right to life, the moment a policeman arrests him? …These questions touch the spinal cord of human rights jurisprudence.”

(V. Vasanthi Devi is a former chairperson, Tamil Nadu State Commission for Women, and former Vice-Chancellor, Manonmaniam Sundaranar University, Tamil Nadu.)

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