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Sattankulam custodial deaths | When protectors turn perpetrators

Residents of Sattankulam gather around the coffins of Jayaraj and Benicks, on June 26, 2020 in Sattankulam.

Residents of Sattankulam gather around the coffins of Jayaraj and Benicks, on June 26, 2020 in Sattankulam.   | Photo Credit: AFP

An eerie silence prevails along the narrow stretch that leads to the tiled house of a small mobile shop owner in Sattankulam town. As outsiders walk through the mostly deserted lane, the residents, on hearing footsteps, peep through the windows in fear and suspicion. The mobile shop owner, J. Benicks, 31, is no more. Two weeks ago, he and his father, P. Jayaraj, 58, were arrested by the police for a seemingly trivial reason and brutally beaten at the Sattankulam police station, barely 600 metres away. They both died in hospital.

Their deaths have shaken not just Thoothukudi district of Tamil Nadu, where Sattankulam is located, but the whole country. The two men were tortured in the most gruesome manner, according to witnesses, and the minutest details of the incident are in the public domain. Public anger is evident in the town — soon after hearing about the deaths, protesters filled the streets of Sattankulam demanding justice.

Altercation and arrest

The first version of the story in the media quoted locals who said Jayaraj was arrested on June 19 after an altercation between him and the police on keeping his son’s mobile phone shop open in violation of lockdown rules. When Benicks questioned the detention of his father, he was also taken into custody. At the Sattankulam police station, they were both allegedly thrashed by the policemen, particularly by Sub-Inspectors Balakrishnan and Raghu Ganesh in the presence of Inspector Sridhar.

As is the case with such incidents, several theories now float around. However, the most authentic seems the following sequence of events, as P. Veerapandi recounts. Veerapandi drives an autorickshaw from a stand close to Benicks’ mobile phone shop and is an associate of the family. He says: “On June 18 night, at about 8 p.m., the workers of a tile shop close to Benicks’ mobile phone shop were waiting in front of their closed workplace to get their wages from the owner. Sub-Inspector Balakrishnan and constable Muthuraj, who arrived at the spot, abused them verbally and asked them to leave the place. After the police left the spot, the workers also started leaving slowly. Jayaraj, who was going to buy idli batter for the household, stopped on the way and asked them why they were glum. Upon hearing their story of the policemen’s attitude and verbal abuse, Jayaraj asked them to wait for a few more minutes. Apparently, a police head constable, who was watching the whole episode from a distance, passed on this information to his colleagues.”

The matter didn’t end there. The next evening, Veerapandi says he noticed a police vehicle parked near the Kamaraj Statue, which is about 50 feet away from Benicks’ shop. Inspector Sridhar was waiting inside the vehicle, he says, ostensibly to intercept bike riders who were riding without masks. While Sridhar sat inside the police vehicle, Balakrishnan and his team stopped errant bikers. After a few minutes of checking, Balakrishnan started abusing the traders in an apparent retort to Jayaraj’s support for them the previous night.

Sattankulam custodial deaths | When protectors turn perpetrators
 

Onlookers reported later that the policeman threatened physical violence against Jayaraj, even at that point. “The constable who overheard the previous night’s conversation was also in the vicinity. He made a phone call to the Sub-Inspector and informed him that Jayaraj was present there. The police asked Jayaraj some questions about Benicks’ shop being open and forced him into the police vehicle,” Veerapandi says.

When Benicks, who was inside the shop, saw this, he rushed to the police station. He apparently found Sridhar and Balakrishnan verbally abusing his father in the presence of a few more people, including local advocates who had come to the police station in connection with their cases. As the policemen beat his father, Benicks intervened. In the melee that ensued, Balakrishnan lost his balance and fell. “On seeing this, Sridhar screamed in anger and asked all the policemen there to thrash both Jayaraj and Benicks,” says Veerapandi, who had gone to the station along with a few other auto drivers to attempt to free Jayaraj and Benicks. “When we asked the police to release them, Sridhar and Balakrishnan warned all of us, including the advocates, to get out of the police station. Thereafter, we could only hear Jayaraj and Benicks screaming as the police thrashed them,” he says.

Also read | Madras High Court finds prima facie material to book Sattankulam policemen for murder

‘Tortured till 1:30 a.m.’

Meanwhile, Jayaraj’s wife J. Selvarani and her brother also went to the police station and pleaded with the police to release them. “But they asked me to bring a new lungi for my son who was bleeding profusely,” says Selvarani. “I rushed back to my house and brought a fresh set of clothes. Even though I begged them to release my husband and son and assured them that we would take them only to a private hospital for treatment of their injuries, the police refused to budge. They tortured them till 1.30 a.m.,” she claims.

After torturing the father and son at periodic intervals for more than four hours, the police detained them in the station. They told the family members that Jayaraj and Benicks would be released in the morning. Believing them, the family left the police station. But the next day, Jayaraj and Benicks were sent to jail. After being taken to the Sattankulam Government Hospital around 9.30 a.m. the next day, for obtaining a fitness certificate, the two men were remanded to judicial custody and lodged in Kovilpatti sub-jail, situated about 100 km from Sattankulam. It remains a mystery why the police took them there instead of lodging them in the sub-jails at Peroorani or Srivaikundam or the Central Jail at Palayamkottai, all located within 40 km of Sattankulam.

Also read | Prison record indicates father and son were tortured in custody

The woman doctor on duty at the Sattankulam Government Hospital said in the case sheet of Benicks and Jayaraj that they had sustained blood clot injuries all over their body, particularly on their thighs, buttocks and backs. When asked the reason for his injuries, Benicks reportedly told the doctor that he fell down while trying to escape from the police, even as Jayaraj remained inconsolable. Since they had high blood pressure, the doctor administered medicines and had them stay in the hospital for about two hours until their blood pressure dropped to normal levels. She also mentioned in the case sheet that though they had blood clots all over the body, there was no cause to admit them in the hospital.

Benicks and Jayaraj, who had been lodged in Kovilpatti sub-jail and were subsequently taken to the Kovilpatti Government Hospital following “health complications”, died on June 22 night and June 23 morning, respectively, in the hospital. Benicks’ death triggered instant protests in Sattankulam on June 22 night. Deputy Superintendent of Police Prathapan tried to pacify the protesters, but in vain. The agitation became intense as the news about Jayaraj’s death also reached the town the next morning.

The court steps in

The Madurai Bench of the Madras High Court took suo motu cognisance of the incident and called for a report from the Judicial Magistrate who was probing the deaths of the father and son. Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Edappadi K. Palaniswami later announced the State government’s decision to transfer the case to the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI). Meanwhile, Balakrishnan, Raghu Ganesan and Sridhar were suspended.

This move failed to put the controversy to rest. Instead the matter flared up further when the Kovilpatti Judicial Magistrate-I M.S. Bharathidasan submitted a report to the court that the police personnel in Sattankulam police station had not only refused to cooperate but had also behaved in a high-handed manner with him. The CCTV footage at the police station too had been erased.

Also read | Sattankulam police did not cooperate: Judicial Magistrate

In an unprecedented turn of events, the court ordered revenue authorities to take over the police station and initiated contempt proceedings against the Additional Superintendent of Police, the Deputy Superintendent of Police, and the constable.

To ensure that the inquiry into the case was not scuttled, a Bench of Justices comprising P.N. Prakash and B. Pugalendhi ordered that the probe be immediately handed over to the CB-CID till the CBI takes charge of the investigation. Within hours of the case being transferred to the CB-CID, the agency altered the offence, Section 176 (1A) of the Criminal Procedure Code, which states that a Judicial Magistrate shall conduct an inquiry into death in police custody, to Section 302 (murder) of the Indian Penal Code. It arrested the Inspector, the two Sub-Inspectors and the two police constables responsible for the incident, all within 48 hours.

Though some people burst crackers soon after the arrests, not many came forward to disclose any information on what they saw on the evening of June 19. Investigation moved forward thanks in good measure to constable Revathy who was on duty that night at the station.

Condoling the deaths of the Jayaraj and his son Benicks, mobile shop owners closed their shops in Sattankulam on June 24, 2020.

Condoling the deaths of the Jayaraj and his son Benicks, mobile shop owners closed their shops in Sattankulam on June 24, 2020.   | Photo Credit: E. Lakshmi Narayanan

Animosity towards the police

Locals say they were shocked by the death of the two innocent men, who had a very cordial relationship with people from all communities and castes in the area. It was just two years ago during the anti-Sterlite protests that Thoothukudi witnessed police firing in which 13 people were killed. The police claimed then that they had tried to quell the protests.

Today, locals charge the policemen of the Sattankulam station with corruption. “Illicit sand mining in the Karumeniyar riverbed has been rampant for many years with the connivance of the Sattankulam police,” says a land broker. He claims that he was also forced to face the high-handedness of the police for having forwarded petitions to the Collector and the Superintendent of Police about illicit sand quarrying.

Residents also allege illegal round-the-clock sale of liquor. “During the total lockdown, a 180 ml liquor bottle was sold for ₹700 in Sattankulam,” one of them says.

At the same time, some traders say Raghu Ganesh was upright, unlike others. However, he was rude and constantly flaunted his caste and this made him unpopular among the public, they say. “He was part of the team that investigated a case pertaining to the murder of a police informer from Peikulam. As the police team thrashed the suspects from another community, one of them, a 25-year-old youth, died after a week of undergoing treatment in the hospital. The police’s constant intimidation forced the family to perform the last rites without making any protest,” says S. Murugan, a trader from Peikulam.

Strong community bonds

Having lost both their men, the Jayaraj family is devastated. From all accounts, the family was popular in the neighbourhood. “Both Benicks and Jayaraj had an excellent relationship with everyone. They were Christians, but the family was like one of us. Whenever we celebrate our temple festival, we used to give him mutton cooked with the goat sacrificed in the temple. It was a ritual for us,” says an auto driver, C. Mani.

Jayaraj and Selvarani’s daughters – Persis, Beulah, and Berlin – are married; Benicks was to get married in May. “Due to the pandemic, the marriage was postponed to December. The police have destroyed our happiness,” says Persis, who lives in Vijayawada with her husband Augustine, a service engineer.

 

“My brother voluntarily used to help everyone,” Persis says. “He had completed a Masters degree in Social Work from a college in Pollachi. He opened the mobile phone shop just a few years ago after working with an NGO and as a medical representative. Right from his college days, he used to donate blood. As his blood group, O negative, was rare, he would donate blood every three months. Now, he and my father have bled to death due to police torture. We believe in god and then in the judiciary. We will get justice,” she says.

After his palmyra trade waned, Jayaraj set up the mobile phone shop for Benicks. That ensured a modest income for the family.

“Both Benicks and Appa [father] would call us thrice a day as we sisters live in Vijayawada, Pollachi, and Chennai. Benicks would make video calls every night to speak with my kids. He had made it clear that he would get married only after the youngest sister was married. He was a loving boy and took care of all the members of his family well,” the sister says.

“The happiness we once had will never return. But speedy justice for the death of my father and brother will bring back the confidence that was shattered by the police,” Persis says.

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Printable version | Sep 20, 2020 12:50:14 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/tamil-nadu/when-protectors-turn-perpetrators/article31983885.ece

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