The dust is slowly settling on the controversy surrounding the alleged torture of a father-son duo in police custody in Sattankulam, Thoothukudi district . The two men died in hospital. The case is being investigated by the Crime Branch-Criminal Investigation Department (CB-CID). The Tamil Nadu Chief Minister and the Director General of Police did not delay the decision to hand over the probe to the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI). This means that the state has nothing to hide from the families of the deceased or the general public.
The Madras High Court has shown remarkable sensitivity as it should in such horrific incidents. It was an innovative move by the court to ask revenue authorities to take control of the Sattankulam police station lest crucial evidence be destroyed or damaged. Of course, some may believe that the High Court’s action was unwarranted and will demoralise the police force. The revenue authorities have since withdrawn, and the investigation is wholly with the CB-CID.
Coming so soon after the George Floyd incident in the U.S., the Sattankulam episode should shock our conscience. Police brutality is universal and internal cover-ups are common. There is informal trade unionism and a code of silence among the police, as in other professions, that militates against objective inquiries into police conduct. There is evidence of this in Sattankulam. In a report, the Judicial Magistrate of Kovilpatti submitted to the court that the Sattankulam police did not cooperate during the inquiry. The CCTV footage at the police station has been erased. There is no assurance that evidence has not already been tampered with.
There is obvious discomfort among some policemen over a CBI probe. This should not degenerate into culpable obstruction of the investigation. This is a danger that can be averted if the police leadership demonstrates its resolve to punish even the slightest act of sabotage intended to help a few criminals masquerading as the police. The CBI will also not permit any police licentiousness. It is a welcome development that a few arrests have already been made in the case, including of the Inspector. If necessary, a few more may be effected to ferret out the truth.
If it’s ultimately proved that the two victims were in fact tortured to death, attention then shifts to unraveling the motive. Any vendetta will have to be confirmed by the CBI when it takes over the investigation. If no motive is established, the case against the policemen will weaken. However, if there is clear evidence of the beatings of the victims, that evidence will speak for itself.
Post-mortem reports reveal the injuries inflicted and the weapons used. Some unscrupulous policemen have the expertise to resort to bodily violence without leaving a trace of the methods/weapons used. Doctors conducting the post-mortem are often intimidated into giving false reports. The intensity of public furore in this incident is a guarantee against such unethical behaviour.
Finally, I am concerned over the loss of image suffered by the Tamil Nadu Police. The tendency to paint the whole force with the same brush is inevitable. But the brutality here is so blatant that the public will realise that this was at worst an aberration on the part of a few policemen. This is no consolation, however. Whether the guilty are individual policemen or the entire force, it is a blot with which the Tamil Nadu Police will have to live with for decades.
Reducing incidence of police violence
Can such incidents can be prevented in the future? I am cynical about this. We will continue to witness random policemen misbehaviour. These are men who are inclined to indulge in brutality at the drop of a hat. The suggestion that every recruit should be subjected to a psychology test has little relevance as such a test may not always identify men with a disturbed mind. Many recruits become perpetrators after a few years in the field. Work pressure and unfair treatment by supervisors lead to gross misconduct and assaults on the unarmed and unprotected.
Technology can help a little but its utility cannot be exaggerated. Body cameras, such as the ones used in the U.S. and the U.K., on beat policeman can ensure police restraint. India could experiment with such devices.
The police culture of each country is different. A democratic government is no guarantee that the police will act in a civilised manner. In the U.S., for instance, there are many reports of abuses by policemen against non-whites.
India cannot afford any more Sattankulams. We may not be able put a complete end to police violence, but we can reduce its incidence. A lot will depend on the leadership, which has a sacred duty to foster a culture of obedience to the law. The media has its work cut out to identify and isolate a leader who himself preaches unethical conduct.
R.K. Raghavan is a former CBI Director