Tamil Nadu custodial deaths put government, police under scanner

From victims' kin to activists, allegations of police atrocities and government inaction in cases of deaths in police custody fly thick and fast.

ByUmar Sharieef

Published Jun 24, 2022 | 1:00 PM Updated Jul 22, 2022 | 11:58 AM

The family of the victim suspect foul play. (Creative Commons)

As many as 488 people have died in police custody since 2016 in Tamil Nadu, according to a report by the National Human Rights Commission.

The most recent entries to that list have been those of 25-year-old Chennai-resident V Vignesh and 33-year-old Rajasekar from Alamathi in the Thiruvallur district.

At least 10 custodial deaths have taken place in Tamil Nadu after the MK Stalin-led DMK government assumed charge in May this year.

The incidents have triggered several protests, with politicians vociferously urging the state government to ensure the safety of those in police custody.

Edappadi K Palaniswami, the leader of the Opposition, said another lockup death in Chennai, in which the police in the Kodungaiyur picked up one Rajasekar for questioning, was shocking.

He added there had been no action against lockup deaths, which he said have become a regular occurrence under the DMK government.

He tweeted that these incidents proved that lock-up deaths cannot be prevented or controlled by the police.

He also urged the high court judge to take legal action against the DMK government for these cases.

Tamil Nadu BJP president K Annamalai has also come down heavily on the government over custodial deaths.

In a tweet, he said the police under the direct control of the chief minister have sown fears that if people go to the police station, they will not return alive.

He questioned the commission set up to reform the police department. He asked in a tweet if the government was still functioning in Tamil Nadu.

High number of custodial deaths 

From 2016 to 2022, up to February 28, Tamil Nadu had the highest number of custodial deaths in South India.

Experts say the lack of prosecution and conviction in such cases is one of the reasons for the increase in the number of custodial deaths.

The National Human Rights Commission has not ordered a trial in custodial deaths from 2016-17 to 2021-22, up to 28 February. However, it recommended disciplinary action in 0.2 percent of cases.

As many as 11,419 custodial deaths occurred in the country from 2016 to 22.

The NHRC recommended monetary compensation only for 1,184 cases: just over 10 percent.

Cases of custodial deaths in which the NHRC recommended disciplinary action was 21, while prosecution recommended by NHRC is zero.

According to the NHRC data, Tamil Nadu recorded more than 100 custodial deaths between 2001-18, in which NHRC has convicted no police personnel. It is because of the reasons recorded for the deaths.

Experts privy to the conversation say the police reasons most of the time would be “suicide and unwell inside the cell” for custodial fatalities.

Retired Madras High Court judge Hari Paranthaman told South First that said the police would always help each other in such cases for various reasons, which also leads to zero conviction.

He also pointed to the absence of a people’s movement and the judiciary’s interruption.

“It is better not to expect anything from the judiciary in this regard, as the orders from the government fully control it. The court has never functioned independently in such cases, considering the sensitivity and the government’s decision,” he said.

Citing the Jayaraj and Bennix custodial death at the Sathankulam Police Station in the Thoothukudi district on 20 June, 2020, which shook the country, the judge said, “Only after the agitation from the people did the government take action and the court intervened.”

The father-son duo were arrested on allegations that they defied the lockdown norms by keeping their mobile shop open beyond the time limit provided by the government. The police allegedly tortured them, and on 22 June they succumbed to their injuries.

Human rights activist Henri Thipagne from the NGO People’s Watch said that even if there is no agitation, the judiciary must take suo motu cognizance of such issues as the people expect the law to function.

“The judiciary has an oversight role. The metropolitan magistrate had a function to play but didn’t, leading to a problematic situation in custodial deaths. Only in Vignesh’s death did the judiciary play such a role,” he told South First.

Henri also accused the state’s legal advisor of remaining a mute spectator in cases of custodial deaths.

He said the legal advisor is responsible for taking the issue to court and ensuring justice for the victims, but the opposite happens.

Even after the high court’s criticism, the police arrested only six of their own, and they did not include the senior officers, Henri said.

The Vignesh case 

One recent incident dates back to 18 April, when 25-year-old Vignesh and his friend Suresh were taken into custody by the police.

Vignesh, a Dalit, was making his living by giving people horse rides on the Marina beach in Chennai.

The police claimed to have found marijuana and liquor in their possession during a vehicle check.

They were taken to the Secretariat Colony Police Station by the officers.

On 19 April, Vignesh started having seizures after breakfast.

The doctors at the Government Stanely Hospital declared him dead on arrival.

Subsequently, the police had registered a case of death under suspicious circumstances.

It was reported that the post-mortem report revealed contusions on several parts of Vignesh’s body, including his head, above the eyes, cheek, and arms.

The Tamil Nadu government also ordered a CB-CID probe in both recent custodial deaths.

The CB-CID officers arrested as many as six cops over the issue.

The cops arrested were Senior Station Inspector (SSI) Kumar, Head Constable Munab, Constable Pounraj of G5 Secretariat colony police station, Armed Reserve (AR) Constables Jegajeevanram and Chandrakumar, and Home Guard Deepak.

However, the CB-CID is yet to arrest Mohandas, the inspector at the Thousand Lights Police Station, who allegedly offered ₹1 lakh to Vignesh’s family to silence them.

The first bench of Chief Justice of Madras High Court, headed by Justice MN Bhandari and Justice N Mala, on 10 June said the custodial deaths reflect the madness of the police department.

The court was hearing a PILs from AG Mourya, a retired police officer and advocate A Saravanan Dakshinamurthy.

Chief Minister MK Stalin announced a solatium of ₹10 lakh to the kin of Vignesh on humanitarian grounds, adding that his government would bear the medical expenses of Suresh.

The Rajasekar case

A few days after Vignesh’s death, the state saw another incident sparking an outcry.

On 11 June, officers from the Kodungaiyur Police Station picked up 33-year-old Rajasekar, another Dalit, for an enquiry following the criminal cases pending against him.

According to his younger sister Koteeshwari, the police picked tortured him to death.

Koteeshwari told South First that Rajasekar had met one Kalaiarasan — a rowdy whom he had befriended inside the prison earlier — on the day of arrest.

She claimed Rajasekar was arrested at Kalaiarasan’s house and she was informed about the arrest by her elder brother Manikandan’s wife.

Sembiyam Additional Commissioner Sembedu Babu told South First that Rajasekar had confessed to being involved in theft and other pending cases against him, following which the Kodungaiyur police officials kept him at the station.

On the same day, Rajasekar fell ill and complained of uneasiness. He was then rushed to a nearby hospital for treatment, and taken back to the station for further investigation.

However, the next day he fell ill again and was declared dead on arrival at the Government Stanely Hospital.

Koteeshwari told South First that Rajasekar’s post-mortem report says there were many external injuries on his body.

Additional Commissioner (Law and Order North) TS Anbu told reporters that Rajasekar didn’t die due to custodial torture.

Refuting such claims, Koteeshwari said her brother didn’t suffer from any ailments before being taken into police custody, and that he died due to custodial torture.

“I saw the bloodied nose and mouth of my brother,” she told South First.

She added that Rajasekar’s advocate Vijayakumar, when informed about the demise, tried to bribe the family with ₹2 lakh at the behest of police officers.

“The advocate asked me to take the money from police officers and get over it, but I refused as I wanted justice for my brother,” she said.

The Sembiyam AC Sembedu Bbau refuted this claim.

Responding to activists’ statements, Additional Commissioner (Law & Order, North, told South First) TS Anbu said the police did not torture Rajasekar in custody, and that he died because of the injuries he already had on his body.

The police department, however, has suspended five police personnel in connection with the case. Inspector George

They are Ponraj Miller, Sub-inspector Kanniappan, Head Constables Manivannan and Jayasekar, and Grade-I Constable Sathyamurthy.

Tamil Nadu DGP Sylendra Babu also transferred the case to the CB-CID.

The Prabhakaran case

Another incident this year happened on 12 January, when the Sethamangalam police in the Namakkal district picked up 45-year-old Prabhakaran along with his wife Hamsala in connection with a robbery.

Prabhakaran was a differently-abled Dalit who was making living as a tailor.

A relative of Prabhakaran told South First that the police behaviour toward Prabhakaran and his wife showed their nature.

“The police tortured the couple, and Prabhakaran succumbed to the injuries inflicted on him in police custody,“ they said.

A source within the police department, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said Prabhakaran suffered from health issues and died at the Salem Government Hospital when he was taken there for treatment by the police.

In this case, the DIG (Salem Range) suspended three police officers and booked them under Section 174 of the CrPC.

The Dalit angle 

In all the three incidents mentioned, the deceased were Dalits.

According to data from People’s Watch, at least four of the 39 people who died in the custody of the Tamil Nadu Police in 2021 were Dalits.

That is 10.25 percent of the total cases in a state where, according to the 2011 census, only 7.2 percent of the population is Dalit.

I Aseervatham, a human rights activist from People’s Watch, said: “The number of deaths of Dalits is reflective of the government’s mindset. The DMK says the government is for all and that the party ensures social justice. But the custodial deaths increased during Stalin’s regime last year.”

He added: “Dalits are easy targets for the police as they can easily harass and assault them during the investigation to extract confessions.” These can also be false confessions.

Aseervatham also said people from the Kuravar community, who belong to the Scheduled Caste, continue to be targeted by the police.

The lack of social support causes the cops to retaliate in the form of violence, which results in death, he added.

“It is entirely against the Supreme Court’s guidelines regarding detention and arrest, and also violates the rights of the accused persons,” he said.

Aseervatham also said the state needs police reforms to safeguard the accused in custody.

There have been instances where the Tamil Nadu Police released photos of an accused with fractured bones and said they had fallen in the bathroom. This was the version of events told to the magistrate during the remand process.

Aseervatham also claimed that the state police lack the knowledge of human rights, which results in custodial death.

Many senior officials don’t have a good understanding of human rights, and as a result, allow junior officers to assault the accused to extract a confession, he told South First.

Asked what the State Human Rights Commission can do In such cases, the activist said it had become an abode for the retired government officials who act as an enslaved people to the government.

“The State Human Rights Commission (SHRC) is an independent body, but it is under the control of whichever government is ruling. We can not expect any good from the SHRC,” he said.

Henri concurred. He said, “The SHRC is not a functioning body. It has 35 vacancies to fill. How can one expect such a body to function and provide justice to the victims?”

He added: “It is clear that the government doesn’t want to oversee it on purpose and fill its vacancies. Around 30,000 cases are unnumbered in SHRC.”