Police violence in India: a token of India’s colonial past
Artist: Riddhi Kanetkar

*Trigger Warning: Sexual Assault, Violence, Police Brutality

The case of Jayaraj and Bennix

On the 19th of June, Jayaraj (58) a timber trader and native of Thoothukudi, Tamil Nadu was arrested by the Sathankulam police on grounds of violating the lockdown norms due to the business hours kept by his son Bennix’s mobile phone showroom. 

The night of 22nd June, Bennix died after complaining of chest pain in the Kovilpatti Government Hospital.  The following day, Jayaraj also passed away.

In the police’s version of events, the two were asked to close their shop open post the curfew time imposed by the district administration, ‘upon which Jayaraj and Bennix began to hurl insults and rolled on the ground’. The latter claim is how the police explained and excused the extremely brutal injuries suffered by the two men. The FIR lodged against them also claimed that the two had threatened the policemen if they were to be compelled to leave. 

The First Information Report (FIR) stated that the two had been arrested together. However, multiple eyewitness accounts including the statement released by Jayaraj and Bennix’s lawyer claims that Jayaraj was the first one to be arrested, and Bennix was arrested later. 

Upon reaching the Sathankulam police station, it was alleged that the police began inflicting a large degree of violence against both men.. They were beaten with lathis and eyewitness accounts of the post-mortem claim that they suffered grave injuries, had severe bruising and had been sexually assaulted.  Despite this emerging evidence, the police have claimed no contest in the occurrence of these fatal wounds. 

In accordance with the due process of law, Jayaraj and Bennix should have been presented before a magistrate within twenty-four hours of their arrest. However, they were presented in camera on the 20th of June and the magistrate exempted them from the physical examination without which remand can be issued only in exigent circumstances. Considering the legalities of the case and the ‘crimes’ Jayaraj and Bennix were booked under, such a remand should not have been issued.

Following this, they were taken to the Kovilpatti Sub-Jail, a hundred kilometres away from their hometown near Sathankulam, where the alleged cruelty and torture against them continued. On the 22nd, Bennix was admitted to the Kovilpatti Government Hospital where he succumbed to various internal injuries after complaining of a severe chest pain. In the early hours of 23rd June, Jayaraj too passed away, due to what the police claimed to be ‘pre-existing conditions.’ 

Their deaths were a horrific reminder of the rampant and often ignored structure of police violence in India. 

The colonial roots of policing

The system of policing in India as seen today is not merely the product of a colonial past, it is a crudely modified and largely lacking system that still plays into the exploitation of the exacerbated differences that exist in this diverse country. 

From 1757 to 1857, India was under the rule of British East India Company, a group of privateers and financiers. The rule over India was taken over by the British Crown in the Queen’s Proclamation, which continued for another ninety years, until 1947. Throughout these one hundred and ninety years of British Raj, the system of governance placed British Officers of the EIC (pre 1857) and then the Crown in all positions of power, decision making and influence. The positions of policing and military could not however be filled in completely by soldiers and sepoys from Britain. 

Prior to the Battle of Buxar and Battle of Plassey, the British East India Company relied on their ties and alliances with rulers and Nawabs’ armies to do their bidding and aid their cause. However, once they had access to the resources of those kingdoms, they began to further their exploitation of the country, their need for their own private army or enforcement team became necessary. 

Thus, ignited from remnants of the kingdom’s armies and the officers of the East India Company, started the annexation and subjugation of the entirety of the nation. The rule under the British Raj changed after the First War of Independence in 1857, with the Queen’s Proclamation claiming India as a part of the British Commonwealth.

Through that and the aforementioned Government of India Act of 1858, the British Crown implemented changes in their administrative strategies, but only some were on paper. While they claimed to continue to follow a policy of non-interference in the social and cultural matters of India, they exploited any and all differences to further their economic and political interests.

Differential treatment on the basis of religion, region and caste was practiced within army barracks to increase suspicion and division among fellow Indian soldiers. Though discrimination existed without any external interference, the British Raj played a unique role while in authority over the sub-continent by cementing communal or regional divides with their approval or disapproval to one against the other. 

Moreover, the British imperial policy of ‘divide et impera’ – or the policy of divide and rule – fomented antagonisms to facilitate their continued colonial rule over the country. While the Indian Imperial Service may no longer be in action under the same name, little has been done in the over seventy of the independence of this country. 

Why police reform is necessary

The system of policing in India remains the same, with the same inherent biases and thriving in the same exploitative manner it did in this country’s colonised past. 427 people died while in police custody between 2016 and 2019 and the number rises to  5476 people in the last three years, if all the deaths in judicial custody are counted. Of the over four hundred cases of police custodial death, the National Human Rights Commission recommended disciplinary action in one case.

The Status of Policing in India Report 2019 by Common Cause and the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies betrays the patterns of police prejudice and the severe lacking or even initiative of reforms in the police.

The report indicated that around 24% of the police personnel felt that migrants are ‘very much naturally prone’ to committing crimes; 8% of the police personnel felt the same regarding the transgender community; 14% of the police personnel felt the same regarding Muslims. 

It also indicated that one in five police personnel are of the belief that gender based complaints and complaints of domestic violence are false or motivated to a great extent; one out of five police personnel felt that killing dangerous criminals was better than a legal trial; four out of four police personnel felt that it was justified for the police to use violence to extract confessions from criminals. 

More dangerously, in the absence of any guidelines regarding human rights, caste sensitisation and crowd control training, personnel reported receiving either no training on these at all matters or in the case of those with more than five years of experience – at the time of joining the force. 

The policing system has been existing in its own bubble of sovereignty, reigning overlord with a carte blanche provided to them from a slumbering legislature that continues to pat itself on the back for the most negligent changes they made in it all those years ago. 

However, the cycle of exploitation continues. The systemic, cyclical and yet tangible system of oppression that remains put – because of the privileges it awards to a select few – known also as the police in India, needs to change. The continued impunity provided to it does not change with the involvement of the CB-CID and the cognisance of these as custodial deaths by the Madurai Bench of the Madras High Court in the case of Jayaraj and Bennix. 

Although this is the right and necessary step forward, proactiveness cannot stop here. Severe reforms and restructuring of the police are imperative. The same system that was responsible for our exploitation cannot also be the system responsible for our justice.