Jayaraj and Bennicks: Police Brutality in India

The South Indian state of Tamil Nadu is reeling as the alleged torture of a father and son in police custody has caused an uproar in the state with thousands on social media comparing the incident to the death of George Floyd in the United States. The deaths of P Jayaraj and son, J Bennicks, in the Thoothukudi district has prompted discourse about police brutality across India.

The Case of Jayaraj and Bennicks

On June 19th, Jayaraj, 59, and Bennicks, 31, were separately taken in for inquiry after police claimed the two were breaking lockdown rules. Three days later, Bennicks passed away at a government hospital after supposedly complaining of severe chest pain. His father then succumbed to the same fate a few hours later in the same hospital.

Percy, Bennick’s sister, later claimed that both had wounds in the rectal area caused by rods being shoved into them. She accused a total of eight policemen of murdering her father and brother. Family and friends of the pair confirmed that they were forced to bring along to the hospital three changes of clothing for the pair, as the alleged beatings had made a mess of their current clothing. Despite this, the police report into the deaths stated that the father and son suffered internal injuries because they “sat on the ground and abused us verbally and rolled on the ground.”

Residents gather as they carry the coffin of Jayaraj, 58, and son Bennicks Immanuel, 31, allegedly tortured at the hands of police in Sathankulam, Thoothukudi district in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu. (Photo by STR / AFP)

Hundreds of thousands of tweets erupted using the hashtag #JusticeforJayarajandBennix. This became one of the top Twitter trending topics in India and among the top 30 globally last Friday, with celebrities and politicians criticising the police action.

“The deaths of Jayaraj and Bennicks [Bennix] once again signal towards India’s continuing failure to hold its police accountable.

Avinash Kumar, Executive Director of Amnesty International India

Following on from nationwide unrest, a judicial inquiry found that two sub-inspectors, Balakrishnan and Raghuganesh, who were accused of leading the torture of Jayaraj and Bennicks, were facing similar accusations from at least a dozen people in the last two weeks, one of whom passed away soon after being allegedly beaten. 

In the initial days of protest, the state government aggravated matters by not responding to widespread calls asking to fire these policemen and charge them with murder. Instead, the two sub-inspectors have been suspended, while the inspector in charge of them was transferred to a waiting list, being temporarily stripped of responsibilities.

Jayaraj, left, and Bennicks, right. (PC: India Today)

With increased international recognition of Jayaraj and Bennicks’ case, the state government announced that compensation of Rs 2 million ($26,450) would be paid to the family of the victims. Whilst this may seem a reasonable response to some, in terms of real consequences, such as a conviction, there has been none. The Tamil Nadu government has transferred the investigation from the state police to the federal Central Bureau of Investigation, which has often been criticised for delaying investigations. 

Although Jayaraj and Bennicks’ case brought attention to these atrocities, it did not stop them. Less than a week after their deaths, it was revealed that a 25-year-old auto rickshaw driver, N Kumarasen, died from severe internal injuries to his kidney and other vital organs soon after he was called into the police station in the Tenkasi district – also within Tamil Nadu. The police report claimed he suffered injuries because of “slippery toilets”.

Police Brutality in India

Police brutality is not alien to India. Since COVID-19 lockdown measures were announced on 24 March 2020, several incidents of police brutality have been reported in response to lockdown ‘violations’. Videos of beatings and mass arrests have been circulating across Twitter highlighting how police disproportionately target those from vulnerable and minority groups, from vegetable sellers to migrant workers. Even prior to the lockdown, people protesting the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) were frequently subject to police violence, with young protestors often being vilified as ‘anti-national’ by the pro-CAA supporters.

Students at the Jamia Mila Islamia University being beaten by police for peacefully protest the CAA, January 2020

Custodial torture is an act of violence that tethers several dimensions of marginalisation – caste, class, gender, occupation, appearance, colour, statehood and nationality. Cases of death in police custody and disappearance from them are on the rise in India, but policemen continue to remain largely unaccountable. Data released by the National Crime Records Bureau, as early as 2015, amply proved this. According to the 2018 National Crimes Record Bureau data, Tamil Nadu had the second highest number of deaths in custody among all Indian states, though not even one policeman has been tried for any one of these deaths.

In India, nearly 15 cases of custodial violence and torture were reported in each day on average, with an average of 9 deaths, according to the latest annual report by India’s National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) for the year 2017/18. The NHRC said in its report that some custodial deaths were reported after considerable delay or not reported at all, adding that violence in custody was so rampant “that it has become almost routine”. For example, in Kerala, all torture survivors who appeared before the court were from low-income and marginalised backgrounds, and many did not know why they were arrested.

Unlike India, some South Asian countries like Sri Lanka, Afghanistan, Bangladesh, and Nepal have all ratified the UN Convention Against Torture (UNCAT). Ratification is an important step, ostensibly legally binding the countries to the provisions of the convention – such as ensuring acts of torture are offences under its criminal law. As India refuses to criminalise torture, the increasing incidents of torture are no surprise. However, international legal mechanisms are considered ‘soft law’ instruments, and they cannot replace robust systems of independent investigation and prosecution for torture and custodial violence.

Reforming the Police

There has been increasing discourse on defunding police, but is this the solution to India’s problem of police brutality? To comprehensively address police brutality in India, we must address two key issues. First, the lack of training given to police forces to sufficiently enable them to gauge complex religion and caste-centric issues. A mere 6.4% of India’s police have reported having received any in-service training – a result of lack of funding due to the police budget being allocated elsewhere. In 2016-2017, the budget for police training was Rs. 8,850 million crore (£7.9million), only 1% of the total budget for India’s police. In fact, from 2012 to 2017, fifteen states reduced their expenditure on training facilities. 

Moreover, the training that is currently provided to officers is centred mainly around “crowd control” and not sensitisation on social issues such as human rights, caste, and religious discrimination. However, this is not because the police do not deem it necessary – in fact, between 92 and 95% of policemen agreed that training in human rights and caste sensitisation is necessary. Without the much-needed guidance on such complexities of the society they intend to serve, police officers are severely under-trained and unaware in tackling the dynamics of minorities in India. 

What can we take from this? Policymakers do not see the importance of funding training facilities and the need for educating police on minorities, caste, and human rights – emphasising the privilege and ignorance of those with authority. Rather than calling to “defund the police”, India must refocus its money on training its police with a strong emphasis on minority sensitisation and human rights. In light of increasing communal tensions and caste-related crimes, India must work towards a holistic, intersectional approach to police reform to sufficiently satiate the needs of its diverse-rich society.