Tamil Nadu: As the clock ticked past the 9pm curfew in the city of Tuticorin and Jayaraj shuttered his mobilephone store for the night, little did he know it was the last time he would see it.
Calling it a flouting of the lockdown rules in the state, policemen remanded him into custody. When his son, J Bennicks, aka Fenix, went over to try having him released, he was also put into jail. The next few details are hazy, with the timings of the father and son being transported to a hospital being incongruently reported in media. What is certain however is they died post questioning and while in police custody. Some reports allege sexual abuse and base humiliation.
After the reports came to light, they struck a match of rage in Tuticorin, where shops remained shut in protest even as demonstrators gathered at Virugambakkam market to rally against police brutality early last week. Of the 150 people who gathered, 50 were arrested.
Since then, officers have been suspended, an inquiry is in the works and the Madras High Court has called for reforms in the judicial remand system, suggesting counselling for those on the field to keep violence in check.
The next hearing is slated for June 30. In the meantime, the state roils and agitates, calling for justice for the father-and-son victims of police brutality.
Here’s a look at the sequence of events.
On June 19, police inspecting shops amid a COVID-19 induced country-wide lockdown picked up P Jayaraj.
Later, his son went to enquire after him, but was remanded into custody as well. India Today reports that police officials said the duo was held for keeping their mobile accessories shop beyond permissible hours on June 19. An FIR was filed against them.
Reportedly, when Bennicks saw his father, beaten by the men in uniform and tried to stop them, he was beaten up.
Advocate Manimaran, Bennicks’ childhood friend, claimed he heard the police personnel shout, “You dare speak against the police” while assaulting the duo.
Manimaran claimed that Sathankulam Judicial Magistrate B Saravanan, while remanding the duo to 14-day judicial custody at the Kovilpatti Sub Jail, did not take the time to look at the state of the beaten victoms.
“The magistrate would not have remanded them if he had gone through the FIR filed against them in connection with a brawl over closing of shops amid restrictions during the lockdown,” he said.
India Today reports quote a Chennai-based news site, The Federal speaking to an eyewitness saying: “Between 7 am and 12 pm on June 20, the father and son had changed at least seven lungies (waistcloth) each as they had become wet due to blood oozing from their rectums."
On June 22, Bennicks was taken to the Kovilpatti General Hospital where he died. A day later, his father also passed away.
The shopkeepers’ family, devastated by the developments refused to accept the bodies for burial calling for proper jurisprudence. In the meantime, the calls for justice began to gain steam – and on social media #JusticeforJayarajAndFenix began to trend with shopkeepers shuttering doors and celebrities and activists and opposition party leaders calling for justice.
Rahul Gandhi, for instance, tweeted: "Police brutality is a terrible crime. It’s a tragedy when our protectors turn into oppressors. I offer my condolences to the family of the victims and appeal to the government to ensure #JusticeForJeyarajAndFenix"
The Madurai Bench of the Madras High Court on Tuesday ordered a post-mortem, which would be videographed. It also called on the autopsy to be conducted in the presence of a three-member medical team. The chief minister said the two policemen alleged to be responsible for the deaths had been suspended and the inspector of Sathankulam been kept under compulsory waiting.
On Friday, a status report was filed to the Madras High Court and the next court date for hearing has been set for June 30.
India, a country of police brutality?
Justice is a heady word – beloved by millions around the globe but fought for by mere hundreds. In India, every few months a call to action goes out.
It did when the Delhi anti-CAA riots saw young men beaten to the point of death by policemen. It did when the exodus of migrants, crawling on the roads, dying by the wayside saw authority figures languidly looking on. Now, it does again, over the plight of two shopkeepers who died in judicial custody. They were reportedly beaten bloody, brutalized, sodomised.
They were killed by forces meant to protect, to serve, to help. They were murdered by men who corrupted by their own sense of absolute power and belief in the system – that it would let them off without so much as a rap on the knuckles – that they yelled and screamed and ruthlessly carried on in spite of the pleas of lookers-on.
And yet. Jayaraj and his son, J Bennicks aka Fenix, are only the latest victims of a mangled system of authority.
As per National Human Rights Commission of India (NHRC) data, 1,589 cases of custodial deaths (police and judicial) were registered between January and November 2019.
And in a year earlier, the research institute Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS) study found that less than 25 per cent of Indians trusted the police.
Would you – if speaking up meant a baton to the brain?
The world is in a chrysalis; where thanks to a steady stream of social media activists and internet connectivity, change is sure to come.
In America a metamorphosis is afoot, brought on by the tragic death of George Floyd at the hands of the police.
In India, the largest democracy, where the power of police is almost absolute, can the same spirit of transformation rend the air? We are agitated all right, but must remember that justice always comes at a price – it requires action.