July 05, 2020

A Regime of Impunity

THE deaths of a father and son, Jayarajan and Bennix, after brutal torture in a police station at Sathankulam in Thoothukudi district of Tamil Nadu have caused widespread outrage. Equally shocking has been the attempted cover-up by the police authorities and the underplaying of the crime by the AIADMK government. It required the intervention of the Madurai Bench of the Madras High Court to establish prima facie charges of murder against the police officers concerned and to order an investigation by the CB-CID.

The focus on the Sathankulam atrocity has revealed other cases of police torture and another custodial death in the same police station in the preceding days.  Reports by local people indicate a spurt in police impunity after the lockdown was imposed. In fact, all over the state, complaints of police excesses in imposing the lockdown conditions have been reported. 

This is not confined to Tamil Nadu alone.  There is a general state of impunity in the country exercised by the police and security agencies during the time of the pandemic and the lockdown.  The State has licensed this impunity. In Uttar Pradesh, we have seen police beating and punishing migrant workers on the move.  Prior to the lockdown, UP police, under the direction of Chief Minister Adityanath, had gone on a rampage beating up anti-CAA protestors, indiscriminately arresting peaceful protestors and in concert with the district administration imposing collective fines on the minority community.  After a brief respite from the Allahabad High Court on punitive actions during the lockdown, the exaction of fines and the ceiling of business establishments of Muslims have begun again. 

Custodial deaths have been a common occurrence in many states.  The Supreme Court’s directives and measures suggested to curb police excesses in custody have either been not implemented or subverted by various state governments.   In the case of Tamil Nadu, the Supreme Court directive to set-up a State Police Complaints Commission has been undermined by not appointing a retired High Court judge as the chairperson, but by appointing a bureaucrat.

It is ultimately the political authority which can take effective steps to stop police impunity and check violations by the guardians of the law. However, under the Modi government dispensation, in the past six years, more and more leeway has been given to the police and security agencies to act arbitrarily with no checks on them. The extraordinary situation created by the pandemic has only strengthened this trend. A clear example is how the Delhi police, under the aegis of the union home ministry, has dealt with the cases concerning the communal violence in north-east Delhi earlier this year.  After the lockdown, arbitrary arrests on a large-scale have taken place; FIRs registered by the police have not been made public nor the arrests of persons notified.  There is a blatant cover-up of the role of certain policemen who had connived in the mob violence.  Particularly glaring is the case of the 23 year-old man Faizan, who along with four other men, were beaten in public by policemen which was recorded on video.  Faizan died subsequently due to the injuries he sustained. But the FIR gives false information and does not mention even the fact that he was taken to the police station and further tortured. 

The last three months have seen a spate of cases under the UAPA and the sedition clause of the IPC. The BJP governments at the centre and the states have been directing the police to utilise these draconian provisions to arrest people on baseless charges and remand them to police and judicial custody.  The central agencies like the NIA, CBI and Enforcement Directorate are all behaving like a law unto themselves. It is this direction from the political authority that gives licence to the police and security agencies to act with impunity.

One of the checks on errant police behavior should be the lower judiciary. However, increasingly the magistrates and lower court judges are derelict in discharging their duties. They rubber stamp all police requests for remand and ignore blatant discrepancies in the FIRs lodged or the procedures adopted for arrests. How the magistrate behaved in the Sathankulam case is reflective of the general malaise. Nowadays, magistrates are mechanically remanding accused persons without applying their mind, as for instance in sedition cases, whether the charge is tenable or not as per the Supreme Court guidelines in the Kedarnath Singh case. 

The lawless actions of the police and security agencies have got further legitimised by the attitude of the higher judiciary. Whether it is the Bhima Koregaon case accused or various other persons charged under the UAPA or sedition clauses, even the Supreme Court has declined to intervene to protect the fundamental rights of citizens.  This has been most glaring in the matter of deprivation of civil liberties in Jammu & Kashmir.

What has transpired in the short period of three months of the pandemic-lockdown is thus a consolidation of the architecture of authoritarianism in India. Police impunity and excesses is only a part of this oppressive regime. 

(July 1, 2020)