The Culture of Impunity

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impunity /ɪmˈpjuːnɪti/ (noun):
exemption from punishment or freedom from the injurious consequences of an action

According to a report by a consortium of NGOs against Custodial Torture, 1731 people died in custody in 2019. This comes to roughly 5 custodial deaths a day.

What do you do when the very people meant to protect you are the ones to take your life?


This YouTube video gives us a glimpse into the world of systemic police brutality.

A 24-year-old died (killed?) in Police Custody in Mumbai, 2014

What happened in Sattankulam town in Thoothukudi district of Tamil Nadu is a mere manifestation of the systemic culture of impunity that the Police enjoy. P. Jayaraj, 58, a timber trader and J.Bennix, 31, who ran a mobile shop faced brutal deaths while in judicial custody due to relentless and merciless beatings by the police. This is the capsule version.

The Detailed Story

On June 18, the father-son duo had kept their shop open for 15 minutes beyond the permitted time of 8 PM. The shop was closed soon after when the police asked to put up the shutters. However, allegedly, somebody informed the police that Jayaraj had passed a rude comment about them. The next night, on June 19, the police were back with sinister plans at 7.30 PM. They first picked Jayaraj from the shop and asked Bennix to meet them at the police station. On reaching the station, Bennix saw his father being thrashed by the police and when he sought to intervene he was subjected to the same form of brutal torture. Some relatives and friends were eyewitnesses to this.

“While the police brutally assaulted Bennix and inserted a baton into his anus that triggered uncontrolled bleeding, they smashed Jayaraj and kicked him on his chest multiple times with their shoes. We saw him bleeding profusely even as he was in police custody at Sattankulam police station,” charged relatives of Bennix.

The police stomped on the chest with their shoes and used all forms of extreme pain-inflicting methods. That night the spirit of life was irrevocably extinguished in the two men. The next day, on June 20, the duo was taken to the Sattankulam government hospital where the family said Jayaraj and Bennix were in “bad shape” and that “Jayaraj’s veshti and Bennix’s pants were fully soaked in blood.” After that, as the law dictates, the two had to be presented in front of a magistrate within 24 hours.

According to reports, the duo suffered profuse rectal bleeding because of which lungis had to be changed frequently, as they were being ferried in a police jeep to the judicial magistrate. Owing to coronavirus situation, standing 50 m away from the magistrate surrounded by hounding policemen, the two could feebly narrate what had happened. The magistrate without paying much heed remanded them to judicial custody without examining them for injuries as he was required to do.

They were then taken to a local sub-jail and were booked under Sections 188 (disobedience to order duly promulgated by public servant), 383 (extortion by threat), and 506 (criminal intimidation) of the Indian Penal Code. What happened next?

At the Kovilpatti Sub-Jail, Bennix’s bleeding became uncontrollable due to internal haemorrhage and he became unconscious on Monday evening. Though he was rushed to the Kovilpatti Government Hospital, he died around 9 p.m. Jayaraj too developed “chest pain” even as he was in the prison, and was admitted to the Kovilpatti Government Hospital where he died around 8 a.m. on Tuesday.

Two common people died at the hands of policemen- Sattankulam Inspector, Sridhar, Sub-inspector Balakrishnan, and Raghu Ganesh, head constable Murugan and constable Muthuraj. I will request you to remember these names. Usually, this incident would not have gained much media mileage. But the world’s collective conscience which had woken up to the merciless killing of George Floyd couldn’t digest yet another case of police brutality. It had to do something. The brutal deaths started trending all over social media with calls for justice- #JusticeForJayarajAndBennix and #JusticeForJayarajAndFenix. People protested in large numbers.

What steps have been taken?

What are the procedural inconsistencies in the entire case?

  • According to the FIR filed by the police, there was a huge crowd in front of the shop after 8 PM, the duo verbally abused and disobeyed the police, and lastly, that the injuries were self-sustained because of them rolling on the floor. Now that the CCTV footage is out, Guess what? All three claims are false. In fact, there was little to no crowd. The duo had dutifully obeyed the police orders and the two hadn’t rolled on the floor to inflict the injuries.
  • Anybody who’s arrested has to undergo a medical examination and doctors have to list down any pre-existing injuries. Because fresh injury would mean police abuse in custody. Also, as I have mentioned before, the arrested person has to be produced before a magistrate within 24 hours of arrest. What happened in this case? The medical examination was done improperly and then subsequently, the magistrate didn’t do a thorough evaluation before giving the judicial remand.
  • As stated earlier, the duo was booked under sections 188 (disobedience to order duly promulgated by public servant), 383 (extortion by threat), and 506 (criminal intimidation) of IPC. However, the only valid charge here is section 188. According to this article published in The Hindu, ‘It is well known that the police include ‘intimidation’ in the FIR solely to obtain an order of remand, as it is non-bailable, if they are bent upon sending someone to jail.’ Now you know why the two sections were added!

Here’s a heart-wrenching video of the entire incident showcasing how it was fundamentally so inhuman.

When protectors turn into beasts

Some similar Instances

If I were to give you instances of police brutality in India, a blog post would surely fall short. Therefore, I am going to cite two examples from the same place- Thoothukudi, Tamil Nadu. The first one is more interesting as you’ll be surprised to find out what Sub Inspectors Raghu Ganesh and Balakrishnan (Remember the names? Yes, the same set of policemen) had done weeks before the father-son deaths. They had thrashed a 28-year-old Mahendran leading to brain damage and subsequent death. Here’s more about the policemen in case you belong to the curious specimen of human beings, like me.

The second example: the Thoothukudi Police on May 22, 2018, shot dead 13 people, who were among a crowd that had demonstrated for 100 days without violence, seeking closure of Vedanta’s highly polluting Sterlite Copper Unit. Shocking still is the fact that no police officer has been arrested yet.

Why is this happening? The Culture

The father-son deaths are clearly not a one-off incident. It indicates to a much more fundamental systemic problem paralysing the entire police force. It is not mere inconsistencies in how the case was handled or how the police used the wrong methods. It in instead clearly pointing out how police brutality has been accepted as the de facto mode of operation. Lapses in procedures have become the norm rather than the exception.

According to the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB)’s 2018 (latest) annual report, there are 70 recorded deaths in police custody –12 were from Tamil Nadu, the second-highest after Gujarat, with 14 deaths. Tamil Nadu police was already known for its notoriety. What had been done then to curb it?

The 2018 NCRB report shows that of the 70 cases of custodial death in the year, judicial enquiries were ordered in only 28. Charge-sheets were filed only against 13 police personnel –11 of them were from Gujarat, the state with the highest number of custodial deaths. In Tamil Nadu, no police personnel were arrested, let alone charge-sheeted.

It’s quite evident that it is difficult (a euphemism rather for ‘close to impossible’) to put policemen behind bars. The National Human Rights Commission routinely reports on arbitrary detentions, police violence, and torture. Its 2018 report stated that “A lack of accountability for misconduct persisted at all levels of government, contributing to widespread impunity”. Indeed, it is impunity that enables police brutality.

Imagine a world where there was no accountability to what you did. No punishment for wrongdoings. No discouraging of your sinful activities. What would happen then? You wouldn’t think twice before doing the wrong thing. The same applies here. The police force in a way has impunity ingrained into its culture. ‘Nothing ever happens to a cop’. If we want a fair police system, this culture has to be obliterated.

I will leave you with an insightful paragraph from an editorial.

At the same time, constitutional courts must shed the institutional baggage which often leads to them protecting the supposedly vulnerable morale of police. This tendency was on display when the Madras High Court reportedly saw the Thoothukudi incident as the result of a “few bad apples” ruining a system’s reputation. That, with due respect, is to be unable to see the wood for the trees — it is the culture of impunity that all the apples experience which leads the few to wield the baton with such fatal vigour. Rather than minimise, perhaps it is time to consider sanctions at a larger scale and impose monetary penalties at the district level, to drive home the message that the erring actions of one officer must be seen as a failure of the force itself.

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