It is not uncommon to find images and videos in newspapers and on social media of suspects and criminals wearing a cast around their neck and struggling to walk.

No they didnt slip and fall TN cops and the normalisation of custodial violence
news Police Wednesday, July 24, 2019 - 10:54

On July 9, a Tamil Nadu-based journalist tweeted a photo of a group of five men all wearing casts outside a police station in Chennai. They had been nabbed by the police following a chain snatching incident in north Chennai. “Looks like the Tamil Nadu police has a dedicated person to break arms and put it in a cast. Everyday, a photo of a cast is being released.” read the tweet.

For anyone who reads a Tamil daily, it is a familiar sight on the crime pages of the newspaper. A group of men, barely standing, lined up at the police station, with officers standing guard on either side. Accused of murder, theft, dealing drugs, harassment or a ‘petty’ crime. The thick white cast around their arm, hurriedly tied and hanging off their necks, is unmissable—  a sight known to any reporter on the crime beat. As is usually the norm, the customary question is asked of the men: what happened? Without missing a beat, a look is exchanged between the police officers present and the young boys or men and the injuries are usually attributed to a particularly unfortunate fall during a visit to the bathroom.

The question is as telling as it is unnecessary— for every single person in that room is aware that these men were, in all probability, beaten black and blue by police officers the night before. That they did not slip in the bathroom and fall down; they were not caught as they planned and executed their elaborate escape from the clutches of the cops; they did not try to attack a police officer as they waited in the holding cell. They were simply beaten to a pulp by the police in most cases. And for too long, little has been done by the state to address the issue and pull up police officers for human rights violations. 

Lawyer and human rights activist Sudha Ramalingam says that accused should be actively educated on their rights. "They should be educated to speak freely in front of the magistrate when they are produced. Those taken custody have a right to tell the magistrate where and when they were arrested and how they are treated. A Magistrate has to record the same and ask them what happened. This will lead to the police officers being punished. This is custodial violence. The National Human Rights Commission and State Human Rights Commission should take suo motu cognisance of this and institute a probe,” she says, slamming the excuses given by the police. 

Sudha also questions the process of circulating images of suspects accused of crimes, and says, “The basic concept of criminal law is that unless proven guilty, persons are considered innocent. The police can’t showcase people accused or arrested for crimes as if they are hardened criminals. That is not right. This is in violation of their rights and the law.”  

Former Director General of Police, Tamil Nadu, Letika Saran disagrees and says that police cannot easily get away with custodial violence. She says that the arrest report needs to be looked at in order to determine how the person came to be arrested. "If it is an incident like chain snatching for example, the public will give him a solid thrashing before he is arrested. Normally, when the police produce a person in front of the magistrate, they have to explain the markings on his body. A description would be given. The magistrate would ask the person if he has been mistreated. The police can’t just get away with it." she says.

Author and human rights advocate ‘Auto’ Chandran whose 2006 book Lock Up on custodial violence inspired the hit Tamil film Visaranai, says that the media has a responsibility to delve into this issue rather than treat it as one of the many news reports of the day. He says, “Instead of saying ‘I’m not a detective or documentary filmmaker’, the crime reporter should find out how the suspects were before they went into the lock up. If there are no pictures, the reporter should speak to the family and friends and ask them to describe the suspect’s physical state and health condition before they were picked up by the police. They will explain it. This should form part of the news report."

He further points out, “Police is an instrument of power, a tool of the powerful. But it has become common for citizens to treat it as a matter of pride when the police beat up suspects. Nobody has the permission to break someone’s arm. The masses need to understand this. We need to strongly condemn this and point out that this is state violence.” 

One serving district police chief, on the condition of anonymity, admits that the suspects are beaten up by “over-enthusiastic junior officers” who have helped crack a case and nab the criminals. “They may have their own frustrations and stress due to work and family tension. Especially when the crime is one of passion and touches a nerve for the officer concerned, these kind of incidents are seen. Some of the worst cases happen during high profile cases where the public is charged with emotion. If it is a case of child abuse or child rape, the investigating officer or his subordinate will think of his own kin when he sees the man in the holding cell. It is wrong. But at the same time, these are not heartless machines, they are officers of law. That being said, force is necessary under certain circumstances to elicit an admission. There should be more efforts to help men in uniform leave their stress at home when coming to work.” says the Superintendent of Police.

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