In 1983, Coimbatore-based auto driver Chandran was working as a waiter at a hotel in a village near Guntur in Andhra Pradesh. One day, he and a few other labourers from Tamil Nadu were picked by the police on a ‘case of doubt’. Over the next two weeks they suffered continuous, merciless custodial violence, for no crime. Chandran then spent close to 6 months in Guntur jail, before eventually being released getting back to Coimbatore.
On March 16, 2011, Sadiq Batcha, known to be a close aide of former telecom minister and 2g scam accused A Raja, was found hanging in his house in Chennai. His death was a shocker. Sadiq had been arrested and questioned for his alleged involvement in the 2g scam by helping launder money. There was intense speculation on the circumstances of his death, with many wondering if he was murdered.
On February 23, 2012, amidst growing criticism that Chennai police were not able to crack a chain of daring bank robberies, 5 immigrants from north India were killed in a police encounter. The police said they were responsible for the robberies. Activists cried foul and called it ‘murder’, the media raised several questions on the shoot-out. Questions were raised as to whether these men were really criminals, or just immigrant workers picked up to ‘close the case’.
Visaaranai, a Tamil movie based on auto driver Chandran's book Lock Up, seemingly ties all the above events together with a neat storyline. In the movie, migrant workers from Tamil Nadu are picked up by the police in Guntur for no crime. The workers then get entangled in a web of crime and politics, eventually to be killed in an encounter. The movie has stark similarities to the real-life events, and those familiar with the controversies can spot them in the movie.
What makes the movie special is how close it is to reality. There are significant points made in a passing manner. When a police officer says “Don’t worry, the officer belongs to my caste, I will take care of him”, the director shows how relevant caste remains in government service.
When a senior cop tells an inspector “I didn’t ask you to solve the case, I asked you to close it”, we realize what lies we are possibly being fed in the name of law and order.
As they walk out after staging a suicide, one cop tells another, “Call and tell the local police station to file this as suicide, and we will take care of the forensic examiner too” we are warned not to take autopsy reports of controversial deaths at face value.
When two cops are discussing exactly how to placate the media - by giving reporters “envelops” and by planting vicious stories about innocent victims – the director tells us that the media too is complicit in covering up police crimes.
The director also shows the class divide when it comes to police brutalities. A cop can do whatever he wants with anyone, rich or poor. But if you are poor, brutality is the first step of interrogation. If you are rich, the ‘treatment’s is only if you don’t cooperate. Petty theft gets you a dark, dingy room with no toilet. Money laundering gets you an air-conditioned room with a bed to rest. Not cooperating with the cop, however, gets everyone torture.
The movie has received appreciation from stars like Kamal and Rajinikanth, but also led to angry reactions from cops. Comments of an IAS officer who endorsed the movie was called "an outright affront on the entire police force". Former DGP Anoop Jaiswal told TOI, "Some feel that the powers of arrest given to police in cognizable offences are unbridled. But the law is clear that a police officer cannot resort to whimsical use of power. There are checks and balances and legal remedies in the system."
The movie is a striking indictment of the Tamil Nadu police, and a brutal reminder of police sponsored violence in India.
The National Human Rights department has recorded a staggering 14,231 cases of custodial deaths in India between 2001 and 2010, and a large majority of these were a direct fall-out of custodial torture. But how close to the truth is the data? We will never know, and even the NHRC says so.
“Police brutality is rampant and an everyday reality in India,” says A Narayanan, a social activist who has taken up several cases of police violence, “but in Tamil Nadu, the police are a political tool for the party in power. So they patronise the police by allowing them to have unbridled powers, which shows in the cases of police torture. The worst affected are people from weaker sections like the poor and transgenders.”
Just recently, a youngster who was arrested for burning the national flag in Tamil Nadu emerged from police custody with a broken hand. His lawyer says it was custodial torture, the cops say he fell down and broke his arm. “What kind of a democracy is this?” asks Narayanan.