The custodial deaths of father-son duo Bennix and Jayaraj in Thoothukudi district of Tamil Nadu have led to public outcry on police brutality. Eyewitness accounts published in the media suggest that the two men underwent extreme torture β and all because they allegedly did not close their shop before the timing specified in the lockdown restrictions.
This is not the first time that someone has died of custodial torture. According to The Hindu, between 2001 and 2018, there have been a whopping 1,727 instances of custodial violence, but only 26 policemen have been convicted. Even more alarmingly, the report says that though Tamil Nadu, West Bengal, Gujarat, Andhra Pradesh and Maharashtra had more than 100 custodial deaths in this period, not a single policeman was convicted for it.
In fact, in December last year, the whole country celebrated the deaths of the four accused in the Hyderabad vet gangrape and murder case. The police claimed that the men had tried to escape from custody when they were taken to the site of the offence for a reconstruction of the crime. Several celebrities applauded the police and the public even showered them with rose petals.
What explains these diametrically opposite reactions? It appears that our problem is not with police excesses in general but who is the target of the same. As a society, we believe that the police have the right to be brutal, violent and break the laws that they have sworn to uphold. As long as we believe that the criminals deserve it.
In other words, we see the police as persons empowered by the state to take vengeance on behalf of citizens.
But, is vengeance the job of the police? And is justice the same as vengeance?
The etymology of the word 'police' can be traced back to 'polis', which means 'city', and it later came to mean 'public order'. Word origins are fascinating because they tell us how an idea began; they unravel the many meanings that human societies have ascribed to a word since, showing us how we too have changed as people.
The polis, in ancient Greece, was the developed city centre, a mark of human civilisation and its achievements. The police, then, is a product of an evolved state which has understood the need to maintain public order. Several cultures have had a version of the police, created by their rulers to manage crowds, protect citizens from crime, clamp down on unrest, control slaves and to carry out punishments. Over the years, the role and duties of the police across cultures have more or less become the same. Currently, the word 'police' means: 'the civil force of a state, responsible for the prevention and detection of crime and the maintenance of public order.'
However, it's important to understand that the police do not have absolute powers and are subject to the law themselves. If this wasn't the case, incidents like George Flyod's killing on a public road in the US, would be routine. There are constitutional safeguards and laws about who the police can arrest, under what circumstances, what protocol must be followed, and how the police can conduct the inquiry/investigation.This is irrespective of whether a person is innocent or guilty β because the police are not empowered to make that judgment themselves. Their job is to identify who they believe are the accused in the case and bring them before a court of law. This is part of civilisation, too.
And because the police could have β deliberately or otherwise β identified the wrong persons, the legal system, on paper, provides plenty of opportunities to an accused to prove their innocence. A mere arrest is not the end. The long wait can be frustrating for the victim or his/her family β and indeed, create a situation like the Hyderabad vet case where people applaud 'instant justice' β but the process cannot be made speedy at the cost of stripping a person of their right to prove their innocence. Judicial reform is necessary, considering the lakhs of cases pending in our courts, but that does not mean we bypass the checks and balances in place to ensure that an innocent person is not wrongly convicted.
A question that is often put to those who defend the human rights of accused persons is β what if the crime had happened to you or someone you love, will you say the same? It is quite likely that individuals, who can otherwise approach the matter rationally, are blown away by emotions when they're personally involved. But this is precisely why the power to punish is taken away from them and given to an authority. So that punishments are graded according to the nature and gravity of the crime, and not on the basis of feelings. The idea isnβt modern. Even in the Bible, the Lord says, "Vengeance is Mine; I will repay". Meaning, it should not be upon ordinary people to take revenge on each other but a higher authortiy to decide on the matter.
Ancient systems of punishment by the state equated vengeance with justice. One of the best known laws from the Code of Hammurabi, the Babylonian code of law which is dated to about 1754 BC, for instance, is "an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth" (for citizens who were considered equal). This 'tit-for-tat' understanding of justice is still prevalent in many parts of the world, including India. Just five years ago, a khap panchayat in Uttar Pradesh declared that two Dalit girls should be raped and paraded naked in the village if their brother who had eloped with a woman from the Jat community, did not return with her. In 2018, the Supreme Court said that khap panchayats are illegal, but such forms of punishments continue to be ordered and extracted.
However, there is increasing consensus that violent punishments, even when bestowed by the state, only lead to normalising violence and do not really serve justice. For instance, in India, Saudi Arabia β which metes out several violent punishments from lashing to public beheading β is often cited as an example of a country that knows how to deal with rapists. However, this does not mean that there is gender justice in the country; the picture is quite the opposite. It was only in the year 2017 that women in Saudi Arabia were allowed to drive and access government services like education and healthcare without the consent of a guardian.
It's also important to think about what violence does to those who execute it on behalf of the state, physically, emotionally and psychologically. It's one of the factors that have influenced the argument for justice as reformation/rehabilitation rather than retribution. If we see the police as angels who take vengeance, at what point do they turn into demons? Can they stop once they have begun? Can we clip their wings when we feel they have gone too far, but they don't? If we empower them to beat, amputate and kill more people who deserve it, will we become a safer society or will our bloodthirst grow?
The deaths of Bennix and Jayaraj have exposed not only fault lines in the police but also society at large. We have allowed ourselves to become a society where police violence is normal and even desired. This incident went beyond that normal and it shocked us. Let us not make it the new normal.
Watch:Sathankulam CCTV footage of Jayaraj and Bennix expose cops' lies in FIR