Justice for Jayaraj and Bennix

Poorna Swami

Since Narendra Modi announced a nationwide Covid-19 lockdown on 24 March, violators of the rules in India have been fined, abused, arrested and killed. Across the board, working-class people have received harsher penalties than the more affluent.

People who work in essential services were exempt from the lockdown even during the first and most stringent phase, but the sudden nature of Modi’s announcement led to confusion among citizens and local government officials alike. A lack of communication between government and law enforcement meant that several key workers – including doctors, as well as people delivering and selling food – were subject to harsh treatment from the police.

In the central state of Bihar, in the early days of the lockdown, a truck driver who was transporting potatoes was shot in the foot by police. In Uttar Pradesh, in the north, migrant workers trying to walk home were made to crawl on the road as punishment for violating the lockdown. In Gujarat, in the west, a migrant worker was beaten to death when he and his colleagues went to a police station to ask for permission to return home. Millions of migrant workers were left without jobs, or any way to get back to their home states.

More recently, two men died in police custody in the southern state of Tamil Nadu. The father and son were residents of Santhakulam, a town in the district of Thoothukudi. Local police accused P. Jayaraj and J. Bennix of keeping their cellphone repair and woodwork shops open past 8 p.m., in violation of the state’s lockdown norms. On 19 June, the police detained Jayaraj. When Bennix went to enquire about his father, he too was taken into custody. The police then allegedly stripped and beat the men for hours, before securing permission from a magistrate to transfer them to a jail sixty miles away. How the magistrate could have allowed the move without insisting on the mandated medical examination remains a critical question. On the night of 22-23 June, father and son died in hospital.

Eye-witnesses said that the men’s bodies showed signs of extreme physical and sexual abuse. The official police report, however, claimed that Jayaraj and Bennix had threatened to kill the arresting officers and ‘rolled’ on the ground, injuring themselves. Although the police initially denied any malpractice, ten police officers have been arrested so far, following protests in Santhakulam and outrage on social media. The case is now being investigated by the Central Bureau of Investigation, and a woman constable who testified against her colleagues is receiving court-ordered protection.

Police brutality in India didn’t begin with the lockdown. In 2018, in Thoothukudi district, the police were accused of shooting dead a dozen protesters. Filmgoers think it’s normal that Bollywood and other regional language movies routinely show policemen thrashing and electrocuting people in custody.

For the year 2017-18, India’s National Human Rights Commission registered 164 deaths in encounters with police, 148 deaths in police custody and 1636 deaths in jail. The numbers for the previous four years were similar. A recent study revealed strong biases against people from minority religions and oppressed caste backgrounds. India is one of five countries that have signed but not ratified the UN Convention against Torture. It is nearly impossible for victims’ families to hold the police accountable. According to a 2016 Human Rights Watch report, there were no convictions of police officials in any custodial death case between 2010 and 2015, and only four in 2016.

As protests against police brutality gained momentum in the United States, several Indian celebrities tweeted their outrage at the murder of George Floyd. But critics responded by calling these statements hypocritical, noting the general air of silence around police violence in India. There was a wave of anger on social media in response to Jayaraj and Bennix’s murder, but Indians haven’t taken to the streets en masse like Americans have. In an Instagram video that has had more than 18 million views, Suchitra, a Tamil radio jockey, urges Indians not to let Jayaraj and Bennix’s case be closed ‘unless and until we get the same justice George Floyd’s murderers did’.