Selvarani Jeyaraj is inconsolable. Her tears have dried up. “I am orphaned now. Who is there to take care of me? Will money and compensation bring back my husband and son?” she asks as he cries. Selvarani, the wife of P. Jeyaraj (58) and mother of Emmanuel Bennicks (31) who were killed in police custody in Sathankulam, in Tamil Nadu’s Thoothukudi district, believes that at least now the judiciary will ensure justice for her husband and son.
“My mother-in-law and our relatives will record their statements before the Kovilpatti Judicial Magistrate very soon, as per the directions given by the Madras High Court,” said Vinoth, Jeyaraj’s son-in-law. Vinoth and the family were in a prayer meeting when THE WEEK spoke with him. The family is inconsolable. Selvarani and her three daughters are trying to come to terms with the reality that the two important men in their lives are no more. The custodial torture and the twin deaths have sparked outrage across Tamil Nadu.
On Wednesday, as traders downed shutters across the state (the father and son were traders), the entire Sathankulam town went into protest mode. When the bodies were handed over to the family on Thursday, after post-mortem, the whole of Thoothukudi district demanded justice for the deceased and their family. A day later, the custodial torture and the deaths triggered a major row in the state, with celebrities, including actors and cricketers, activists and common people taking to social media with the hashtag #JusticeforJeyarajandBennicks, by condemning the government and the two police sub-inspectors.
It all began on June 18 when Jeyaraj kept his mobile shop open even after the curfew time ended. It is alleged that Jeyaraj, commented against the police action, which was conveyed to the police by an auto driver. Jeyaraj was then taken to the Sathankulam police station the next day for enquiry. When Bennicks went to find out what happened to his father, he saw Jeyaraj being beaten by the police. When Bennicks went to enquire into this he was also taken into custody.
A handwritten record of the Sathankulam government hospital, written in green ink, by the doctors who examined Jeyaraj and Bennicks, clearly says that the two suffered grievous injuries in their gluteal region. The handwritten record, accessed by THE WEEK says Jeyaraj was diabetic and had hypertension. “Gluteal region-multiple marks,” reads the record. It also says that Jeyaraj has to take medicines for diabetes and come back for review. For Bennicks, the handwritten record reads, “gluteal region-multiple marks. Sulcus on the right knee. Come for Xray.” It also says that he was on medication for hypertension and should come for a check-up the next day. But if the hospital and the doctor who examined them had said that they were not fit to be lodged in prison and needed medical treatment, the duo would have survived.
“The next day on June 20, we were asked to bring lungis for them to change, as they were taken to the district magistrate for remand. They were bleeding from their buttocks. The police had brutally attacked them in their gluteal region,” says Rajkumar, a relative of Jeyaraj and Bennicks. As they were taken to the Judicial Magistrate of Sathankulam, D. Saravanan, for remand, the duo was made to stand at least five meters away from him and the two were afraid to tell the magistrate that they were tortured. If the magistrate had heard Jeyaraj and Bennicks about their health condition and the torture they received in the police station and sent them for medical treatment, they would have survived. They were beaten up brutally by eight policemen, including Inspector Srithar, Sub-Inspector Raghu Ganesh and Balakrishnan and five others who are friends of the police in the Sathankulam station.
Subsequently, they were remanded and taken to the Kovilpatti sub-jail with grievous injuries, where they succumbed. Incidentally, the jail register clearly has recorded the injuries suffered by Jeyaraj and Bennicks in their buttocks, when they entered the prison. The jail register has been signed by the Kovilpatti sub-jail authorities, Jeyaraj and Bennicks and Sathankulam police constables Chellathurai and Muthuraj.
Meantime, Chief Minister Edappadi K. Palanisami who is also the minister for the Home Department, dismissed a question from scribes on the custodial torture saying, “The father died due to respiratory illness and the son died of a heart attack.” The two police sub-inspectors Raghu Ganesh and Balakrishnan were suspended and the government called it as an immediate action taken by the chief minister.
The chief minister’s remark sparked outrage, making it apparent that he did not have control over the Home department and was not well informed about the happenings in an important case. However, activists and the family allege the deepening caste differences in the Thoothukudi region as a major reason for the custodial torture.
“Not just Jeyaraj and Bennicks, there are at least three similar cases in the Sathankulam police station limit itself,” says human rights activist Henry Tiphagne. He says this has been the practice of the police in the Thoothukudi region. “The case of Raja Singh and Mahendran are similar. It shows the growing impunity of the Thoothukudi police and how they can’t be controlled by even their superior officers. This has grown since 2018,” alleges Henry.
As the custodial torture of Jeyaraj and Bennicks has caused an outrage, Minister Kadambur Raju, who is considered powerful in the Sathankulam and Kovilpatti region, said that “the death of the father-son duo cannot be called a lock-up death. They died only after they were lodged in the Kovilpatti prison. It can be called a lock-up death only if they are attacked and die in the police station itself.” Sources in the police in Thoothukudi, say that the minister has been trying hard to protect the inspector and the sub-inspectors allegedly named in the custodial torture and death of Jeyaraj and Bennicks. “The FIR has been registered now under 174 CrPc, as a suspicious death. The local magistrate has to submit a report based on his enquiries with the family, jail authorities, doctor who treated them, hospital records and the post-mortem report. Based on this report the investigation will begin against the police officers. We want this process to be expedited,” says V. Kannadasan, former Special Public Prosecutor for Human Rights Court, Chennai. Kannadasan alleges that from the chief minister’s statement itself it can be understood that the “government is trying to shield the erring police officials.”
On the other side, a complaint petition sent to the Thoothukudi Superintendent of Police, on June 20, by three Panchayat Presidents and all trade union leaders, in the Sathankulam circle alleges that Sub Inspector Raghu Ganesh ensured that the caste divisions in the region widened. The letter says, “SI Raghuganesh instigated the Konar youth of the villages in and around Sathankulam to destroy homes of people belonging to other castes.” The letter also alleges that he provoked fights between Konar and Nadar youths. The Nadars are the socially and economically empowered community in the Thoothukudi region who are basically traders. Jeyaraj and Bennicks belonged to the Nadar community.
“He imposed caste tax of Rs 300 in the first phase on those who belonged to other communities, except Konar community.” The letter also brings to light how, Mahendran, a youth in the region was taken into custody in the murder case of Jayakumar, and Mahendran succumbed two days after he got out of the police station.
(The story first appeared in The Week)