Thoothukudi custodial deaths: How the Tamil Nadu media prompted action against the cops

Thoothukudi custodial deaths: How the Tamil Nadu media prompted action against the cops

Thoothukudi custodial deaths: How the Tamil Nadu media prompted action against the cops

How the Tamil Nadu media covered the Jayaraj-Bennix deaths

Swathi J Reddy/101Reporters

Thoothukudi: The alleged custodial deaths of timber trader Jayaraj, 59, and his son Bennix, 31, brought to light the state of police brutality in India. Similar to the outrage that ensued after George Floyd’s death in America, the death of the father-son duo from Thoothukudi district of Tamil Nadu brought in outrage from people in social media and news media. 

This incident first came to light after all the local media houses started reporting about this issue during the COVID-19 pandemic. Several media publications and shows have slammed such behaviour by the Tamil Nadu police.

The constant pressure built by the media forced the administration to take action against the officials in the Sathankulam police station and initiate a probe. The Tamil Nadu media clearly state that the killings in police custody shouldn’t go unpunished and that the reason of death shouldn’t be suicide custody, health illness or natural causes. The Tamil Nadu government sought a probe by the CBI on the issue. 

The Hindu

(Caption: Screenshot of the front page of Hindu’s Chennai edition on June 24. While the China-India conflict was the major news, the death of the father-son duo occupied the second half of the Page 1.)

In this story, while the initial offences of the duo and the action taken against them are mentioned, the story then quotes their relatives who claimed that the duo was assaulted. 

“While the police brutally assaulted Bennix and inserted a baton into his anus that triggered uncontrolled bleeding, they smashed Jayaraj and kicked him on his chest multiple times,” charged the relatives of Bennix, according to The Hindu.

The story also comprised Tamil Nadu police’s version, where they said that the duo had health complications. 

In an editorial titled “Senseless deaths: On Tamil Nadu custodial deaths” published on June 26, it said, “The inclusion of non-bailable sections for a lockdown violation indicates a perverse and prior inclination to harass the two and cause suffering. The top brass of the police too will have to bear responsibility for this atrocity as it indicates a signal failure to lay down norms for policemen on the field to handle lockdown violations with humaneness.

Daily Thanthi

On June 24, the largest-selling vernacular newspaper in the state, Daily Thanthi, the first page, which was mostly covered with advertisements, carried the India-China conflict on its first page and carried the alleged murder of Jayaraj and Bennix on the third page, with the headline, “Father, son died in custody. Relatives who were in protest claim that the duo died because of police attack.”

(Caption: The left image was the first page of the newspaper that has the India–China conflict and the right side image is the Sathankulam issue that appeared on the third page of the paper published on June 24)

In an editorial published on June 25, the author of the story said, We need to bring some changes in police training itself. Sathankulam incident is not just an incident that should pass by. We need to ensure that this is not going to happen in future. The steps by the government and police department to bring justice to the family would be monitored closely and by upholding justice, both the government and the police department can gain the people’s confidence.”

Dinamalar

On June 24, another Tamil daily, Dinamalar, published the story on its first page, but wasn’t given much importance. The story mostly carried basic details of the case. The prominent story on the first page was the about school fees structure case going on in the high court in Chennai.

(Screenshot of Page 1 of Dinamalar (Chennai Edition) on June 24.)

Afterwards, the paper published a letter by a reader, “A drop of poison in the pot of milk” was also published. The letter read, “We are not against all the policemen. Some really save the lives in danger, but some black sheep out there needs to be eliminated or else the department will be like a milk pot that has a drop of poison.”

Several national dailies carried opinion pieces lambasting the police system and the inherent problems in the department. 

Times of India

In an editorial, the Times of India highlighted, “In a country where the police to population ratio is well below ideal and the judiciary is inundated with backlog cases, police malpractice isn’t uncommon. These factors have been further compounded by the Covid-19 induced restrictions that have left the police to manage circumstances on the ground. According to the National Human Rights Commission report for 2017-18, around 15 cases of custodial violence and torture were reported every day with nine people dying every 24 hours in judicial and police custody. This can only be addressed through police reforms, including boosting police numbers, better training and prosecution of custodial malpractice. Plus, other arms of the state too need to deliver and prevent overburdening of police. The aim should be a smart police force with limited remit.”

The Indian Express

In their special Explained feature, The Indian Express stated, “Historically, the Tamil Nadu police is notorious for highhandedness and third-degree torture methods. Senior officers would call it a normalised practice for several decades, from the British era.

In Chennai city, it is a normalised practice for police sources to release photos of the accused in police custody with fractured arms and legs. “Slippery toilets” at the station would be cited as a reason for their fractures, the same would be reported to the magistrate during the remand process, a normalised extra-judicial punishment “to criminal elements.” Like in many states, it is to be noted that there are often a handful of senior-most officers at the top level who would be endorsing such extra-judicial practices in private talks for their flawed understanding about criminals and their origins.”

The piece also explained how the entire incident unfolded and also mentioned what action has been taken against the police officials involved in the case. It also explained if there was a communal angle to their deaths and the involvement of the judiciary in the case.

(Screenshot of Explained: How Tamil Nadu Police’s brutal act of revenge claimed lives of a father and son published on June 30)

The News Minute

On June 23, The News Minute, a south-Indian news website, in a story with the headline, “Father-son arrested for lockdown violations die in police custody, protests in Thoothukudi”, stated the details of the case and the outrage against alleged police brutality. The story mentioned tweets by MP of Thoothukudi district, Kanimozhi, and DMK leader MK Stalin.

Another story on June 23, where they spoke with the lawyer of the duo, mentioned that the lawyer and the relatives claimed that they were subjected to assault by the police.

Debates regarding police brutality

While the print media raised their voice against the brutal killings through their editorials, the broadcast media took Sathankulam issue directly to the mass audience. Each and every television channel covered this incident extensively. Several news channels also carried out primetime debate shows regarding the incident and the alleged police brutality. The state human rights commission took suo moto cognisance with just the media reports and asked the concerned department to submit a report on this issue.

Thanthi TV

Thanthi TV, a Tamil news channel, covered this incident from the beginning. At 11 am on June 23, they broke the news. While the anchor informed the viewers of the basic details, the reporter Dhamodaran explained the chronology of events.  

(Transcription from 0:00 of video to 1:31)

Speaking to the reporter, Anchor: A father-son duo taken into custody by the police in Sathankulam for violating the lockdown restrictions died all of a sudden and this incident was really shocking. What exactly happened how the father and the son died?  

Dhamodaran: Jayaraj and Bennix are the shopkeepers of Sathankulam area they own a cellphone shop. On June 19th evening at 8 o’clock, they were taken to Sathankulam police station for enquiry as they were said to be violating the lockdown restrictions by the police. In the police station, the father and the son were beaten up. Then, an FIR was filed on both and they were locked in Kovilpatti sub-jail on the morning of June 20. Yesterday night (June 22), Bennix died of a heart attack in a government hospital and, subsequently, Jayaraj also died today morning. This incident was really shocking. 

Then, a debate was also conducted on June 24 at the 8 pm slot asking who to hold responsible for their deaths. 

(Screengrab of a debate on who will hold the responsibility of the Sathankulam custodial death? It was aired on 24/06/2020)

From the 47:10-47:49 mark of the debate, the anchor said, “This incident says that after this no custodial deaths should happen and the affected should get justice. Not just one life in the family, they lost two lives in one family and that is very painful. Justice for the affected is the need of the hour.”

In another news bulletin, they aired an interview with an autorickshaw drives who said the FIR against Jayaraj and Bennix was fabricated. Below is the screengrab, where the auto driver says, “They FIR is fabricated. They didn’t argue with the police or protest against the police. This is known by each and everyone who was standing in the bus stand.   ”

(Screenshot of news story where Thanti TV aired an interview with an autorickshaw driver who explains how the FIR was fabricated, as he was the eye witness of what happened on June 19.)

Later on, even they moved on the coronavirus cases and the India-China conflict. However, they would air bulletins apprising the public of the updates in the case.

News18 Tamil Nadu

One of biggest TV news channel in the state, News 18 Tamil Nadu, covered it from the very beginning. They also had a debate on the custodial death and this issue was covered fully in their crime time bulletin. They gave a detailed reporting with the graphical representation on how this incident happened which gave a clear picture to the common man. They also said that this death was a mysterious one.

In a special crime bulletin on June 23, the anchor stated, “The father-son duo who was kept in the police custody died and their death is a suspicious one. Relatives complained that both were beaten up to death with lathi brutally and that by the police. Will action be taken against them?”

(Screenshot of a telecast on June 23 by News 18 Tamil Nadu on the suspicious death of father and son and the protest by relatives seeking action against the police)

Most of the major tickers running in the channel were about the coronavirus and complete lockdown in Madurai, but the Sathankulam issue was the fifth headline in the morning bulletin of June 24.

In the bulletin, the anchor mentioned, “The custodial death of father and son is a suspicious one. Relatives claimed that they died of excessive bleeding, which was a result of the excessive police brutality.” 

They also quoted Jayaraj’s sister (0:48-1:32 of video), who said, “My brother said if I got 100 beatings, my son got 250 from the police. And the people who were residing on the street said they all heard the cries of Bennix. He had bleeding on rectum. Even if he changed the lungi, the chair he sat on was soaked with blood.”    

Puthiya Thalaimurai 

Another vernacular news channel, Puthiya Thalaimurai, had brought in an expert, who stated that an accused, who has committed serious crimes, like dacoity, murder or rape, can be arrested immediately, but the one who violates the lockdown restrictions may not be arrested immediately. He also noted the possibility of foul play in the deaths and the investigation will reveal that.

In the broadcast on June 23, the anchor stated, “The state human rights commission (SHRC) have issued notice to Chief Sectary and the DGP (Prisons) seeking a detailed report on the Sathankulam custodial death. Relatives have been protesting for justice. Puthiya Thalaimurai has been continuously covering the incident and based on this coverage, the SHRC has issued notice.”  

(A screengrab of state human rights commission issuing notice to the chief secretary and the DGP(Prisons) seeking a detail report on the Sathankulam custodial death.)

On June 25, the channel aired a debate where a guest, advocate Prasanna, said that the one who gets more than seven years of imprisonment can be arrested and these poor shopkeepers need not be arrested under the Code of Criminal Procedure (CrPC).

From 03:52-05:58, he said, “Who holds the responsibility? The CM has to answer as he is the head of the police department. It’s not natural, it is a brutal killing. If you see the records, the so-called two police officers has many pending cases with the human rights commission since 2012. The police officers have this as a habitual activity to torture the arrested. Who has to take them to the right path who is responsible for this?. The common shopkeeper for the sake of violating the lockdown rules need not be tortured to death like this.” 

(Screengrab of the June 25 debate)

(The author is a freelance journalist and a member of 101Reporters.com)

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