Jeyaraj and Fenix: Outrage mounts over India police custodial deaths

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Outrage is mounting over the custodial deaths of a father and son in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu.

P Jeyaraj, 58, and his son Fenix, 38, were arrested for allegedly keeping their stores open past permitted hours – Tamil Nadu is still observing a lockdown to curb the spread of Covid.

Both men were kept in police custody an entire night and died within hours of each other two days later.

Relatives of the two men say the men were subjected to brutal torture.

What has happened since their deaths?

As details of the alleged torture emerged, people began demanding action.

State opposition lawmakers have taken to the streets in protest, a traders body has condemned the actions of police, and a local court has taken up the issue for hearing.

The policemen who arrested the two men have been transferred, and the state government has awarded compensation of one million rupees (£10,716; $13,222) to their families.

The incident has also found its way to social media, which has in turn brought it into the national spotlight.

What has the reaction been like?

Initially, many questioned why there is little to no outrage over the deaths of the two men, when so many Indians on social media have been vocal about the fate of George Floyd in the US, whose death at the hands of a white officer has triggered a huge movement against police brutality.

Many Indian social media users have been supporting the protests against white police brutality against black Americans. However, this incident has been slower to pick up, partly because it took place in a smaller city – Thoothukudi, and it took some time to come to the attention of national media.

But in recent days, the issue has begun gaining traction as furious discussion began on various social media platforms. In a video which has had more than a million views, one user said she was “sick of people not discussing what happens in south India because it is not in English” and then proceeded to give a graphic account of the alleged torture of the two men.

There is also massive outrage that the policemen believed to be responsible for the men’s deaths are not being charged with murder and have been merely transferred.

Now high-profile users such as opposition leader Rahul Gandhi and national cricketer Shikhar Dhawan have also tweeted, demanding justice for the two men and more accountability.

The issue of police brutality in India

Ayeshea Perera, BBC India online editor

The numbers are startling. A report by a consortium of NGOs against custodial torture have released a report in which they say 1,731 people died in custody in India during 2019. This works out to around five custodial deaths a day.

The report also describes several methods of torture.

The fact remains that torture and beating up suspects to extract confessions have become very much part of policing in India. Policemen who engage in it are rarely punished – most times they are simply transferred to another district or state.

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The rare times that they are held accountable, judiciary have made stinging remarks about the need for reform.

In one verdict last year, a judge noted that “they are confident that they will not be held accountable even if the victim dies in custody and even if the truth is revealed.”

In 2006, the Indian Supreme Court ruled that each state should set up a police complaints authority where any citizen can lodge a complaint against police officers for any misdemeanour. However, this has not been done in most states.

Activists say much more far-reaching intervention is needed to change the system.

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