Jayaraj and Fenix killings: Torture, intimidation, encounters are an old Tamil Nadu police tradition

The recent intimidation by the police of a magistrate investigating the custodial killings of Jayaraj and Fenix, brings back memories of similar menacing conduct by the same force

Jyoti Punwani July 10, 2020 18:44:29 IST
Jayaraj and Fenix killings: Torture, intimidation, encounters are an old Tamil Nadu police tradition

Tamil Nadu police have the distinction of having roughed up a retired high court judge, what's a mere magistrate?

The recent intimidation by the police of a magistrate sent by the high court to investigate the custodial killings of a father and son in Thoothukudi district, brings back memories of similar menacing conduct by the same force.

In 1982, the late VM Tarkunde, retired high court judge, senior Supreme Court lawyer and renowned human rights campaigner, led a team to investigate the "encounter" killings of 23 youth between August 1980 and October 1982, 12 of them Dalits. He and his team, which included the famous Hyderabad lawyer KG Kannabiran, were attacked by the police and made to leave. Tarkunde was then 72.

Tarkunde’s was the second team to attempt an independent investigation into the way the Tamil Nadu police were dealing with Naxalites in the districts of Dharmapuri and North Arcot. In these backward districts, farm labour was paid at the rate of Rs 2-3.50 for a day, forcing them to take loans and end up as bonded labour. Scheduled Castes were not  allowed to wear slippers when they entered a "high caste" area. With police invariably backing the landlords, a Naxalite movement was born.

The response of the then chief minister, MG Ramachandran, was to give the police a free hand to crush it.  Abductions, arbitrary arrests of suspected Naxalites, and unbelievable police torture (nailing a horse shoe to the detenue’s feet), became the norm. Anyone who questioned the State and the police, be they lawyers, journalists or even striking government employees, was arrested. The charge of sedition was freely applied, even against a 13-year-old.

While magistrates chose to believe the police version, journalists didn't. Despite an amended Tamil Nadu Press Act (1981) which prescribed jail for "scurrilous" writing, some reporters ventured to investigate the frequent "encounters". They were either threatened or roughed up by goons in the presence of the police.

A similar fate was meted out to the first fact-finding team which landed up in Tiruppattur town in October 1980, with one difference - the goons doing the roughing up were the police themselves.

The team wanted to investigate the 10 encounters that had taken place in two months since 6 August that year, when a bomb blast had occurred in Tiruppattur, killing three cops. The police version of the blast was so riddled with contradictions that the mainstream press had to expose it. (The accused "Naxalite" was finally convicted only in 2016, at the age of 74.)

Well-known satirist Cho Ramaswamy, who was then in the PUCL, hosted this fact-finding team. His weekly magazine Thuglak had also exposed the 6 August bomb blast. The team, comprising members of human rights organisations, was led by the late Mohan Ram,  senior journalist and correspondent for the prestigious Far East Economic Review, and environmentalist Claude Alvares. This reporter was part of it.

Our first stop was the Tiruppattur police station; as it turned out, it also became our last stop. A few hours after our meeting with the police, we were retiring for the night, when raucous shouts made us run to the window. Outside was a drunken mob demanding that PV Bhaktavatsalam, the human rights lawyer who had been fighting the police's "encounter" policy, be handed over to them. Charged with sedition, Bhaktavatsalam had just a month earlier been released on bail by the Supreme Court.

Some faces in the mob seemed familiar; we realized we had seen them earlier at the police station. Now they were in plain clothes.

The shouts were followed by stones; we could hear footsteps running up to our rooms. What could we do but call the police?  They told us that victims of Naxalite violence had gathered outside our lodge. Such was their wrath at us for wanting to investigate the deaths of Naxalites that if we didn't pack up and leave immediately, the police couldn't guarantee our safety.

Our humiliation was complete when after an agonizing wait, uniformed cops "rescued" us, ensuring of course that as we ran into their vehicle, the "mob" got to break Claude Alvares' spectacles and give Mohan Ram a black eye.

The anti-Naxalite campaign was headed by Intelligence Chief K Mohandas, with DIG Vellore range Walter Devaram in charge of field operations. When a newspaper commented that Devaram had been posted in the Naxalite area "only to kill young men", the chief minister himself jumped to the officer's defence,  saying articles such as these had made him enact the Tamil Nadu Press Act 1981.

Crushing Naxalites wasn't the only field where Devaram was given a free hand. As Madras Police Commissioner, he was asked by MGR to clear the Marina Beach of fishermen. The directive was, as expected, opposed by fishermen who had been there for years. In an interview given to the Asian College of Journalism’s magazine in January this year, the retired officer described how he  managed the difficult situation. "Actually, people leave constables to handle the situation, but I did not want to do that. I am a sharp shooter. So I went out into the field and shot down 3 leaders of the protest. The crowd disappeared then and there."

Devaram later headed the joint Tamil Nadu-Karnataka Special Task Force (STF) set up to nab sandalwood smuggler Veerappan. The STF was accused by villagers living in the forests where Veerappan used to hide, of using rape and torture to extort information from them.

By the time he retired as head of Tamil Nadu’s police force, Devaram had become a living legend. Even today, he is referred to as  "warrior" and "lion". He was chief security officer for the 2010 Commonwealth Games and for some years after his retirement, president of the Tamil Nadu Athletic Association.

40 years ago, as the first fact finding team was booted out of Tamil Nadu without having got anything done, DIG K Mohandas had said:  “I can tell you for sure that no fact-finding committee will be allowed to come here." Today, a mere constable can tell a magistrate investigating custodial deaths that took place inside a police station:  "You cannot do anything here."

The author is a senior journalist. Views expressed are personal.

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