It’s just over a fortnight since the Suriya-starrer Jai Bhim was released, and the film is making waves—not just among cinema buffs but also in political and civil society circles. Based on a real incident of a custodial death of an Adivasi man in the 1990s, the film has jolted us into the need to acknowledge as well as speak out about the continuing horror of custodial violence and torture.
The scenes of torture in the police station are explicit and hard to watch, but as a journalist I know they are real and bring to the fore the horrible truth of police brutality that most of us are aware of but choose to ignore. Just last week, a 22-year-old, Altaf, died in custody in Uttar Pradesh’s Kasganj after he was detained in a case relating to a missing child. Last June, in Sathankulam in Tamil Nadu, a father and son, picked up by the police for allegedly violating covid-19 lockdown rules, died in custody. It’s more than 25 years since Rasakannu, the Adivasi man whose case Jai Bhim is based on, died after police beat him in an attempt get him to confess to a minor crime for which they had no evidence, but the headlines show it’s clear that custodial violence continues.
Also read: Why didn't governments recognise Gail Omvedt's work
In a written reply to a Lok Sabha question at the end of July this year, Minister of State for Home Affairs Nityananda Rai said 348 people had died in police custody in different parts of the country between 2018 and 2020, and 1,189 were tortured while in detention. Citing data from the National Human Rights Commission, he denied any increase in custodial deaths, and added that it was for states to “curb these deaths” as law and order were state subjects. Days later, in early August, the Chief Justice of India N.V. Ramana expressed concern about human rights violations and lack of effective legal representation at police stations. “The threat to human rights and bodily integrity are the highest in police stations,” he said at an event of the National Legal Services Authority of India in New Delhi. “To keep police excesses in check, dissemination of information about the constitutional right to legal aid and availability of free legal aid services is necessary,” he added.
The truth is custodial violence does not happen only in police stations and prisons. It happens wherever persons in authority are given a free hand to exercise control. Phrases like “encounter killing” and “custodial death” have become part of our vocabulary.
In Jai Bhim, Rasakannu’s wife—named Sengani in the film, though her real name is Parvathy—fights relentlessly to find out what happened to her husband. Chandru, the young lawyer acting on her behalf—inspired by the case fought by retired Chief Justice K. Chandru—filed a habeas corpus petition, which requires a person under arrest to be brought before a judge, to discover the whereabouts of Rasakannu. He invoked the Rajan case which unfolded in Kerala in 1976 and 1977 to request cross-examination of witnesses.
P. Rajan was a bright young student at the Regional Engineering College in Calicut with no specific political affiliations. He was a good singer, an actor and a popular student. On 1 March 1976, when he returned from an inter-collegiate festival, a group of policemen raided his hostel and took him away. That was the last time his friends saw Rajan.
During the Emergency, in Kerala the press was muzzled and fundamental rights suspended, as it was elsewhere in the country. Dissidents were easily dubbed ‘naxalites’ and taken into custody without following procedure. Rajan was accused of being a naxalite and being involved in a murder case. And just like Rasakannu, he disappeared from police custody.
I was on a short break from active reporting at the time as I had just had my second son and my first one was an active two-year-old. I had to rely on my friends and colleagues to give me the inside news. In the beginning, we heard nothing about the Rajan’s disappearance. By the time I got to know whatever details were available through the whisper networks on which I had to rely, much time had passed. The case came into the limelight only by 1977, after the Emergency was lifted, by which time I was back in action.
If it were not for the persistence of his father Eachara Warrier, Rajan might have become just another statistic. Not only did Warrier search frantically for his son, he also met and petitioned every person in power from the President of India to the Chief Minister of Kerala. He distributed pamphlets all over Kerala, appealing for help to locate his son.
The police denied that they had even taken him into custody. Warrier filed a habeus corpus writ in 1977, which the Kerala High Court took up. K. Karunakaran, who had been home minister during the Emergency, had won the elections on a Congress ticket and become chief minister but the Rajan case took its toll and he had to resign after a month.
Also read: What the Kerala adoption row says about gaps in the system
Eyewitnesses testified that Rajan was falsely accused of attacking a police station, that they had seen him being tortured in the Kakkayam camp that was used as a detention centre. During the course of the investigation, it came to light that senior police officers were involved, and that they’d used a horrendous form of torture known as urattal in Malayalam. A long wooden rod, olakka, which is traditionally used for hand-pounding rice, was placed across the thighs of the accused while two policemen stood on either side of olakka and rolled it up and down till the person fainted, and, eventually, as in the case of Rajan, died. Witnesses saw an unconscious, bleeding Rajan being carried out. His body has still not been found. There were rumours that the torturers dumped his body in a nearby reservoir so that it could not be traced.
Rasakannu, too, was subjected to inhuman torture as the investigation revealed. He was beaten so badly that one of his ribs pierced his lungs. In both cases, it required tremendous effort and willpower on the part of those who loved the falsely accused men to get a modicum of justice. Parvathy’s search—made that much harder by the fact that she is from one of the most marginalised communities in the country—for justice dragged on for several long years. Warrier, a former teacher, wrote Oru Achchante Ormakkurippukal (Memories of a Father), a poignant and poetic book about his long search for his son.
Both incidents took place more than 20 years apart, and 20 years later, we are still reading news reports of custodial violence and police brutality. As Justice Ramana said in August, “Going by the recent reports even the privileged are not spared third-degree treatment.” It is therefore clear that the voiceless who are at the bottom of the social ladder bear the worst brunt of it. Many are routinely taken into custody on false charges, beaten mercilessly and forced to pay bribes in order to be released.
Veteran politician and well-known Communist leader K.R. Gowri Amma, who died in May this year and never had children, was tortured in custody for several years in the 1950s. She once said that if police lathis had the capacity to impregnate, she would have had a “thousand lathi babies”. More than 70 years later, nothing has changed.
Also read: K.R. Gowri's lifelong fight for women
Gita Aravamudan is an independent journalist and author based in Bengaluru. In this fortnightly column, she examines the links between current news and events and headlines of the past, drawing on her 50-plus years of experience in the field.