Beatings, foisting of false cases and caste one-upmanship culminated in the brutal murder of Jeyaraj and Benicks in Thoothukudi, say locals
A month before the brutal beatings of cellphone shop owner Jeyaraj (58) and his son Benicks (31) at the hands of the Sathankulam police, another young man had died of a similar beating.
Mahendran, 29, was a construction worker in the village of Peikulam, about 13 km from Sathankulam. His crime was that he happened to be born as the younger brother of one Durairaj, an accused in a murder case. Durairaj was absconding.
So the police picked up young Mahendran on May 25, beat him at the Sathankulam station and let him off as a warning to Durairaj. Mahendran went to work for about three days, after consulting some local doctors and taking medicines.
But the beating he received, on his head especially, was too severe.
He succumbed at the Thoothukudi Government Hospital in mid June.
His medical records accessed by The Lede show brain stroke due to major artery thrombosis blocking the blood supply. The young man was in critical condition when this scan was taken.
Mahendran was the second victim of the caste politics that has ravaged a number of villages surrounding Sathankulam in Thoothukudi district in the wake of the Lok Sabha elections of 2019 and the local body polls held in December last year.
In the year preceding the custodial deaths of Jeyaraj and Benicks, two new Sub-Inspectors arrived at the Sathankulam police station. One was SI Balakrishnan and after him, SI Raghuganesh. Their boss was Inspector Sridhar.
“During the MP elections as well as the local body elections, there were fights between Konars and Nadars,” said S Parthiban, ex-chairman of the Alwarthirunagar Panchayat Union.
Konars (or Yadhavas) and Nadars are both designated as Backward Classes in Tamil Nadu. Nadars are of two sections – one is the Hindu Nadar and the other, the Christian Nadar. The Nadars are the dominant community in the area.
“SI Raghuganesh got involved and began actively supporting the Konar side and attacking all other communities, especially Nadars,” he alleged. Raghuganesh belongs to the Konar caste.
The battle got bitter as the months rolled by.
As per a letter signed by three Panchayat Presidents in the area as well as trade union leaders, SI Raghuganesh is said to have instigated the Konar youth of these villages to destroy homes of people belonging to the other castes.
This letter was sent to the Superintendent of Police, Thoothukudi on June 20.
Another allegation is that he provoked fights between Konar and Nadar youth groups without reason, which resulted in injuries.
In the letter, he is alleged to have foisted false cases on members from others castes and beaten them in the police station. He is also said to have imposed a “caste tax” on non-Konar members of the villages, a move opposed by the majority of the people.
“Another case was of nine people, Christian missionaries, standing and preaching on the road in Puliankulam village,” said Parthiban, ex-chairman of the Alwarthirunagar Panchayat Union. “SI Raghuganesh took all of them to the station and beat them all up. There is a case against all nine of them currently underway.”
“All these issues ended in murder,” said Parthiban.
An informant and close aide of SI Raghuganesh was murdered by a group of assailants, allegedly belonging to the Nadar community, on May 18.
“Jayakumar belonged to the Konar caste and he was sort of a spy for SI Raghuganesh,” said Parthiban. After the murder, the SI registered 18 people as accused in the FIR. Many of them went absconding. To nab them, 40 people were beaten brutally by the SI,” he said.
The first murder was followed, within a couple of weeks, by another murder. That of Mahendran, the younger brother of an accused in the Jayakumar murder, Durairaj, as mentioned earlier.
“Mahendran was hit badly on the head, there were blood clots in his brain,” said MP Srithar, Panchayat President of Srivenkateswarapuram. “That poor boy had no connection with the murder. They beat up so many people here. The whole village has been ruined thanks to Inspector Sridhar and SI Raghuganesh,” he added.
Srithar says he tried to convince Mahendran’s parents to file a complaint against SI Raghuganesh for police brutality. “But they were afraid. They are very poor people. They were scared that the police would harass them if they complained. They did not even insist upon a postmortem,” he said.
But with Jeyaraj’s and Benicks’ custodial deaths garnering media attention, Mahendran’s family has plucked up the courage to give a petition regarding their son’s death as well.
Another accused in the Jayakumar murder case is one Raja Singh. “The police picked him up on May 18, the day of Jayakumar’s murder and beat him severely for three days before sending him to jail,” said Srithar. “His wounds have not yet healed. He was admitted in hospital a few days ago with chest pain.”
Raja Singh’s name finds place in the order passed by the Madurai bench of the Madras High Court which took up the issue of the custodial deaths suo motu.
“Further we have received a report from the Principal District Judge, Tuticorin, informing that one Raja Singh, s/o Soosai of Melapalayam, Sathankulam Taluk, an inmate of the sub-jail, Kovilpatti, has also suffered serious injuries and is under treatment. We direct the Chief Judicial Magistrate, Tuticorin, to conduct an enquiry in this regard and submit a report to this court separately.” – reads the order dated June 26.
The order was issued by Justice PN Prakash and Justice B Pugalendhi.
By all accounts, the police personnel involved in the custodial deaths of Jeyaraj and Benicks – namely SI Balakrishnan, SI Raghuganesh and Inspector Sridhar – got an extra fillip of aggression with the imposition of lockdown.
Two persons The Lede spoke with stated that SI Balakrishnan had a murky track record. In Valliyoor police station and Irukkangudi police station, there are cases against him of colluding with the illegal sand mining mafia and also a sexual harassment complaint. The Lede could not independently verify these claims.
Panchayat President of Sathankulam, S Joseph told The Lede that vegetable vendors, shop owners and the public in general were terrorised by the aggression of these policemen and the volunteers with them.
“I even told SI Raghuganesh myself once - Don’t hit everyone, the rowdies are already afraid of you. Don’t hit people, give them a chance to reform themselves,” said Joseph who belongs to the opposition Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) party.
“There had been violence from the beginning, since these policemen were posted here. But there was too much violence during Corona time,” said an eyewitness in the Jeyaraj and Benicks custodial assault case. He did not wish to be named for fear of reprisal.
“The problem is that the courts are not open. Advocates are not allowed inside court premises so the police are working at will.
Inspector Sridhar is the one who led the police attack on Jeyaraj and Benicks. I was there. He was the one who threw the lawyers out, asked them to lock the door and instigated the SIs and constables to beat them up. They did not care that so many people were witnessing this.
In fact early in June, a false case was foisted by these cops on an advocate here on the charge that he was selling brandy illegally. The real reason was that the policeman had a problem with that advocate’s chittappa (uncle). There is no one to question the police during lockdown,” he said.
“The only solution is to open the courts. The courts provide us with protection against police brutality. Without the courts, this violence will continue,” he said.
The Lede spoke to a number of eyewitnesses who were with Jeyaraj and Benicks on June 18 and June 19. While there are some variations in their versions, here is what we have managed to put together.
On the evening of June 18, at around 7:30 pm, SI Balakrishnan arrived to tell Benicks to shut down the APJ Mobiles shop. Benicks agreed to do so.
His father came to the shop after the SI left and asked his son what the policeman had said. When Benicks narrated the exchange, Jeyaraj is said to have told his son – “Don’t we know that we have to close at 8 pm?”
A policeman who overheard the elder man’s comment, appears to have misreported the comment to SI Balakrishnan. The SI was under the impression that Jeyaraj had abused him or challenged his authority in some fashion.
There was an earlier disagreement between Jeyaraj and SI Balakrishnan as well, according to friends of the family. Balakrishnan had asked Jeyaraj for a free mobile phone and was refused.
On the evening of June 19, SI Balakrishnan returned to the shop. Normally on a motorbike, he arrived in the Inspector’s car.
He allegedly asked Jeyaraj – I heard you said something about me? To which Jeyaraj replied in the negative. SI Balakrishnan then abused Jeyaraj, pulled him by his collar and hauled him into the jeep.
“I was standing outside the police station for some other case when they brought Jayaraj to the station,” said RK Venugopal, President of Sathankulam Town Congress Committee. The time was around 7:40 pm. “Benicks came rushing shortly afterward. Then his lawyer Rajaram arrived after some time.”
The police began to slap Jeyaraj around.
“Benicks saw his father being beaten and in an emotional moment, he went inside and held SI Balakrishnan’s hand. He then pushed the policeman’s hand away. At this, Inspector Sridhar said how dare you lay hands on police and asked everyone to beat him. The Inspector ordered all of us to go out and shut the doors of the station.
We could see what was going on through a glass wall which had a light inside. The Inspector called volunteers – two to hold Benicks’ hands, two to spread his legs, standing against the wall and they began beating him. They made Jeyaraj sit down on the ground. The Inspector made some volunteers stand on his knees and others beat him on the soles of his feet,” said Venugopal.
“This continued till 10 pm. Then SI Raghuganesh came in and took over the beatings from SI Balakrishnan,” he said.
The lament about the lack of functioning of the courts during lockdown is well demonstrated by what happened when the duo was taken to a judicial magistrate in Sathankulam for remand.
“Police told them - if you tell the magistrate we beat you, we will slap all sorts of cases on you,” said the eyewitness who was also at the court premises the next day. “Both of them were badly injured and bleeding and they were not taken out of the vehicle. They told the magistrate that the police did not beat them. The magistrate barely saw them and remanded them. The police asked us to bring them to the Kovilpatti sub-jail in our car because they were bleeding. We had to change three lungis for them – there was so much blood flowing from the rectum. Even prison officials did not check on their health,” he said.
By June 22, neither could pass stools or urine. Their stomachs began to bloat. They were unable to eat. Prison officials then took them to hospital. Benicks breathed his last at 8.30 pm that night. His father Jeyaraj died at 8 am on June 23.
“We are placing our faith only in the courts,” said Venugopal. “Justice should be speedy. Police should know they cannot hit anyone like this. The track record of courts is that no perpetrator of custodial death has been punished. They are allowed to continue with their work,” he said.
In 2006, yet another case of a custodial death took place in the very same Sathankulam police station, this too in the month of June.
“I remember it was a Saturday night and a football match as well as a cricket match were going on at the same time,” said Maharajan Elango, senior journalist. Elango deposed before the RDO (Revenue Divisional Officer) in an inquiry conducted after this death.
The victim in question was one Arun Bharath, 21, who had a tiff with his neighbour Johnson. Johnson had bought Arun’s bike and delayed paying Arun which ended up in an argument and blows. Johnson then filed a complaint with the Sathankulam police. The police came to Arun’s house and asked him to come to the station.
Angered, Arun broke the roof tiles of Johnson’s house. SI Srikumar arrived and took Arun in his jeep.
“The police beat him badly at the station,” said Elango. “Arun’s friends were waiting outside the station but the police did not allow Arun to leave. The beating went on till night when Arun passed out. The police then called his friends who were drinking tea nearby, and told them to take him since he was unwell. Arun’s friends took him in an autorickshaw to a private hospital – the doctor told him that Arun was dead and to take him to the government hospital. Arun was pronounced dead on arrival at the GH,” said Elango.
SI Srikumar was suspended and an inquiry was initiated. In the past 14 years, all witnesses except one turned hostile. Arun Bharath’s mother, elder brother, his uncles have all passed away. Only his elder sister remains resolute that justice must be served.
“The case is still on in the Thoothukudi Sessions Court,” said Elango. “The police may not have intended to kill him. But the fact remains that he died. The SI was suspended and he attempted suicide too. He is now back in service. The RDO who conducted the inquiry has to come and depose before court. But he has been posted in the Secretariat in Chennai now and never comes to court. If he comes, the case will finish,” he added.
When asked why the case had not become as big a headline as the Jeyaraj-Benicks case did, Elango laughs. “Srikumar is Nadar – so lot of people here would say he is our fellow, let it go. If SI Raghuganesh had been Nadar, there would probably not have been such a crowd to protest. That is how things work here. As far as I am concerned, there is only police ‘jaathi’ (caste),” he said.
Justice does look like a long haul for the family of Jeyaraj and Benicks. A retired police officer who did not wish to be named told The Lede that it is imperative that the police force implements the existing rules for arrests and custodial deaths.
“The law regarding arrest was tightened by an amendment to section 41 of the Criminal Procedure Code (CrPC) in 2010,” he said. “It lays down conditions if an arrest is to be made for an offence which is punishable with imprisonment for seven years or less.
A mere complaint is not enough in such cases. The officer must be satisfied that arrest is necessary to prevent commission of further offences, or to prevent tampering with evidence or that the accused may abscond, etc, and the reason or justification for making the arrest must be recorded.
The underlying principle is that arrest for relatively minor offences should be reduced. In such cases, the investigation officer may issue a notice to the accused to appear before him for the purpose of investigation. This can be seen an as extension of the principle that bail is the rule and jail is the exception,” he said.
Clearly Jeyaraj and Benicks fell into the minor offences category.
“In the event of death in police custody, the RDO used to conduct an enquiry as per the Police Standing Orders in Tamil Nadu. In fact, the police were barred from doing any parallel investigation. After an amendment to Section 176 CrPC, all such incidents are now enquired into by a judicial magistrate. Follow up action is to be taken based on the preliminary findings of the magistrate. Further, NHRC (National Human Rights Commission) also has issued guidelines that in all such cases, the postmortem should be conducted by a team of doctors and that the postmortem should be videographed,” he said.
This is exactly what the Madurai bench of the Madras High Court has ordered. All eyes are on June 30, with hope that the court at least will give justice to Jeyaraj and Benicks, which the state police and the state government have not.
Sathankulam Panchayat President S Joseph summed it up aptly when he said, “If a complaint had been given during Mahendran’s death and action taken, these two deaths could have been avoided.”