Rights have gone all wrong in today’s India! It is a season of discontent for millions everywhere: the pandemic COVID-19 has disrupted life and livelihoods, the routine and the ‘normal.’ People have been forced to adjust and to adapt; to become more frugal, more simple and much more. It is also been a time of immense grief, pain and suffering particularly for the poor and the marginalised; the migrant worker and the daily wager; the unemployed and the differently abled. To add insult to injury, India’s insensitive ruling regime instead of responding to the genuine cries of the people has gone all out the way to decimate human rights, destroy the democratic ethos of society and to throttle every form of dissent and protest.
At this moment, high among the human rights violations in the country are brutal beating in police custody and the subsequent deaths of the father and son duo, P Jayaraj (59) and his son J Bennicks (31). They were arrested on 19 June for ‘allegedly’ keeping their mobile phone shop in the main market of Sathankulam town (Tuticorin Dt, Tamilnadu) open during a curfew imposed during the pandemic lockdown (cctv footage however, belie this). They were lodged in the Kovilpatti sub-jail. Both Jayaraj and Bennicks were terribly tortured in police custody after which they were admitted to the Kovilpatti government hospital on 22 June; the son died that very night, the father breathed his last on the morning of 23 June.
The police of course, have their own ‘doctored’ version of things, with very little credibility. There are practically no takers to what they are saying. One of the friends of Bennicks has gone on record saying, “Three of us were there when police came and took Jeyaraj in the vehicle. We went to the police station with a few others. We heard cries of both Jeyaraj and Bennicks for hours as police tortured them through the night. We will produce the video before the court to expose police lies.” The ‘ray’ in this extremely inhuman incident is that there is a national outrage condemning what has taken place and asking for the perpetrators to be brought to book; besides, well-known NGO’s like ‘People’s Watch’ have left no stone unturned to highlight these gruesome murders. Statements of condemnation have come in from all sections of society.
Finally, the Madurai Bench of the Madras High Court has taken cognizance of the custodial murders of Jayaraj and Bennicks. In an order on 30 June which is bound to have far reaching implications the Court said “In our opinion, the ante-mortem injuries found on the bodies of the deceased, coupled with the averments in the report of the learned judicial magistrate no.1, Kovilpatti, especially the statement of head constable Revathy, would be prima facie enough to alter the case against the Sattankulam policemen, who were actively involved in the investigation of the case to one under Section 302 of the Indian Penal Code (murder).” In expressing its dismay at what is happening, the Court further added, “In fact, they (police) were emboldened enough to even intimidate the judicial officer to put spokes in the wheel of his enquiry.
By 2 July, five of the policemen responsible for this custodial torture and deaths have been arrested and the woman constable, the only eye-witness, who had the courage to stand up for the truth, is being provided with her family members, round-the-clock protection. Whatever , the final outcome, the father-son duo will never be brought back to life; however, what several are hoping for, is that the final result with exemplary punishment for those found guilty, will be a litmus test.
Ironically, 26 June, the day on which the Tuticorin case was gaining prominence, was the ‘UN International Day in Support of Victims of Torture’ which marks the moment in 1987 when the UN Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, (UNCAT) one of the key instruments in fighting torture, came into effect. Today, the Convention has been ratified by 162 countries.
India has been faring extremely badly on the Human Rights front on every single global ranking! Besides the custodial deaths, the illegal detention of human rights defenders, fundamental rights of the poor, the marginalized and minorities have taken a severe beating! Freedom of speech and expression, the right to freely preach, practice and propagate one’s faith, the right to dissent and protest, the right to a just wage all seem like a reality which belonged to a different age. The ruling regime has no qualms of conscience in decimating the legitimate Constitutional rights of the citizens; it is time then, that ‘we the people of India’ stand up as one, visibly and vocally, to protect and promote all that is precious and needed for the future of our existence as one nation. Eleanor Roosevelt, who was instrumental in giving the world the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, once said “where, after all, do universal human rights begin? In small places, close to home – so close and so small that they cannot be seen on any maps of the world. Unless these rights have meaning there, they have little meaning anywhere. Without concerted citizen action to uphold them close to home, we shall look in vain for progress in the larger world.” We need to act now, in whatever way we can, to right the many wrongs in our country today!