The Jeyaraj, Bennix case is not the first gruesome custodial murder case in Tamil Nadu, this state has a long history and a terrible record, just as every other state in India.
The gruesome torture and murder of the father and son by the police attached to the Sattankulam police station and higher officials in Tuticorin district between 19 and 22 June was one of administrative lapses and police excesses. However, the Sattankulam murder will be the first one showing some sort of direct links to the BJP which empowered the police to become extremely brutal there, also exposing an exponentially growing compliance with the RSS in Tamil Nadu from the administration and in police ranks thanks to BJP brought to power in union government by the north Indian States. The case is now under CBI.
Everyone from activists, Tamil media to lawyers have seen this link, except the Savarna media. As for custodial murder, reportedly 65 out of the 78 deaths in custody in 2018 in Tamil Nadu were those of people in judicial custody as per a statement given by the ministry of home affairs in the Rajya Sabha.
Reportedly, Tamil Nadu leads in custodial deaths among the Southern States. But there was selective outrage over this case when outcries are necessary every for all such cases.
To refresh our memory, one only needs to remember the judicial custodial murder- or what the police called “death” – of the unproven accused Ramkumar in the Swathi murder case when his trial was still on in the Madras High Court. The whole of India did not wear a cloak of wokeness then as in the case of Jeyaraj and Bennix or in many incidents. Also because the narrative written by savarna people then was indeed different. And Ramkumar, set against a Brahmin family’s ‘honour’, without any proof, had no one to demand answers to yet another custodial death except non-brahmin media, activists and lawyers. Besides, woke people must remember that one custodial death is not more gruesome than the other. Every custodial death is. And India has a long record. The police do not have the right to hand capital or any other punishment in any case. It is the court’s job. But the North India which woke up to Jeyaraj and Bennix is already cheering the death of Vikas Dubey in the hands of police.
First the facts. It was on a routine inspection that police had summoned the father, Jeyaraj, to the police station on 19 June night on the pretext of violation for keeping Bennix’s shop open past Covid-19 lockdown stipulation. There was no other complaint against the father or the son and this was no complaint that warranted summoning to the station even if the charge was real. Both had no police record. As the father, who did not resist, was taken/pushed into the police van on the pretext of questioning and taken to the station, the son rushed to the station on a friend’s bike.
These images emerged from a nearby CCTV footage in front of Bennix’s shop. The footage emerged in the context of the police statement and the father-son themselves admitting before the Sattankulam magistrate that they resisted and rolled on the ground before going to the police station when called which caused injuries on their bodies. The father and son were still soaked with blood on their behinds when they were produced before the magistrate for remand.
Eyewitnesses told the media that the magistrate did not inquire with the duo before granting remand to judicial custody the next day. The police surrounded them and refused free access to the magistrate who was also not too keen to inquire. The two had travelled in Bennix’s friend’s call taxi for remand hearing and not in the police van as they were still bleeding, according to the taxi driver, who showed a bloodied bedsheet on which they were made to sit and travel. Henri Tiphane, a human rights activist and an advocate from Madurai, maintains that the magistrate did not even see Jeyaraj and Bennix before signing for remand in judicial custody sometime on 20 June afternoon.
The duo were repeatedly denied medical aid by Sattankulam police station before being taken for remand as they were plastered with blood from their hip down when produced before the magistrate, and the prison administration of Kovilpatti Jail, 110 kms from Sattankulam town, where the duo were lodged on 20 June night. The Sattankulam GH doctor who did the mandatory health check-up on the two on 20 June morning before being taken to the magistrate for hearing on 8 July made a claim to interrogators that she had advised medical admission for the two but was threatened by the police and later coerced by her senior doctor (whom she has named) to give a fitness certificate for the two to travel.
Jeyaraj and Bennix were remanded as per police demand and were taken to Kovilpatti Jail at night where on admission the discrepancy in the medical record and their condition was reportedly questioned. The Sattankulam police assured that they were criminals who challenged the police which caused injuries and were lodged without medical attention again in a separate cell cut off from other prisoners. On 21 evening, Bennix had complained of breathlessness and was taken to the Government Hospital where he passed away at night within a few hours. The father who also complained of the same condition after his Son’s admission was since then brought to the same GH where he passed away in the early hours of 22 June.
Around midnight of 19 June when the father and son were beaten, friends of Bennix had gathered before the police station demanding to know what happened, and to produce footage of the two. Prathap, the DSP of Sattankulam, who tackled the crowd demanding release of CCTV footage in the police station, told the crowd that they were both alive and well and also allowed them to even record his statement to the crowd in their cell phones and told them to disperse. An inquiring magistrate later recorded that CCTV footage from the police station was deleted. The CBCID too has recorded the same with the Madurai Bench of the Madras High Court.
What happened inside the station?
As per reports, the police began rough handling the father at the station in the son’s presence. The son rushed to remove the hand of the police from hitting his father. This enraged Inspector Sridhar then ordered the police to thrash the son. When the father intervened to save his son, both were thrashed. A lawyer unrelated to the case and present there tried to intervene, which made the police send out all civilians from inside the station and close the doors calling in five friends of the policemen. The policemen’s friends went by the name Seva Bharathi and had also acted as volunteers with the police for imposing Covid-19 regulations and had been beating up the public on the streets for violations. They had IDs given by the police and lathis. The involvement of the policemen’s friends in policing work like lathi charging was unknown to the larger public until the Jeyaraj and Bennix murder.
During the beating, the lawyers and others watched from a window as the police and their friends both held and pummelled both the father and son with lathis. Later they were taken to the first floor for further beating. This was revealed by the very lawyer who tried to intervene at the police station in a television interview. Several activists’ statements, leaked audio and eyewitness claims have reiterated the same. A leaked audio between the policemen’s friends and a friend revealed that the two were taken to the first floor and beaten till 1 pm and that then they were tired of beating the father and son and had told the police that they would return in the morning to continue. There is also an accusation of rape of the two with lathis or rods. The entire post-mortem report is not expected anytime soon.
Police and their caste
It was on Inspector Sridhar’s order that the police began to hit the father and son. Among those carrying out the orders of Sridhar were policemen of many castes. Only one among them was a neo-casteist sub-inspector, Raghuganesh, who had already gained notoriety in the area. He had been terrorizing people of Sattankulam town and surrounding areas along with the policemen’s friends who belonged to his OBC caste, called Konar, which also goes by the name Yadav. On that day, he took over the beating of Jeyaraj and Bennix from another sub-inspector, Balakrishnan, only much later into the night when he had returned to the station. Raghuganesh was not the only one who was known to be violent. Among all of the constables and sub-inspectors in the station, Raghuganesh and the friends of police had earned a notorious name for terrorizing people in the town and surrounding areas and even knocking on doors at night and abusing people at will. He had also attempted one upmanship against other castes, though his caste there is easily outnumbered by other castes.
All affected people in the area had been waiting to seek Raghuganesh’s removal from the station. On 20 June, a day after Jeyaraj and Bennix were arrested, several panchayat chiefs, traders’ unions and others wrote a joint letter to the Superintendent of Police, Thoothukudi, for Raghuganesh’s removal and pointed a finger at Inspector Sridhar for Raghuganesh’s atrocities. Raghuganesh had only joined there a few months ago. Inspector Sridhar was stated to have been encouraging Raghuganesh. Raghuganesh had been terrorizing all people, including non-cooperating people from the Konar caste too who did not support Raghuganesh’s activities or demands. Raghuganesh had summoned one of them to the station and when that person had refused to follow Raghuganesh’s diktat, the SI abused him for not identifying with his own caste, according to activists. Calling that person a caste renegade, Raghuganesh, asked him to extend his hand to take a beating with the lathi. The small time trader had pleaded that his arm was broken and a plate was fixed in it and showed surgery markings which then made the SI to release him, recall activists.
As per the letter, even before Raghuganesh had joined the station, another person had been terrorising people there for the past several years. He belonged to the Konar caste, and was acting as a casteist local thug. On Raghuganesh’s posting there, he became Raghuganesh’s ‘informer’ who would pick issues for Raghuganesh to act upon. Raghuganesh did not act alone. He went with the friends of police to commit atrocities on the people. Activists like Tiphane also state that an elected Panchayat chief who was also a leader of a traders body was also beaten in the station by Raghuganesh illegally ahead of the murder of the duo. And so they were waiting.
It was to have Raghuganesh removed from the station that the letter on 20 June, detailed the atrocities of Raghuganesh’s informer, his activities and his murder and the subsequent illegal custody and torture of a 19-year-old Mason. The mason had died in hospital after release because of the torture by Raghuganesh in the Sattankulam police station before the Bennix and Jeyaraj case. Raghuganesh tortured the mason to secure the custody of his brother who is among the accused in the murder of the informer. As per the letter on 20 June to the SP, the informer had been murdered by “people of different castes.” The accused brother of the mason had surrendered subsequently and is now in jail and is facing trial for the murder of the informer. A case has been filed in the Madurai Bench of the Madras High Court seeking inquiry and compensation for the mother for taking her other son into illegal custody and torturing him to death. Raghuganesh was sought to be removed for specifically “seeking to create an atmosphere of caste disturbance,” as per the letter.
As of now the probe into the murder of the father and son has been forwarded to the CBI, which took over investigation from the state’s CBCID, on 10 July. It was only with extreme reluctance that the State government ordered an inquiry. The Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu, Edappadi K Palanisamy, even in the face of public outcry in the state merely dismissed it as a case of death of the two due to heart attack initially. Enormous pressure was mounted by the public and the Court intervened to get an interim CBCID investigation so that evidence was not destroyed and ordered a magisterial inquiry. The state government merely stated that the CBI will probe. To start with, the state government just transferred Raghuganesh and Balakrishnan to another police station, while excusing Sridhar. After mounting public and media pressure before court intervention to investigate, Sridhar was merely removed and kept without a posting. It took further media focus and court intervention for cases to be filed against the higher ups and for the investigation to begin.
Five people, including Inspector Sridhar, were arrested in the first week of July. Balakrishnan, Raghuganesh, and two other constables were arrested and remanded to custody. Many more policemen are to be charged, the CBCID had reportedly said. The friends of police who were involved in the beating were being investigated in the second week of July by CBCID when it handed over its investigation to CBI. No charges have been filed against the friends of police to public knowledge. so far. Sridhar was remanded to custody while he was attempting to flee to Kerala in a BJP member’s car. The BJP member since claimed he had no idea. Earlier Sridhar was rumoured in the non-Brahmin political gossip pages to be under the protection of an unnamed state minister. This made a state minister of the ruling AIADMK to call the press and clarify that Sridhar was not in his protection even though he was not named. And soon after was Sridhar’s attempt to flee.
The investigating magistrate, Bharadidasan, encountered non-cooperation from the police station led by DSP, Pratap, in the Sattankulam police station where he went for investigation and was even abused verbally by the police. The magistrate recorded these in his report to the Court. The DSP Pratap was the one assuring the people outside the police station on 19 June midnight that both were well and had not died. He was Sridhar’s superior so he must know about the goings on in the police station when an issue had broken out. The inquiry till date is confined to Sridhar and his subordinate colleagues as per public knowledge. While the CBCID was inquiring into role of the friends of police members in the murder, the local police came out with a warning of action upon those who “tarnish” the name of friends of police in social media. However it did not stop activists from writing or questioning the connections of friends of police, their name and their role, and their need at all. While the police threat fell flat, the state government announced on 7 July that the friends of police were banned even when the inquiry was on.
The CBCID handed over its investigation to the CBI and its reports to the CBI and to the court in the second week of July as it was only an interim agency. While activists had sought an independent inquiry, they, who were not enthused over either of these agencies investigating, are openly skeptical of the CBI inquiry. “There are many cases that the CBI has left unsolved. It is hardly a final investigating agency or an independent one,” say several activists, including Tiphane and Thirumurugan Gandhi of May 17 Movement. Skepticism also stems from the fact that the BJP is running a right-wing union government and the Jeyaraj and Bennix murder has a distinct stench of BJP’s ideology mixed in it. Both Tiphane and Thirumurugan Gandhi and many others had sought investigation into ‘Friends of Police’ and their connections too.
Questions on what are the allegiances of Raghuganesh and Sridhar and the friends of police and why they behaved the way they did ahead of the murder of Jeyaraj and Bennix is a politically important one in the context of Tamil Nadu today. The murder of Jeyaraj and Bennix had no caste issue attached to it but the incidents ahead of their death reeks of RSS casteism and goes beyond the death of Jeyaraj and Bennix. The Savarna media has ended discussion as a case of police excesses or lack of guidelines on policing in lockdown regulations. There has also been a serious attempt to protect Sridhar, calling him “depressed” and “in need of counselling rather than punishment.” Tamil magazine Nakkeeran calls Sridhar’s protectors as “a linguistic lobby in TN government of Sridhar’s nativity” in its non-brahmin political gossip pages. Linguistic lobbies of neighbouring states by RSS is an ongoing phenomenon to fill in with the caste one-upmanship confusion that RSS is working towards in Tamil Nadu.
Linguistic lobbying (which is interchangeable with intermediate caste lobby of neighbouring states) such as the one raised in the case of Sridhar is another emerging rightwing phenomenon supporting the RSS which aims at taking on the Dravidian ideological unity in the state. RSS is not just working with individual castes in Tamil Nadu but also to create linguistic disturbance which also seeks to morph on to OBC caste hegemony with SCs as well as with each other. A former ill-famed chief secretary is already in political gossip for working to consolidate casteist people of his linguistic identity in Tamil Nadu with RSS backing. It has not gained traction yet though his meetings are real. This is what BJP is seeking to create in Tamil Nadu in the long run.
The June 20 letter and RSS
The June 20 letter to the SP reveals a clear RSS hand behind the atrocities in Sattankulam town and its nearby areas. The Konar caste is a virtually unknown caste in Tamil Nadu whose name is not linked to caste based violence unlike OBC castes as Mukkulothor, Vanniyar or Gownder or even Nadar caste, the last one’s Christian activity and that of every other OBC caste in Tamil Nadu has been questioned often for being exclusivist whereas RSS grew upon the back of Nadar Hindu caste. Today there is at least one Hindu nadar outfit that claims ‘caste honour,’ even if caste violence of the nature of other castes have not been reported yet. The Konars, it now appears, also aspire for a north Indian ‘shatriya’ status and casteist violence is a means for attaining it, which is usually followed by honour killing of women or their partners.
It is no exaggeration that RSS is working with discarded rowdies of all castes in Tamil Nadu and giving them a life and a political career to resemble the worst, uninformed and exaggerated films on politics of non-brahmins in India. The RSS, the ideological arm of the BJP, owes its presence in Tamil Nadu to Brahmins and a series of violent activities from the Coimbatore Bomb Blast to the RSS presence in Tamil Nadu. After a lull in brahminism during the Dravidian political party rule, the murder of Rajiv Gandhi in 1991 gave a fillip to the RSS as it shut down Dravidian Movement activities and the Coimbatore Bomb Blast in 1998 inspired by Hindu activities of RSS built opportunities for the RSS to act openly. However, RSS begun structurally placing themselves in Tamil Nadu since BJP assumed power in the union government beginning 2014. Many RSS arms have sprung up exponentially after the capture of the ruling AIADMK in Tamil Nadu in 2017. It is not the AIADMK that is ruling Tamil Nadu since AIADMK chief Jayalalithaa’s demise in 2016, but is the BJP, which even a child in Tamil Nadu will tell.
The working of RSS in Tamil Nadu
Human rights and civil rights activists and those in movement politics have been warning of the rise in uncivil activity of RSS and Brahmins in Tamil Nadu. The activists’ voices have been sharper in the last one decade at least since the end of war in Sri Lanka where the LTTE, a militant Tamil representative, lost its war for separation from that country. A war in which the government of Sri Lanka received help from India. Not only has a solution been evading the growing problem of rightwing street rowdyism in Tamil Nadu but things have gotten worse in the state since. The police have been protective of them and their activities. The RSS had been active and seeking to engage every caste individually, feeding the pliant in every caste with casteism and religious animosity against minorities and encouraging caste oneupmanship with others and especially with Scheduled Castes even while also working with the SCs. All the castes are geared to work against one another but never against Brahmins. Taking pride in one’s caste has been the RSS propaganda for OBC castes as against the “shed your caste” propaganda by the non-brahmin DMK party and the Dravidar Kazhagam movements among the non-brahmin majority. Since 2014, Hindu festivals and Hindu fairs have become more common and grander in Tamil Nadu flaunting RSS funding.
The effects in TN with BJP in power since 2014
Since the first term of the BJP in power in 2014, the state witnessed a spurt in the number of organizations sprouting in the name of India or Hinduism, with both terms used interchangeably. Whereas Indian patriotism was claimed by brahmin caste people and film makers of that caste, now every newly sprouted OBC caste outfit leader, who is flaunting Hinduism and an RSS backing and with no clout yet to mobilize a large number of people, claims the same. The RSS infiltration in Tamil nationalism is another long and exhausting narrative to tell; suffice to indicate that it is similar to what brahmins have done to every language in India to enable a brahmin claim of sanskrit ancestry.
Coincidentally, around the same period that BJP assumed power in the union government, the number of news channels in Tamil was also on the upswing. The number of formal and informal men and women, mostly of brahmin caste who represented the BJP but claimed otherwise in the news channel debates from every field spiraled under media owners or management pressure with over representation of RSS views and brahmins in political, economic and every other issue on debate. In a state where BJP had no elected members or a long history of involvement in the public sphere or to gain rights of the majority, there was strangely an upsurge in the number of RSS or BJP men and women sitting on mainstream channels outnumbering members from elected parties who were non-brahmins.
The RSS members and brahmins emerged as diversely as from academia, print journals, quiz programmers and even from PUCL. Them apart, unknown and new outfits showed up to defend BJP with the single intention of disruption and for verbal thuggery and to waste time mentioning historical incorrectness. Surprisingly, they were received again in news channels even after being exposed for their fraud.
Their repeated presence in debates morphed into giving some of the self declared liberal-right wingers and plain rightwingers the status of a grotesque public intellectual of RSS with an overwhelming presence in state. The newer outfits sent by BJP to take part in debates, after the spotlight and depending upon their disruptiveness on TV, began to organize pro-India, pro-Hindu meetings on the streets next. They are never on public platforms of mass convergence and they operate to consolidate five to fifteen men or women on any BJP supportive issue but receive complete police protection for their disruptive activities which is often done in the name of Hindu pride or insult to Hinduism. Whereas any other long standing activist is denied permission to hold a public meeting and has to go to court several times to have the police retract denial of permission for their every meeting. The present Tamil Nadu chief minister is as much a spectator as the general public in the state is to all this. The demise of Jayalalithaa in 2016 and DMK chief M Karunanidhi in 2017 has especially seen an uncontrolled growth of RSS outfits led by many of these grotesque debaters mostly defending police and government excesses and openly demanding clampdown on freedom of expression.
An example of RSS in a caste outfit
Like with all castes, RSS has been seeking to work with the Konar caste too by picking on struggling political individuals either corrupt, ambitious with conflicting needs and lack of convictions. The PMK which laid the base for caste based parties has turned into an RSS lackey because of its leader’s extreme opportunism and the nature of casteism. The attempts of many caste based parties was one of egoism whereas DMK and the AIADMK already had people of every caste. In 2016 when both the DMK and AIADMK parties gave all the OBC caste parties a miss and contested elections alone all these OBC caste parties came a cropper. It is these parties that the RSS is encouraging to take on the DMK as AIADMK has already been captured by the RSS. All signs today point to RSS infiltration into Naam Tamilar too, a fledgling pro-Tamil political party, which emerged after the Eelam Tamil war for separation ended in 2009.
Seeming to integrate TN castes with North Indian castes
While RSS Vanniyars and Mukkulathors seek and think Shatriya status will elevate them, whatever that means, a dominant caste in the western part of Tamil Nadu is encouraged to seek Vaysiya status as Dravidar Kazhagam leader Kolathur Mani mocked at a public meeting this year. Konars identifying themselves as Yadav is nothing new, yet some supporting the BJP rather than Lalu Prasad Yadav make a mockery of this attempt. An example of a Konar and RSS operation can be glimpsed from the struggle of Devanathan Yadav, who till recently ran a Yadav outfit and came to be known for his struggling unwatched television channel which promoted RSS ideology. He later became a BJP supporter with his own outfit and contested and lost in the 2014 Assembly polls in a BJP ticket.
Yadavs/Konars are well represented in both the DMK and the AIADMK and in social spheres as well as in progressive spheres, which raises the question on what Devanathan’s ambition is. This is the question about all caste outfits in Tamil Nadu today. Though Devanathan claims to hold a doctorate in Philosophy from an university abroad, he has been on his struggling and unviewed TV channel supplying misinformation to his caste people asking them to oppose reservation for scs as if bcs do not get reservation and has been attending his caste weddings on camera asking couples to stay bound in caste and take pride in it. His channel failed during the rise of other mainstream channels.
While Devanathan has been quiet on the Jeyaraj Bennix case which shook entire Tamil Nadu, he however took time to comment dispargingly on both the intercaste couple Shankar and Kowsalya following the Judgement on Shankar’s murder case on 20 June in twitter. Devanathan seconded PMK Ramadoss’s
“love drama” quip in it. The bleeding Devanathan’s TV channel is now reportedly in receipt of capital inflow a few months back to polish its act and mainstream the RSS, what it was already doing in its unwatched earlier days. On the Jeyaraj and Bennix case the BJP has supported the police.
What the RSS is attempting to do in Tamil Nadu is a mind boggling strategy of pitting one caste against another, according to activists here. Of it one attempt was in Sattankulam in the form of Raghuganesh and his informer’s excesses ahead of Jeyaraj and Bennix murder feel activists and observers, though Jeyaraj and Bennix died only of police excesses.
Raghuganesh, police station and religion
Prior to Bennix and Jeyaraj murder, Raghuganesh had hauled up a group of Christians who went about the town doing what they had been doing all these years. Distributing religious leaflets and singing Christian hymns on the streets. They had been violently beaten up on the street and later in the Sattankulam police station, one among them being a disabled person. They were discharged from the station without any charges after the beating. Those beaten did not place charges because they know they are dealing with the BJP in the administration and they are a minority.
Whom to complain?
In a state run by the RSS to whom can one complain when the culprit is the RSS itself? Was it this knowledge that the people of the state have no one to complain to that made the police of the Sattankulam police station to not cooperate with the magistrate’s probe at the police station during which a sub-inspector had hurled an abusive Tamil phrase “you can’t pull even a hair out (of us),” within the magistrate’s earshot. Hence the question. Was this ever a matter for India under the RSS to intervene?
Radhika Sudhakar is a journalist from Chennai. She had worked with mainstream publications; presently makes contributions for certain publications, on and off, in Chennai.