Jeyaraj (L) and his son Bennix (R) died while in the custody of the Sathankulam Police following their arrest on June 19 citing a violation of the COVID-19 curfew
Jeyaraj (L) and his son Bennix (R) died while in the custody of the Sathankulam Police following their arrest on June 19 citing a violation of the COVID-19 curfew
Litigation News

[Santhakulam Custodial Deaths] Why does such violence occur in a civil society? Need to address underlying mental health issues: Madras HC

"Something like this should never happen again in Tamil Nadu. Now people are even afraid to enter police stations", the Court orally observed today.

Meera Emmanuel

The Madurai Bench of the Madras High Court today orally observed that the significance of the Sathankulam custodial deaths was broader than its criminal investigation.

Why does one person hit another? Why does such violence occur in a civil society? In civil society how do we prevent this?

The Court observed that these were the larger questions that arose from the case which involves the custodial death of Jeyaraj and his son Bennix, both of whom were arrested by police officiers of the Sathankulam Police Station on June 19 citing a violation of the COVID-19 curfew.

Justice PN Prakash, who was sitting on the Bench with Justice B Pugalendhi orally observed today that,

"Something like this should never happen again in Tamil Nadu. Now people are even afraid to enter police stations. A few bad apples here and there, should not be a reason to condemn the whole police. We have to put in place a very humane police system."

In view of detailed submissions made today concerning the well-being and training of police officers in Tamil Nadu and the stress levels observed during the course of this exercise, the Bench noted that it was imperative that these mental health programmes continue.

Submissions on the mental health programmes being conducted in Tamil Nadu were made today by the ADGP (Welfare), Dr Shekhar, Registrar of NIMHANS and Dr C Ramasubramanian, the State Nodal Officer.

The Court today also spoke with Anil Kumar, the Deputy Superintendent of Police CB-CID who is presently tasked with the investigation into the case until the CBI takes charge. DySP Kumar informed the Court of the arrests made in the case so far for charges of murder.

The FIRs were altered to reflect murder charges shortly after the High Court observed on Tuesday that there was sufficient material for the same. So far Sub-Inspectors Balakrishnan and Raghu Ganesh and Inspector Sridhar are among those arrested in the case.

After being appraised of the case progression, the Court today assured Kumar that he has all the support he needs to continue with his work and urged him to do so in a way that gives the victims' family the confidence that the judiciary and police won’t leave them.

The Bench also noted that there was no Additional Public Prosecutor appointed to represent the CBCID. The Court has stated that it will nominate a competent local APP.

In the order passed today, the Court has also issued directions so that the Chief Judicial Magistrate, Thoothukudi is the jurisdictional magistrate in this case for now. This was in view of the fact that the Kovilpatti Magistrate who was the designated magistrate for CBCID cases is presently conducting the judicial inquiry into the custodial deaths.

"Since the Judicial Magistrate No.I, Kovilpatti is conducting enquiry under Section 176(1)(1-A) Cr.P.C. in this case and bearing in mind the fact that a case of this gravity has to be dealt with by a judicial officer of the rank of a Subordinate Judge, we are of the view that the Chief Judicial Magistrate, Tuticorin, should exercise the powers of the Judicial Magistrate No.I, Kovilpatti, in this case", the Court said.

As the hearing closed for the day, the Court also briefly spoke with Head Constable Revathy on phonecall to look into whether she was feeling safe.

Revathy was the first police officer of the Sathankulam Police Station who came forward to inform the inquiring Kovilpatti Magistrate of the custodial violence that had been meted out against Jeyaraj and Bennix following their arrest. The State AAG today assured the Court that she has been given full protection, as also reported in the media.

Stress Levels of the Police are quite high, Court told

From the study of about 5% of the police strength, who have been trained as of now, the level of stress is quite high, the ADGP told the Court.

"We have only hit the tip of the iceberg", Dr Shekhar said while urging that the programme should be carried out further and expanded to eventually become a permanent programme and “so that we can get to the bottom of the iceberg.”

The Court also asked Dr Shekhar on his opinion regarding the stress levels of police officers. The NIMHANS doctor responded that an analysis has been conducted that it can be submitted in a sealed cover to the Court, rather than speaking on it in open court.

He, however, asserted that the welfare of the police officers has to be nurtured, lest they become stressed and burn out, leading to behavioural changes.

On queries from the Court, Dr Shekhar also added that over 10.67 % persons have mental health problems in India and that almost 3% have severe mental health problems. On the other hand, there are only 42 mental health hospitals in the country and the number of mental health professionals stood at about 10,000.

"The amount of stress police officers examined were going through during their career is phenomenal", said Dr C Ramasubramanian, who added that it affects their physical health as well.

On mental health patterns, Dr Ramasubramanian agreed with Dr Shekhar submissions that such issues are likely to be multifold following the COVID-19 pandemic.

"If pre-corona it is like this, post-corona it will be a very dangerous situation. Law and order has to be maintained", the Bench remarked today, while emphasizing that the mental health programme cannot be abandoned.

Appearing for the State AAG K Chellapandian informed the Court that the Government is also in favour of continuing the programme.

The Court in turn has now directed that the well-being programmed commenced in collaboration with NIMHANS be continued for a period of five more years and that the funds necessary for it be allotted by the State Government. The Bench observed,

"... public security can be ensured only if the police force is physically, mentally and morally strong. A few bad apples here and there, should not be a reason to condemn the entire force of around 1.25 lakhs police personnel in the State, who are already in the forefront, battling the COVID-19 pandemic. Any form of violence is a product of a sick mind."
"On the one hand, those responsible for the death of Bennicks and Jayaraj should not go scot-free and on the other hand, we cannot afford to lose any more Bennickss and Jayarajs to violence. Only through such Wellbeing Programmes can violent propensities in individuals be stymied."
Madras High Court

Read the order:

Registrar General (Judicial), Madurai Bench of Madras High Court v. State of Tamil Nadu and ors - July 2.pdf

The Court was informed today that as of March 2020, about 90,000 police officers underwent the well-being programme. Whereas the programme was expected to be completed by July, it may take some more time now after the COVID-19 pandemic. A consolidated report would be filed once the training is completed for all police officers, the ADGP submitted today.

Last week, the Madurai Bench had decided suo motu to monitor the case, which involves allegations of police brutality, a mechanical remand by the judicial magistrate and inadequate medical treatment leading to the death of Jeyaraj and Bennix while in police custody.

The two were arrested on June 19 citing a violation of the COVID-19 curfew. A judicial inquiry into their deaths, under Section 176, CrPC, is now being conducted by the Judicial Magistrate No. 1, Kovilpatti.

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