Ripples of Apathy

“Evil thrives on apathy and cannot exist without it.”

– Hannah Arendt

Day after day, month after month, year after year, our media (whatever little is left of it) reports atrocities perpetrated by the powerful on the powerless, where law enforcement agencies terrorise the ones they ought to be protecting. We read these news snippets dispassionately and – I quote Benyamin here – someone else’s story, unless it happens to us, remains a story.

I too am guilty of this dispassionate way of reading the news. Over time, I have consciously tried to not let my emotions come in the way of reading an article, of writing what comes to mind. Basically, I do my best to not get riled up as it would push my emotions out of whack.

Hence, when the custodial deaths of P. Jayaraj and his son Bennix was reported from Sathankulam town in Tamil Nadu in June 2020, I tried hard to not think about how terrified they must have been when they were picked up, how much pain they endured when the police tortured them, how they must have felt lonely in the last moments of their life amid cruel men who snatched away their lives too early for reasons best known to themselves.

Would the father and son have known about Articles 20 and 22 of the constitution which informs citizens about their rights in the case of arrest and conviction, and protects them during detention? Had they heard about the Prakash Singh case and the guidelines subsequently laid down by the Supreme Court, which mandates the police follow due procedure while recording arrests, which ensures access to legal counsel? Had they known about Articles 32 and 226, which allows them access to the Supreme Court and high courts to highlight the tyranny of law enforcement on their fundamental rights?

Coming to that, did they know they had fundamental rights?

How many of us actually know that Indian citizens are granted equality, freedoms and protection from illegal detention? As the recent film based on real-life events Jai Bhim depicts, the wife of a tribal man was helped by a rare advocate K. Chandru (who later became a judge in the Madras high court) in trying to free her husband who had been arrested on false charges. But it was too late for Rajakannu, who died in police custody.

How many more fall through the crevices in our system?

Also read: An Open Letter to the Police in India

When an Aryan Khan is arrested, at least someone cares – the eyes of the media and the nation were glued to the case. What about the 70% undertrials who have no address, no money and no access? What happens to those whose caste, poverty and lack of education play out an intersectionality? Or those who are wrongly picked up due to the virtue of them belonging to a lower caste, and wrongly charged in cases to relieve the burden of an under-resourced police force?

What is even more disturbing is that the deaths from custodial torture are not even counted properly. The National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) says that around 800 custodial deaths took place between 2010 and 2018. On the other hand, the National Human rights Commission (NHRC) pegged the number as 1,700 for the same period.

To the insult of the state not counting, the citizens add injury by consuming this inconsistent data as mere numbers. The citizenry does not think of them as people whose flesh split from their bones with each beating, who underwent a lot of physical pain and mental torture, whose resolve broke under police boots, and Yama himself decided that enough was enough and to have mercy on them. They do not think of them as people whose families were terrified, whose children must have cried all night and who woke up to the news that the person they loved was dead.

Yet you and I consider them data. We think of them as thieves and criminals. We make excuses – what else can the police do when those accused of crimes don’t answer questions apart from torture? We think to ourselves – why couldn’t they have told the truth, isn’t the truth the best defence?

We then push them out of our minds. You and I considered them as guilty, until proven innocent. You and I considered the torture they were undergoing as legitimate, and them being deserving the same.

The Indian state has no mechanism to prevent custodial torture, and India has not ratified the UN convention regarding the same. While the constitution speaks against self incrimination, our law enforcement still uses threats and force to extract confessions. In the process, the ones who have no one to pay for them, who have no resources or knowledge, get incarcerated, sometimes for years, either under trial or as convicts. Meanwhile criminals with resources and clout, political or otherwise, walk free – some even contesting elections and becoming lawmakers.

Shouldn’t you and I be worried that many unfortunate undertrials, born into poverty in an unequal society, are being incarcerated after being forced to etch out confessions under brutal torture? Shouldn’t you and I be concerned that the law enforcement is being used to benefit and protect those in power, while being rather hostile to the powerless?

Isn’t it time you and I let ourselves be riled up over atrocities perpetrated by law enforcement agencies? Let the data wake up our conscience a little bit? So that we can shake off our privileges of wealth, caste and education and see the state of those who don’t have the same triumvirate of protection?

So that there may not be a P. Rajan here, a Jayaraj and Bennix there and an Arun Valmiki somewhere, anymore?

The author is a resigned banker, who resigned to try her hand at the civil services examination, and a concerned citizen.

Featured image credit: Pariplab Chakraborty