The ghastly torture/murder of Jayaraj and Bennix, a father-son duo, while in custody at Sathankulam police Station, Thoothukudi (Tuticorn) in Tamilnadu has jolted the conscience of the nation. The outcry has led to unprecedented arrest of 5 police officers and constables for murder. After officers of ASP/DSP rank threatened the District Judge investigating into the matter, Madras High Court had to order the shutting down of Sathankulam police station.
Friends of Police (FOP)
It is not just Sathankulam. The investigation has exposed a culture of routine custodial torture and killings by Tamil Nadu Police, especially in the southern districts of the State. More importantly, it has been revealed that in these districts, an extra-judicial, voluntary organization, Friends of Police (FOP), operates with impunity, going to the extent of helping the police in conducting torture.
The Tamil Nadu government Wednesday issued a notification rescinding all activities of Friends of Police across the state. The government order was issued after an adverse report was received from the Director-General of Police. The ban comes against the backdrop of the custodial death of Jayaraj and Bennix in which the role of FOP is being probed.
FOP role in Jayaraj/Bennix murder
The CB-CID, which has taken over the Jayaraj/Bennix murder investigation, has zeroed into the role of six FOP members who had been helping the Inspector and Sub-Inspectors of Sathankulam in torture.
“We suspect that all six of them had a role in the custodial torture of Jayaraj/Bennixthat happened on June 19 night and similar incidents in the past. We have identified them, and all six will be arrested,” an officer linked to the probe told media.
The CB-CID has widened the nature of the probe to include the role of FOPs. Started by a police officer in 1993, it is not known when and how FOP got the ‘power’ to interfere in police cases. The FOP website claims that is a “community policing initiative and joint governmental organization”.One has heard of a non-governmental organization (NGO). But what is a ‘joint governmental organization?’
FOP a colonial-feudal remnant?
Tamil Nadu has a history of extra-judicial forces helping authorities. In 1935, during the British era, the colonial authorities used such groups in hunting down freedom fighters. In the 1960s and 70s, these ‘organizations’ helped the TN Police and feudal landlords to unleash severe repression in villages (leading to the death of ordinary Dalits and tribals), against the rising tide of left-wing militancy.
“Volunteers can apply, and there are minimum criteria like no political affiliation or criminal background, etc. Those who apply are mostly rural youth from poor backgrounds. Some with criminal tendencies take advantage of a favorable environment in the system,” said a TN Police officer regarding FOP.
Three IG-rank officers and six SPs agree that FOPs “have grown like cancer in the state police system”.“It is being widely misused in small towns and rural areas where police officers keep FOPs as sidekicks…to buy tea or food, help in vehicle checks, take seized vehicles to stations, or take people in illegal custody. In recent years, especially in southern districts like Thoothukudi, the police system is facing challenges from officers with strong caste and religious identities, who rely on the support of FOPs,” said an IG-rank officer.
The officers pointed out that the police force has benefited from similar initiatives like the Home Guard for traffic regulation and crowd control, and Village Vigilance Committees for contact tracing in Covid-19. “But the FOP system alone has faced charges,” said an officer.
Allegations that Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh( RSS) is involved in FOPs were made earlier. RSS has several organizations like Sewa Bharati working in Tamil Nadu. Sewa Bharati has been accused of infiltrating various institutions. After the 2018 Tuticorn Police firing and targeted killings of protesters agitating against Vedanta Sterlite Plant, it was alleged that Sewa Bharati and other RSS affiliates helped Tuticorn police in identifying leaders of the anti-Sterlite protest. Allegations of Tuticorn police members being trained by Israel also surfaced. The Israel-RSS link is well-known.
Sewa Bharati has denied links with FOP. But a strange thing happened after the Sathankulam incident. A Covid-19 awareness handbill that went the rounds on social media included the names of both FOP and Seva Bharati. The link-up of FOP and RSS can also be seen on several initiatives on other social issues in 2018, 2019 and 2020, including a police traffic drive. Civil rights activists have spoken out openly, about FOP and Sewa Bharati elements fomenting communal feelings and assisting security forces as vigilantes.
Even some ID cards (see photo) bear the FOP and Sewa Bharati names together. The TN model is being replicated elsewhere. For instance, in Uttar Pradesh, under the garb of ‘Police Mitra’, volunteers in civil clothes had attacked protesters during the anti-CAA stir. Media reports said ‘Police Mitra’ groups had members from Hindu Yuva Vahini, a group founded by Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath in 2002.
Amaresh Misra is an independent historian, author, and novelist. Currently resident in Delhi, he is also a freelance journalist, political commentator, and columnist on foreign policy.