About Thoothukudi and Other Custodial Police Violence During Lockdown


Groundxero, 2020

The Thoothukudi murders have once again drawn our attention to custodial and other forms of violence perpetrated by the police. Although India is currently facing a public health crisis, the police have been used during this period for playing the roles of admonisher, abuser, torturer, and murderer instead of a guide that helps coordinate medical aid and other forms of relief. Although few expected otherwise, perhaps some of us have been waking up to the fact that the naked violence and apathy of the Indian administration for its citizens is not necessarily reserved for the military zones of Kashmir and the forests of Chhattisgarh and Manipur, or even the minority ghettos, that is, for the others. The deceased in Thoothukudi are after all not so different from us – the middle class Hindu. Although they are Christians, the identity of Jayaraj’s family was strongly rooted in a powerful land-owning caste. Also, unlike the migrant workers – a wide range of socio-economic-cultural-religious groups that have been artificially clubbed together into a large, faceless category during the lockdown – Jayaraj and Bennicks belonged to an established class of traders. Had it not been the case, would their deaths have prompted widespread media coverage and social media outrage? This article is a documentation of the custodial deaths during lockdown that also looks for the answer to some such questions. For the purpose we also reread some works by K. Balagopal, the late civil rights activist, who has written extensively on the subject of police and torture.

  1. A trail of habitual and systematic atrocities by the Thoothukudi cops

Murder of Jayaraj and Bennicks: The recent custodial double murder committed by the police in Sathankulam (Thoothukudi, Tamil Nadu) has inspired outrage in the national media, on social media and in civil society, the focus largely being the brutality (including inhuman thrashing and custodial rape) that cannot be justified. The deceased – P. Jayaraj (58) and his son J. Bennicks (31), who ran a mobile accessories shop, were traders from the Christian Nadar community, based in Thoothukudi.

We now know that the primary assailants – sub-inspectors Balakrishnan and Raghuganesh and their superior Inspector Sridhar – are habitual offenders who have so far managed to avoid consequences of their misdoing. However, in this case, the three of them were first suspended and followed by the the transferring of the case to the CBI by the State government after an HC instructionwere arrested under murder charge along with two constables named Muthuraj and Murugan. In the last few days, the absurd version of events (that Jayaraj and Bennicks first abused the police and then rolled on the ground of their own accord, leading to their internal injuries) provided by the police has been busted. CM Palanisami (AIADMK) has stopped trying to pass the deaths off as caused by respiratory illness and cardiac attack, and dilly dallying over whether to call the incident a custodial death or not. Despite the probe by the judicial team led by Kovilpatti JM being disregarded and disrupted by the Sathankulam police, a number of eyewitnesses – both civilians and police officials – have testified to the criminal act. They have even spoken about the presence of five ‘Friends of Police’ in the Sathankulam Station who assisted in the beating as well.  These men were part of Seva Bharathi, an RSS-affiliated group.

The Thoothukudi SP has been replaced and put on a ‘compulsory wait’ and both the ADSP and DSP have been transferred for intimidating the on-duty Kovilpatti JM. A compensation of Rs. 20 lakh has been handed over by the State government to the family of the dead; both the DMK and AIADMK have announced separate compensations of Rs. 25 lakh each on top of that.

This is, however, not the first instance of police brutality, even in recent times.

Murder of Mahendran, assault on Raja Singh and others: Just about a month back, the same Sathankulam officers picked up and tortured 9 others, including a minor, for days, and beat one of them to death in connection with the alleged murder of a police informer. Mahendran (29), the one thrashed to death, was the brother of a ‘suspect’ in the aforementioned murder. Among the rest, Raja Singh is now an important witness in the present case as he was in the same jail as Jayaraj and Bennicks. Allegedly, the same group named Friends of Police – “a Community Policing initiative and a Joint Governmental Organization” that “constitutes the thrust towards humanization and socialization of the police force” – was present at the time of the custodial assault on Raja Singh and others in this case as well.

Assault of 9 Christian pastors: 9 pastors from Rameshwaram and Palaniappuram on a four-day ministry distributing Christian literature were mercilessly beaten by the same two sub-inspectors in February this year after a false complaint of forced conversions was lodged by a local BJP member. Even a man with disabilities wasn’t spared from the thrashing. The National Christian Council moved the DIG of Police through the State Human Rights Commission and Minorities Commission, but at the end the victims were asked to withdraw the complaint in exchange for an apology from the SI. If the SIs were transferred as the Christian group had demanded, Jayaraj and Bennicks may not have died such a horrible death.

Other cases: SI Raghuganesh is infamous for treating people inhumanely when in his custody. SI Balakrishnan, who has been transferred several times for misdoings, has been charged with associating with the sand mafia as well as sexual harassment. Among other known cases, Balakrishnan had once robbed a Thirukkurungudi resident of his bike, stripped him and thrashed him, leading to serious bodily harm, and forced him to give his thumb impression on a blank paper. In this case, Balakrishnan had in the end asked to be forgiven in exchange for an apology, citing that his entire life and career would be at stake if he was convicted. The case was eventually settled outside court – as told by the victim’s advocate.

The criminal brotherhood: The Sathankulam case might look like a villainous act committed by a few stray lower-level police officials – the “bad guys”. We must stop telling ourselves this fairy tale, and look at this incident as an inevitable result of the systematic offence carried out by the government and the police in the name of protecting the country – especially in this moment of crisis. If we are to be outraged, if not actively participate in possible reforms, let us at least be outraged at it in its entirety.

First of all, the Sathankulam murders must be recognized for what it is: one out of millions of cases of custodial crimes, false encounters, illegal transfer of prisoners, deliberate denial of medical care in police / jail custody, and so on, covered up by the department with adequate help from the rest of the administration. It is this ‘brotherhood’ that provides the impunity that the police enjoys:

… what is really remarkable is the ease with which the entire governmental machinery tell lies to defend an ordinary SI of police. Ministers, Superintendents of Police, Executive Magistrates, Doctors and jail officials collude as a matter of course, as if it is the most natural thing to do, to save the skin of a subordinate policeman who has committed murder in his custody. Perhaps it is an instinctive recognition of the fact that it is not really the subordinate policeman who has killed the victim, but the compulsions of the system which cannot survive if it honours its own criminal law—let alone the Constitution purportedly held aloft by it. (Deaths in Police Custody : Some Anatomical Considerations, K. Balagopal, EPW)

Late civil rights activist Balagopal’s words resonate in the Sathankulam case as well. The violently hierarchical Indian administration is an amalgamation of the Hindu ruling-caste/varna authoritarianism demonstrated in the likes of Manusmriti and the colonial authoritarianism (e.g. deporting and sedition laws and many other regressive ideas from the dated 1861 Police Act in severe need of change) taught by the British. So it is not unexpected that this administration would find it convenient to rely on a ‘criminal brotherhood’ in the name of police. Balagopal has pointed out elsewhere that this ‘brotherhood’ was in general “bitterly divided by a rigidly authoritarian regimen of internal discipline, unequal avenues of sycophancy, uneven access to graft, and the consequent jealousy, hatred and mutual suspicion,” and has been trained to come together to help cover up its own misdoings. However, there is no reason to visualize the police force as agency-less, profit-less dancing dolls in the hand of the corporate-politician entente, though perhaps, as individuals some of them indeed are. This would only explain their need to assert power where it is easy and possible to do so.

Secondly, one must recognize the difference between the Sathankulam murders and the murder of George Floyd in the US, which has led to massive civil society uprising and talk of an alternative to the existing police system. While in India too, there is a severe need for rethinking the role of police and judiciary, the Sathankulam case must be looked into with its own nuances of caste and class. Had the characters involved in the incident belonged to a different combination of socio-economic positions, the reactions from civil society could have widely varied.

Thirdly, however hackneyed this may sound, SI Balagopalan and Raghuganesh and Inspector Sridhar are the natural products of a hierarchical punitive system, in which those in the higher ranks are not answerable for harming their subordinates. This rule is applicable for not only the police but all of Indian society. The system is doused in hypermasculine idealization, paranoia, xenophobia and communal and caste discrimination, and is systematically devoid of any significant training in compassion and basic rights – whether in the mainstream schooling of children or the police training. A society that hails the strongest and most prolific killers as ministers would naturally look up to the aura of power to intimidate and violate that the Indian police radiates.

The public outrage: As an instant reaction to the Thoothukudi double murder, the Tamil Nadu Traders’ Association called for a one-day strike. On social media, the incident became viral after Radio Jockey Suchitra read out the details of the death, as a statement against shying away from (and hence negating) the violence as a distant truth. The All India Catholic Union strongly demanded for urgent police reforms. The DMK naturally kept following up closely.

The state’s civil rights groups such as CPDRNCHRO and People’s Watch published immediate statements condemning the events and demanded a fair investigation. Thoothukudi has had the reputation of being a nightmare in terms of police massacre thanks to the Sterlite case, where the police unleashed by the state-corporate nexus took 13 workers’ lives and left more than a hundred injured through unspeakable violence.

The Tamil Nadu Milk Dealers Welfare Association declared that they would stop delivering milk to the houses of cops. This came also as a natural reaction to the harassment many of the milk delivery persons had faced at the hands of the cops, despite the government allowing milk supply to continue during lockdown. This protest is small but significant as it comes from a group of direct victims of police atrocity, the dimensions of which we, the law-abiding working-from-home upper/middle class cannot really gauge.

This brings us to the subject of severe police atrocity in India – in particular during lockdown – with a focus on which faction of the society the victims mostly come from.

  1. Thoothukudi murders in the light of the general lockdown scenario

The murders and assaults during lockdown: Jayaraj and Bennicks from Thoothukudi were not the only victims of police violence during the lockdown. According to a report in The Wire on June 10, the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) asked 8 states for reports on the 15 recorded deaths at the hands of the police during lockdown. Out of these 15, 12 were beaten/caned by the police on the road and three were beaten to death in police custody as a punishment for stepping out during lockdown (a rule implemented, as the government would like us to believe, for saving lives). Out of the 12, 9 succumbed to their injuries, which means, even if not beaten as spectacularly as Jayaraj and Bennicks in Thoothukudi, the beatings were severe enough. The rest committed suicide, which is generally not addressed in the mainstream media or social media as a tragedy unless committed by celebrities. About the victims, the report says:

The civil rights group said the deceased “came from weaker socio-economic sections – five were daily wage workers, one farmer, one driver, and one vegetable vendor.” Stating that most of these were “income-earning members”, the complaint had also noted that four of them were Muslims, at least two were Dalits, and one tribal. It said six of those killed were between the ages of 18 and 22 while three were above 50 years of age.

The range of victims of the rampant police brutality during the lockdown covers migrant workers, workers protesting against companies for their rights, delivery persons, vendors (despite being legally allowed to function), small traders like Bennicks and Jayaraj, people on their way to buy groceries or seek medical help, and even doctors trying to go to the hospitals. As for the vendors, not only were they beaten up and humiliated, in certain cases their commodities were dumped and ruined, causing them great financial loss on top of the economic crisis they were going through during lockdown. The beatings are also appreciated and encouraged in social media. Recently, a video of policemen with a microphone became viral. In a singsong voice it said: “Thod denge tumhare sharir ka kona kona / Par hone na denge Corona” (We shall break your bones / But won’t allow you the coronavirus to catch you).

Custodial murders and assaults in India in general: After Jayaraj and Bennicks’ custodial death, a lot of data on custodial death has been coming out in the media. According to an article summarizing the report (26 June 2020) of the National Campaign Against Torture (NCAT), a total of 1731 persons died in custody in the year 2019. To put this in perspective, that is, five deaths a day, out of which 125 were in police custody and the rest in jail custody. In custodial killing, Uttar Pradesh is in the lead, and is closely followed by Tamil Nadu, Punjab, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat etc. According to Mr. Paritosh Chakma, Director, NCAT:

Out of the 125 deaths in police custody, 75 persons or 60% belonged to the poor and marginalised communities. These included 13 victims from Dalit and tribal communities, 15 victims belonged to Muslim minority community, 37 victims were picked up for petty crimes such as theft/ burglary/ cheating/ selling of liquor illegally, gambling, etc. which indicate their economic status, three were farmers, one was labourer, one was a refugee, two were security guards, one was a rag-picker and two worked as drivers.

Let us concentrate on Tamil Nadu – the state of residence of Jayaraj and Bennicks. We may remember that one of the most horrifying aspects of the Sathankulam police included the brutality of their torture as well as their act of assault on a minor. In that context, it is significant to note that according to the NCAT report, only during the year 2019, the Tamil Nadu police has subjected at least three other minors and several youths to custodial torture which led to their deaths. The cases involving the minors are:

  • Torturing a 17 year old to death to extract a confession of petty theft and cremating his body without post-mortem (Madurai);
  • Pricking needles into the body of a 13 year old in connection with the illegal arrest of his brother, a 24 year old fisherman named Vijayrajan, who was chained and tortured to death in the police custody (Thanjavur);
  • Branding a 13 year old with hot iron in connection with the same case as above; the minors and the deceased adult were also subjected to casteist remarks (Thanjavur).

Each of the 11 reported custodial deaths in Tamil Nadu in 2019 were often preceded by arrests without completion of the requisite formalities and were followed by days of custodial torture. This includes the death of a Dalit woman and Irula Adivasis – each death as brutal as the rest. There were just 3 Magisterial enquiries and 0 convictions of the police for these 12 cases. It is in such a context that we must evaluate Jayaraj and Bennicks’ death and not as an isolated case of horror.

We’ll keep the matter of arrests and false charges against the anti-CAA protesters out of this article, though we must make a mental note of it in this context as it provides important observations as to how police were used by the ruling party to take advantage of a moment of crisis and push its communal agenda.

Government’s failure: The BJP government’s colossal failure and lack of concern for everything other than its communal agenda and corporate nepotism have reached a new high during lockdown: starting from the delay in response to the virus despite prior information, to the testing-kit controversies, to the mismanagement of PPEs, to an unplanned lockdown thrust upon the country, to the collapse of the medical support system, to the zero transparency of the PM Cares fund, to the (much belatedPDS and Shramik train mismanagement, to its buckling under the pressure of the threat issued by the US regarding the hydroxychloroquine drug, to the recent corona drug controversy and so on. Other than some fake insincere blabbering about seeking forgiveness from his countrymen (for killing them), there has been no acknowledgment from the Prime Minister of the merciless thrashing of people by the police. In some states such as Telangana, the government itself threatened to shoot the lockdown ‘violators’ on sight. The lockdown has offered a large faction of India not a ‘do or die’ but a ‘die or die’ situation. Our elected representatives have become our tyrannical school teachers.

As any volunteer doing relief work during the lockdown would know, nor were the police enabled through resources or information by the government to actually guide the distressed working classes towards available relief – perhaps for the precise reason that there wasn’t any, at least not from the government Relief was clearly not the priority. This is not to say that in rarest of rare cases few police personnel did not actually try to help out of (and only out of) their own sense of duty and humanity.

It is relevant to point out here that at the level of both State and Center, the opposition parties have condemned the police and questioned the ruling party. However, this condemnation is a farce. None of the mainstream political parties have thought twice before unleashing the police on the working class, Dalits, Adivasis and Muslims whenever the need arose for them, as they have consistently proved for decades.

Thus, as this thorough report from the Open Global Rights shows, a failed and inept government let the violence remain the sole means to control the population while the number of virus-affected cases kept rising.

Government-corporate entente: To add to its misdoings, on one hand, the government kept amending the rules for the convenience of the corporates,[1] and on another hand, it turned a blind eye towards companies which were kept open during the lockdown despite becoming COVID-19 hotspots, allowing companies to force the workers to join work, though even those workers were harassed on their way to work by the police in some places. In particular in Tamil Nadu, the state-approved factories of HyundaiMRFComstar and others were allowed to function despite breaking the lockdown guidelines and more importantly, despite becoming COVID-19 hotspots. It is in this context as well that we must evaluate the deaths of Jayaraj and Bennicks.

Let us make a note here that it has been alleged that not only that the Tamil Nadu government was sold out to the corporate houses, it was even unable to handle its own Home Department, when the CM / State Home Minister Palanisami attempted to cover up for the police in the Jayaraj-Bennicks case.

Failing judiciary: The failure of both the higher and the lower judiciary has made way for the police atrocity during lockdown. The higher judiciary, to save itself from obscure transfers and in some extreme cases murder, has these days taken to almost always act in a subservient manner. The lower judiciary on the other hand is not of much consequence and is in general disinterested / hesitant to question the police. This was seen in the action of the Sathankulam JM, who saw the grievously injured, bleeding father (who was also a diabetes patient) and son from a ‘social distance’ of at least 5 meters and directed them to the prison instead of the hospital. The doctor in charge too had noted down the injuries but hadn’t recommended hospitalization, which was crucial for saving the two lives.

Not only apathy, the lower judiciary also has no power over the police. This too was clear in the Thoothukudi case, when the investigating team led by the Kovilpatti JM was so badly intimidated by the police that they had to leave the Sathankulam police station. Such apathy and fear on behalf of the lower judiciary causes thousands of deaths in prisons all across the country. The condescending attitude of the police towards the lower judiciary is a well-known and well-discussed matter. The ineptness of the lower judiciary is also one of the justifications that the police give for having to take up the role of ‘teaching the lesson’. Balagopal addresses this in an article, strongly confronting how torture is popularly identified as a ‘judicious use of force to extract information’:

Needless to add, such notions as police teaching people lessons are alien to criminal law as it presently stands in India or any civilised country. That is supposed to be the job of the courts, but there is not a single policeman who has an ounce more of respect for the capacity of the courts to punish criminals than the most hardened criminal himself. The average policeman believes that the courts are extremely ineffective in proving and punishing the guilty. He therefore decides in the course of his investigation who is guilty, what is the moral standing of the guilt, what is the appropriate punishment to be given, and sets about doling out the punishment (converted into quanta of torture) inside the lock-up itself. A large part of custodial torture consists of punishment for undetermined guilt by unlawful force, and not the judicious use of force to extract information regarding crimes. It is only after the determination of the guilt and punishment are over that the policeman takes the suspect to court—with the air of one honouring a quaint ritual — to have his guilt and punishment determined all over again, this time by lawful means. (Whom and Why Do the Police Kill, K. Balagopal)

However, it has also been cited that the courts being closed due to the lockdown has allowed the police to have a free reign.

Pandemic laws making way for police brutality: While we are on the subject of judiciary and law, we must recall how, adding to the silence of the government towards police brutality, the Supreme Court proactively dismissed a plea for guidelines to be put in place to check police brutality. It might sound outrageous, but one must remember that the entire lockdown is a legal atrocity. While on one hand, the Centre has misused the Disaster Management Act 2005 to curtail the agency of the States, on another hand the dated colonial Epidemic Diseases Act 1897 has aided the police and the government to silence and torment the citizens from raising voice against any systemic mismanagement. A Daily-O report documents the historical saga of atrocities associated with this Act:

The Epidemic Diseases Act, 1897, with just four sections, was drafted in a rush with little or no foresight for the wide ambit of its misuse. Myron Echenberg, an accomplished scholar who wrote extensively on infectious diseases, noted that “the potential for abuse was enormous” in the Act. Even without the necessary foresight, just an observation of the law’s implementation since the 19th century makes it evident that the law has been used as a tool for abuse, oppression and tyranny. State abuse extended to public humiliation, abuse against women, public stripping and even violence against women – which led to historian David Arnold calling the Act “one of the most draconian pieces of sanitary legislation ever adopted in colonial India”.

Despite pro-people guidelines existing within the National Disaster Management Act, they have barely been implement due to the natural apathy and inefficiency of the governments.

Caste and religion: The Thoothukudi case cannot be discussed leaving caste aside. While it is a standing truth that the victims of police atrocity are mostly Muslims, Dalits and Adivasis (often Christians), this particular case seems to have resulted from the feud between two land-owning OBC castes in the area: Konars and Nadars. While Jayaraj’s family belonged to the (Christian) Nadar caste, SI Raghuganesh was a Konar – infamous for imposing caste tax on other communities and instigating Konar youths to destroy their property – as stated in a recent petition from Panchayat Presidents and trade union leaders. The extensive report by The Lede also refers to a previous (2006) case of custodial murder in the same police station committed by SI Srikumar, who belonged to the Nadar community and hence went unpunished.

The caste and economic position of the father and the son as Nadar traders might have played a major role in escalating this case against the police. But when it comes to Dalits, the Indian police, even when it is not the active violator, is unable and unwilling to contain caste atrocities. Although in Tamil Nadu alone, violations of Dalits have increased nearly five-fold during lockdown, activists say.

Religion might or might not have played a role in the Jayaraj-Bennicks case. Although we must once again note here the involvement of the RSS affiliated ‘Friends of Police‘ volunteers in the brutal beating. A report in Indian Legal Live describes it as: ‘The method adopted by them is akin to communal lynching in the north, only more gruesome’. Incidentally Seva Bharathi also engaged in providing relief to migrant workers in Tamil Nadu, relentlessly communalizing whenever they found the opportunity.

We may also remember that the Sathankulam SIs had earlier this year acted on a complaint lodged by a local flag bearer of the Hindutva politics – a BJP member – and beat up 9 pastors. In general, Tamil Christians, although no strangers to religious and police violence (especially Dalit Christians, from both the angles of caste and religion), have been facing an increasing number of brutal attacks since BJP came to power and allied with the already brahminically inclined AIADMK. This includes the mysterious murder of a pastor after he was threatened by Hindutva hardliners. A Catholic Father spoke to the UCA News in the context of a protest that took place after the murder and at least 14 other cases of atrocities that took place in the first quarter of April 2018 in TN:

The priest said a lack of strong political leadership in the state remains a major issue. Tamil Nadu is not ruled by the pro-Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). But the local political party — named All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam — which runs the government “is depending on the BJP for policy and advice on the affairs of the state. Naturally, the local Hindu forces feel emboldened to attack Christians,”

The fact that the BJP-RSS are rapidly sneaking into Tamil Nadu was proved once again recently, when the mindless Hindutva hardliners – not content to solely blaming the Muslims for the pandemic, disrupted the burial of a coronavirus-affected Roman Catholic doctor in Chennai by throwing stones. Naturally, the hate politics would catch on well with the police force that comprises mostly upper caste, land-owning Hindus.

Hypermasculine culture: The NIE article on the Kovilpatti JM’s and his team’s fateful visit of the Sathankulam police station states how the ASP and DSP in Sathankulam police station made no acknowledgment of the presence of the investigation team and instead the ASP “flexed his muscles and biceps”!

Like caste and religion, the muscle-flexing hypermasculinity ingrained in Indian culture plays a very important role in shaping the behaviour, in particular custodial behaviour, of the Indian police. Let us not go into the severely underreported (and unpunished) statistics (from NCRBNCATPUDRPUCL etc.)  of custodial rape, curative rape (rape as punishment) and millions of cases of sexual harassment, molestation and humiliation committed by the police. But let us note that the reports are still primarily concentrated around the rapes committed against women.

But custodial rape, molestation and other forms of sexual violence on men by the police are not infrequent. Jayaraj and Bennicks were victims of rape as well as mutilation of genitals and anus.The punitive connotation of a man undergoing rape in police custody is similar but not the same as the custodial rape of a woman. In the case of the male victim, the homophobic police expects him to feel debased as he has been demoted to the level of a woman.

As many have discussed during the last few days, Indian films often play an important role in glorifying the hegemonic heteromasculine police: the Dirty Harry. Though the director of the famous police-movie Singham has been quick to apologize, the disease has already spread too deep within. Even an oppressed class/caste/gender identity falls short to the identification with this unlimited State-approved muscle-power.

  1. How do we react? What do we react to? 

Subservience of a section of the upper/middle class to the State: Unsurprisingly, a section of the higher strata in the Indian society (for whom the police exists to save it from the working class and government and the army exist to save it from Pakistan, and now, China) defended the actions of the police during lockdown on social media – “What else can police really do? People just don’t listen!” Such arguments often flow towards what one might call the Siachen Syndrome, or in other words, heatedly pointing out that the government and the police do us a great favour by doing their job. This façade of righteousness and law-abiding subservience, however, naturally falls apart when the inconveniences strike closer to home.

Nevertheless, once again we, a section of the same socio-economic class, react to certain deaths – such as Floyd’s or Jayaraj’s and Bennicks’ or others’ – to the point of demanding justice for the dead at least on social media. Such deaths appeal to our hearts, our inner sense of justice. The contradiction arises when we recognize that “true” justice for the dead effectively means justice for living, and moreover, those sacred rights of the living are likely to come only at the cost of what we have learned to identify as our own right to consumption. Just as the rights of workers are directly contradictory to the “right to profit” of our family businesses, the rights of the marginalized ‘police suspects’ to even a fair trial is contradictory to our rights to safety, since who doesn’t know that poverty begets crime! Once we realise this, we learn quickly that it is better to be safe than sorry. These are just some of the ways of thinking that shape the way we react to such incidents.

A few among many recent cases of custodial torture/murder of Muslims and Dalits: The J&K Deputy Superintendent Davinder Singh, who gladly boasted about his reputation for custodial torture to the press, got bail during lockdown. The inhuman custodial torture inflicted by Singh and other police officers on Afzal Guru as well as Guru’s mock trial and hanging did not create a social media storm and definitely did not lead to Singh’s arrest, though thankfully, Singh’s proved association with Lashkar-e-Tayyaba and Hizb-ul-Mujahideen did. If horrifying violence is a trigger for our empathy, and our inherent sense of fairness and justice is another, why were the media/social media protests missing then and why are they missing today? Is it because the media did not carry out spectacular descriptions of Guru’s plight? Or is it because we aren’t comfortable raising our voices for the rights of a suspected terrorist? It seems that our mind prioritizes certain atrocious deaths over others. We not only argue with ourselves over whether the tortured or the dead is guilty or not guilty, but also whether he is worth our time and empathy – partially determined by how threatened we feel by his demands for justice.

The question arises not only in the cases of alleged terrorism. A couple of months before the lockdown started, during the anti-CAA protests, a 66 year old Maulana and several minor residents of his orphanage were picked up by the Muzaffarnagar (UP) police as suspected protesters. Despite the allegation being false, the Maulana and the hostel residents were stripped and beaten in the biting cold and several minors were sexually tortured in police custody, just like Jayaraj and Bennicks were. The news barely made it to the media and was fairly ignored by the social media. In another recent case of custodial torture associated to the anti-CAA protest, a young Muslim lawyer was given electric shocks by the UP police while being held in custody, in order to extort fabricated testimonial.

Recently in Rajasthan’s Barmer, a young Dalit scrap shop owner named Jitender Khatik died in police custody. He was the eldest among his siblings, had a wife and a 5 year old child. When his family finally got to see his body, they said, his mouth was wide open, though there wasn’t much blood involved. Till the beginning of March, none of the police officials were punished, though the family got compensated financially and with a job. Then the lockdown began. The news barely made a ripple.

A young Assamese student named Jayanta Borah was picked up by Assam police and Indian Army on 15th June and was brutally killed in police custody. The national media was completely silent about this extra-judicial murder.

A Bangladeshi national named Bakul Mian who came along with two others to India with a valid passport and tourist visa was unable to go back home because of the lockdown. He was subsequently arrested by the police and, despite repeated pleas, was not released. This man allegedly died in jail custody in Assam. Neither the Indian government, nor the Indian mainstream media or even social media seemed aware of the incident, let alone interested.

We spoke earlier about the case of the Dalit fisherman named Vijayrajan and his young 13 year old brother and cousin being subjected to violent custodial torture in Thanjavur, Tamil Nadu. Nobody heard about it.

The reports of the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) and various rights groups document custodial torture/deaths of Dalits and Adivasis every year. Young boys and girls and a few middle aged ones – caught for petty theft, drug peddling, prostitution etc.  – are arrested for cases both real and fabricated, and a section of Adivasis, as alleged terrorists as well. Both the mainstream media and social media are silent on these issues. An answer to why this is lies in an article in The Print, where the author discusses the historical silence of the upper caste audience at the massacre of Dalits. Our internal process of deprioritizing most cases of custodial torture/murder comes from that internal sense of justice that we acquire as we grow into our socio-economic position. It would not be too much of an exaggeration to compare this internal sense of justice with the police’s urge to ‘teach a lesson’. Both are products of the social-political-economic forces that shape us; in the former case, it manifests as indifference, while in the latter it manifests as violence and aggression.

It is however far from the truth that we are more accusatory than supportive towards the protests around Floyd or Jayaraj-Bennicks’ deaths. Let us end this section on a positive note. While it is true that millions of cases of atrocity have remained and will remain unaddressed, it is also a useful strategy to escalate certain suitable cases to the point where the resulting campaign benefits the millions who are still alive. The campaigners must be cautious though. In one way it is good that that the Thoothukudi victims have a name and a face, unlike say the migrant workers dying on the road back home or the Dalit youths dying in police custody across the nation. Whether this case is powerful enough to inspire a movement where the name would become a symbol rather than an individual identity remains to be seen.

  1. What can the police do?

This part of the article talks about the extent, meaning and possibilities of reform. We already saw how reforming the police in an isolated fashion does not resolve anything. There are a number of deeply interrelated issues both external as well as at the level of human consciousness that need to undergo revolutionary changes for any kind of ‘reform’ to make sense.

Law and Constitution: It is well-known that the custodial torture/murder violates Articles 20(3), 21, 22(1) of the Constitution and that there are enough laws nationally and internationally that oppose such atrocity. In general, there are laws against casual arrests without prior investigation, use of force without prior permission (that too minimal necessary force for exceptional cases), and extortion of information by force; in short, there is a law against every violent action committed by the Indian police. But it is also well-known that this is all only on paper. A 2018 report says 133 out of 136 IPS officers failed in at least one subject, including Indian Penal Code and Criminal Procedure Code, in their revaluation exam. While examinations do not fully capture a man’s abilities, this point can be noted for what it’s worth. It is also to be noted that the Indian police has no training in respecting human rights, except as a subject perfunctorily discussed at the very beginning of their police training.

Inclusiveness within the force: While keeping in mind the important question whether oppressed sections of society should join the same administration that oppresses them, the Indian police force must recruit Muslims, Dalits and Adivasis to ensure their proportional representation. According to 2013 data, 53% of the Indian prisoners are Muslims, Dalits and Adivasis, even though they add up to only 39% of the Indian population. The IPS currently has only 3-4% Muslims among their recruits. According to a report in The Wire, only four Indian states have SC prisoners in proportion to or less than their population in the State and in case of STs, it is only three states. The fact that 68% of the seats reserved for SCs were left empty at the end of last year’s recruitment drive in UP, despite mounting crime, shows the dire need of countering such a trend. The presence of women and transgenders must be increased by a considerable amount as well. Just as until 1902 Indians were not allowed to apply for officers’ positions, the present Indian police barely has representation of various oppressed sections as one goes higher up in the ranks. Moreover, it is not enough to just include these sections in the force in all the ranks; they should also be deputed appropriately so as to enable them to implement their deeper understanding and empathy with oppressed communities.

Self-critique and punishments for custodial murder: While the Delhi Police Commissioner is most likely the only official who has (surprisingly) apologized for the brutality of his police during the lockdown, several retired police officers and IPS officers have expressed their opinions about custodial violence in a somewhat self-critical manner after Jayaraj and Bennicks were killed. The suggestions included the use of body cameras for recording both the actions of the police and the accused, appointing counsellors for police officials, developing better ‘people skills’, applying ‘scientific methods’ for interrogation etc. Although knowing how all these methods can potentially be appropriated and compromised or tampered with, it is unclear how any of it could really be useful on a mass scale. In particular, the Madurai Bench of the Madras High Court that has taken the suo moto cognizance of the two deaths has suggested counselling and Yoga for the police, though there was no mention of arranging counselling for the victim of custodial violence.

A retired police officer, who declined to disclose his name, suggested a change of attitude and strategy, speaking to The Lede:

The underlying principle is that arrest for relatively minor offences should be reduced. In such cases, the investigation officer may issue a notice to the accused to appear before him for the purpose of investigation. This can be seen as an extension of the principle that bail is the rule and jail is the exception.

A retired Judge told The Lede:

It is surprising that the accused policemen have only been suspended. They should have been arrested, as was done to the killers of George Floyd in the United States. The inquiry and trial should thereafter be completed expeditiously, and if the accused are found guilty, harsh exemplary punishment must be given, so that policemen throughout India know that they cannot continue behaving as they did during the British Raj.

In a few rare cases the offender cops do get punished. The Thoothukudi SI – Srikumar from the Nadar community who had beaten the innocent youth to death in the same Sathankulam police station, was suspended and during that phase he attempted suicide. Perhaps it was the anxiety of losing his career, or perhaps it was his internal sense of justice and self-critique – we will never know. But he is now back to his job.

The terrorism cases are more difficult to discuss, thanks to the collective consciousness of uncritical hatred and fear that the State, police, army, and mainstream media has cultivated among the masses. However, as has been seen in the case of Afzal Guru and the recent release of three Kashmiri men – acquitted of all charges after 23 years of imprisonment – and in the cases of thousands of falsely charged Adivasi men and women, there is undoubtedly a desperate need for collective criticism.

Understanding human rights and humanity:

“Manvadhikaar karyakartaon ko sadak par kuchal dena chahiye (human rights activists should be crushed on roads).” – WhatsApp post shared by former Bastar Inspector General of Police SRP Kalluri

As stated in an opinion piece in The Wire, “The persistence of inhuman treatment makes it apparent that India is determined to protect violence by the police.” India is one of nine countries that have yet to ratify the 1987 UN Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment. Naturally, the Indian State-Corporate nexus makes all efforts to keep the police de-humanized, including suppressing the data of police atrocity. Especially in rural areas, there are also systematic checks conducted by pro-Hindutva grassroots teams to see if certain police personnel are sympathetic towards the local people and, if found guilty, are summarily transferred. Moreover, the hypermasculine administrative system keeps forcing every employee to be “sufficiently cruel” or else, perish.

On the other hand, a concerned civil society group or an NGO counselling the police to evolve it into a more humane and just entity, as has been suggested now and tried earlier in many places without any significant effect, is unlikely to work, or even to be considered with seriousness by the State. In any case, such a step requires a complete philosophical and practical shift in the police routine (and runs contrary to the function police forces perform as an enforcement arm of the State) and allotment of a considerable amount of funding for the already underfunded department. It suffices to say that it has been repeatedly tested and proved that “official tolerance can reduce arrest rates” all across the world, but such measures have remained rare, isolated examples of a social experiment.

In general, in every part of the world, the constitution of a police force by the ruling class has been essentially inhuman and used for the purposes of oppression and extraction. The police came into existence to intimidate and control the working masses as they are systematically deprived of their rights and turned into slaves and bonded labourers or a source of cheap labour. Historically, just as the role of the police in the US was from slave patrols serving the white slave-owners, the Indian police came to exist as a weapon of the British colonizers. The model was based on the 1822 paramilitary model of the Royal Irish Constabulary – a “‘practical prototype’ for policing indigenous populations who, in the main, required a coercive arm.[2] Replacing the lethels hired by the Zamindars, the police in British India were appointed for collecting revenue from the poor rural Indians along with acting as security guards for the British officers and their families. Since its inception till date, just like the Royal Irish Constabulary, the India police were kept isolated from any human contact with the locals as a strategic rule. Unlike the Russian police during the 1917 revolution, they never really joined forces with any mass movement and continued to side with the rulers – serving them as well as enjoying their own power at the cost of the citizens.

Thus, history clearly shows that the police is ‘an arm of the State’ and not constituted to ensure the ‘security of the people’, so it would seem that raising a hue and cry about police atrocity and violations of human rights is practically meaningless unless one is ready to question in some form the inherently violent nature of the State itself. Moreover, one must come to terms with the fact that raising protests or even questions is bound to face retaliation from the State irrespective of how peaceful the process of questioning is.

There are innumerable examples of when the State turned a deaf ear towards peaceful protests and moreover, represses them. The recent communal Delhi pogrom led by the Hindutva terrorists, vehemently supported and aided by the Delhi police, that led to the vandalization of peaceful protests (heavily led by Muslim women) and the death of more than fifty people including a 80 year old woman and a 15 year old boy – is a good example of the police willingly helping the State with its anti-constitutional ploy. As for Tamil Nadu, other than the case of lathicharge on peaceful anti-CAA protesters in Washermenpet, one must also recall the police violence on the peaceful Jallikattu protesters as well as vandalization of private property of the local residents by the police in 2017. The incident of violence was preceded by the first few days of friendliness feigned by the same police that made many protesters wonder whether even the police had been swept over by the Tamil Nationalist sentiments. No such luck. Countless such examples can be found against strikes for wage-hikes, resisting forced evictions, amendments to the law, and so on.

In fact, to the contrary, the governments’ interests lie in actively keeping the ‘conflicts’ alive so that when they need to distract from their inhumane anti-people activities like selling off forest lands or diluting labour laws, there are always ready-made enemies available to be presented to the people. The police or the army can then dominate these enemies and win brownie points for the State. Once again, the police have their path paved for them; this is no place for discussing humanity.

Going almost two decades back, one may recall the efforts of the Committee of Concerned Citizens (Hyderabad) in Andhra Pradesh in bringing the Government of AP and the guerrilla members of the CPI(ML)PW together to a peace talk in 2002, hoping for an end to the killings on both sides. Whereas PW, advertised by the State as a group of ‘bloodthirsty ruffians’, respected the five week ceasefire, mutually decided upon as a precondition for the meeting, the state police continued its brutal repression of civilians and fake encounter killings. It was one such killing of six activists that finally ended the ceasefire on the side of PW.[3] The next such effort failed as well due to the “stubborn attitudes shown by the state government”, which was not seeking peace but only ways to usurp the Adivasi lands. This case is a good example of how the police serve the government, which in turn serves the corporate houses.

  1. What can we do? 

Looking for alternatives to police: Since the Indian State is not going to magically engage in any kind of self-reform or start taking care of its people overnight, alternatives must be found within people’s movements. But what kind of movements might have the answers? It has been argued for good reasons that the NGO-ization of socio-cultural-legal movements (including the idea of isolated police reforms) as well as the constant need for State approval among the trade union movements have weakened the forces of resistance. The best they can offer are short-lived solutions – temporary reliefs. It is as the American social reformer Frederick Douglass wrote about the Christmas holidays granted to the plantation slaves:

From what I know of the effect of these holidays upon the slave, I believe them to be among the most effective means in the hands of the slaveholder in keeping down the spirit of insurrection. Were the slaveholders to abandon this practice, I have not the slightest doubt it would lead to an immediate insurrection among the slaves. These holidays serve as conductors, or safety-valves, to carry off the rebellious spirit of enslaved humanity.

Talking about ‘rebellious spirit’, and also since we were on the subject of PW, an example of an alternative system can be sought among the Janatana Sarkars – ‘liberated State/police-free zones’ in Chhattisgarh – established by the PW step-by-step since the 1980s. Without the intervention of the State-appointed police, how did these zones function in terms of local crime management? By local crime, one does not mean the decades-long anti-Constitutional crimes committed by the State or the police or the ruthless State-sponsored local militia Salwa Judum, or its later BJP versionsGautam Navlakha’s article (2010) gave a first-hand glimpse of how the PW revolutionary people’s committees undertook this task at that point, while also developing farming, education and cultural activities, and very importantly carrying out struggles for raising wages.

Had the State not been killing the activists and selling the lands of the Adivasis (thus essentially killing them as well, in addition to making them vulnerable to malnutrition and disease), the kinds of crime that the Janatana Sarkars (JS) would have dealt with in the form of collective discussions with the villagers, are land disputes, alcohol issues, atrocity on women etc. On rare occasions, there would be murder cases over land or some other possession or even money. But “JS Constitution does not follow death for death, as matter of principle”, Navlakha informed us, the punishment could be monetary, payable to the victim, “in inverse proportion to the class of the peasant”, or a sentence to labour camps, where the accused was “taught revolutionary politics” and was reformed.

Community participation: Without going into the debates around armed struggles and definitions of nationalism (though Navalakha did, often critically at the PW as well), Navalakha’s description simply indicated that the Janatana Sarkars in Chhattisgarh took care of the people and in turn were cared for by the people. Let us forget for the moment that Navalakha has been jailed (under precarious conditions) and hence the State may define any question raised by him as illegitimate. Let us rather ask in the perspective of his article, if a small group of activists with limited resources could achieve a pro-people social system despite constant State repression, can the State not replicate such a model on a mass scale?

This is of course a rhetorical question. However, one is inclined to note how the concept of police is replaced in Navalakha’s description of Janatana judiciary by that of community participation – a concept essentially absent in the very philosophy behind the formation of Indian police. Indian police was never meant to mingle with the ‘native’, which is why, as we indicated earlier and as Balagopal too has mentioned in his articles on the police, if a police personnel was seen being close to the locals, he was immediately transferred, replaced by an ‘outsider’, who is unfamiliar, unconcerned, and unsympathetic about the losses that he was going to cause the locals. This does not account for the Salwa Judum-like militia, which is essentially formed by the locals. Under usual circumstances, despite remaining at the forefront of the brutal attacks, they are not really included within the fold of police. Their status is that of hired goons that the police work hand in hand with, until they become dispensable.

In contrast to the police, the Panchayati Raj was indeed proposed as a means for grassroots citizen participation. However, in the absence of any real pro-people agenda, the Panchayat system created more layers of classist, casteist, communal, hypermasculine, and politically corrupt bodies of governance, in collaboration with the police and the goons, encouraging coercion, nepotism, bribery, and moral policing. Moreover, like the police, the Panchayats are legally directly under the jurisdiction of the government in terms of transfers, discharges etc. of the officials. Police reform cannot be imagined without resolving the very basic Constitutional issues that these so-called community projects are facing 73 years after independence. Similar issues have surfaced for the Adivasis due to the hierarchical nature of the chieftains, who resorted to the police to dominate their ‘subjects’ whenever required and also contributed to local militia like Salwa Judum. Moreover, the token gratifications granted by the government to the Gram Sabhas have repeatedly been proved as useless whenever real threats came in the way.

Parallels can be drawn with trade unions and NGOs working in the urban setup. However, now and then, certain progressive legislative steps have been implemented towards increasing citizen participation (and reducing police intervention) even in recent times. The 2014 amendment of the Street Vendor Act that ensured 40% participation of the vendors in the Town Vending Community, was one such step. But such laws are not of much significance, as has been proved many times during the lockdown at the cost of financial loss and harassment of many vendors.

One may ask how any of these are related to the custodial death of Jayaraj and Bennicks since the class and caste they belonged to were not among those facing the harshest police atrocity. The relevant point here is the interrelation of socio-political-economic-cultural aspects that play explicit and implicit roles behind such crimes. The nature of such atrocities is to trickle down deeper and deeper and eventually catch up with even the safest of us.

Looking for examples in the international scenario: In the US, we have recently been exposed to the idea of defunding the police (in Seattle and Minneapolis) – the first time in a democratic country. The organic demand from the community is to invest heavily on community projects and implement ‘development’ from the bottom in order to create an environment less and less conducive for crime. The immediate demands at this point are centered around the US police system, and not so much about questioning the role of the ‘global police’ that the United State likes to assume.

Hawzhin Azeez pointed out the possible shortcomings of such movements while writing about the system of democratic autonomy in Rojava. Though politically distinct, the Kurdish liberation movement is comparable to the Janatana Sarkar in that they too have founded alternative social systems completely barring the entry of the State and the police in their grassroot organization of resistance, in their attempts to empower women, invest in education etc. As Azeez said, the injuries caused to the Black Americans, the Kurds, and the Indian Dalits and Muslims are not so different in nature. It may seem impossible to connect these isolated anti-State movements, given their geographical positions and varied political beliefs and motives. Nevertheless, it is perhaps becoming more and more vital, in the face of increasing brutality from States, that a larger number of channels of acknowledgement and support begin to open up between these. Murray Bookchin – the social theorist highly revered by the activists in the Rojava movement – rightly said: “If we do not do the impossible, we shall be faced with the unthinkable.

While African Americans fight for their rights in the US, a paper on police reform in some of the heavily policed African countries states the need of freeing the police from the politics in a democratic State mechanism. To have an efficient and transparent police system, it says, there must exist “an independently functioning, effective police force service commission”, comprising a carefully mixed group of representatives who have a vital stake in its functioning. The commission supervises the entire police force except the Inspector-General of Police (IGP), who is appointed by the President and in turn supervises over the police force service commission, but for a short fixed term in order to avoid unwarranted political influence over the position. An equivalent ‘reform’ might amount to dubious results in the Indian context. There is no dearth of independently functioning arms of the State informally supervising over the police. Although, the idea of a supervisory body comprising the affected people as a considerable majority can be explored in line with the essential community participation discussed above.

In short, gradually increasing community participation and gradually forcing the State (hence police) to reduce its interference are the paths that several differently motivated groups are looking at.

What is crime: Before we take our ideological pick, let us take a look at ourselves. An entitlement to be protected by the State, even at the cost of being abused by the same State when the State feels the need, is a habit that we acquire as we grow up under a punitive social system. Therefore, it is difficult to deny the protector State the jurisdiction to eliminate the ‘threats’, or in other words, the jurisdiction to kill and mutilate as it sees fit. It is another matter that the ‘threat eliminator machine’ is bound to turn into a threat eventually, but a more urgent and difficult problem lies in how we ourselves look at crime, since crime is all that the Indian police is about:

Whereas it is expedient to reorganize the police and to make it a more efficient instrument for the prevention and detection of crime; – Preamble of the 1861 Police Act

There is no universal rule of Ethics that tells us what crime is. Funnily enough, just as the State creates the police under the pretext of fighting ‘crime’, it is the State that also begets ‘crime’ as well as defines it. Most crimes are defined by the ruling class, just how it was defined by the British in colonized India, how it is defined today by the upper caste Hindu Sarpanch in a village Panchayat, by the male head of the family in a household, the one in a higher position of power in a hierarchical relationship. However, to restrict the discussion within the legal premises, let us quickly revisit our fear around ‘crime’, ‘criminal’ and the police.

Firstly, as it is almost the end of the article, let us for the last time go back to Jayaraj and Bennicks. A lot of the police violence that happened during the lockdown was essentially defined as prevention of unpermitted access to public space. Often, such actions are termed as ‘loitering’ that the police across the world have been historically designed to prevent. There are two broad reasons behind it. The police served the upper middle class, which possessed a paranoia against the ‘loitering lumpen class’. It is as Sidney Harring wrote: “The criminologist’s definition of ‘public order crimes’ comes perilously close to the historian’s description of ‘working-class leisure-time activity.[4] But the more important reason was that it was the ‘loitering lumpen class’ that provided the State (read, the Corporate) with free labour. Therefore they had to be arrested and put in camps where they were forced to labour as punishment. The ploy sounds uncannily familiar in today’s India in its treatment of Adivasi, Dalit and Muslim.

Secondly, crimes, though committed (or defined as having been committed) by the poor, are ‘owned’ by the corporates. Not only owning the enforcement gangs and political goons, poaching, alcohol, drugs, prostitution and pornography businesses, not only refusing to pay wage, price, compensation etc. and thus creating an abysmally disbalanced economic system that forces people to resort to petty crimes, but even ‘harmless’ actions fabricated as crime by the State such as ‘begging’ or the ‘beef business’ are essentially funded by corporate houses on a mass scale.

Thirdly, we must find ways to de-stigmatize petty crime and jail, and struggle to find consistently empathetic ways to deal with them. We must constantly ask ourselves when and why we ourselves resort to the police while belonging to a collective space as well as a personal space. The question is easier asked than it is answered. But the ‘defunding’, if necessary, must be as socio-cultural as it must be economic. It is also related to how we look at our own property and way of living.

Lastly, while we question the State, the police and ourselves, we must learn to deal with our fear of retaliation from all these entities. After all, it is the fear that strengthens the beast.

Since we have been reading Balagopal, let’s end with him as a temporary conclusion to this ongoing discussion cum documentation. Whether or not we agree with the need of complete abolition of violence as a means to suppress or resist the suppression, let us listen to what Balagopal (in favour of the abolition, though not without dilemma[5]) has to say on this matter:

For every crime that is committed, society carries some responsibility, as well as the individual who has committed it. Society has created the conditions that impel or motivate the person to commit the crime. It is therefore partly responsible for it, along with the individual who has intentionally taken the decision to commit the offence. Punishment, therefore, should not hold the individual fully responsible for the crime. This is precisely what Death Penalty does. It holds the murderer 100 per cent responsible for the murder. Of Capital and Other Punishments, K. Balagopal


Thanks to TNLabour, CPDR, Chennai Covid Citizens’ Support Group for Migrant Workers, Groundxero, Migrant Workers Solidarity Network, Shiva Shankar, Madhusudhan, Vijay, Alok and Deepti for resources, discussions and edits.


[2] The ‘Irish’ policeman and the Empire: influencing the policing of the British Empire—Commonwealth, Irish Historical Studies, Vol. 36, No. 142, Ireland and the British Empire-Commonwealth (November 2008), pp. 173-187

[3] Understanding Maoists, N. Venugopal, Setu Publication

[4] Policing a Class Society, Sidney Harring, New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 1983.

[5] Paper presented at a workshop on ‘The State, Policing, and the Law: Understanding the Genealogies and Nature of Police Violence in India’, V. Geetha, July 19-20, 2019, JNU, Delhi.


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