Has Tamil Nadu CM Palaniswami lost control over his home department?

The police torture incident in Sathankulam has highlighted lacunae in police system

palaniswami-pti Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Edappadi K. Palaniswami during the AIADMK’s day-long fast on the Cauvery issue in Chennai | PTI

In October 2012, as the then Chief Minister J. Jayalalithaa addressed a gathering after laying the foundation stone for the construction of housing units for police personnel in Kancheepuram district, she was all praise for the home department. “The administration of law and order squarely depends on the leadership qualities of the person ruling the state. The ruler’s leadership qualities influence police performance,” she said. Eight years down the line, Chief Minister Edappadi K. Palaniswami’s qualities, and his claims to rule the state “the Amma way” or in the “name of Amma”, seem to have failed to influence the police performance. The handling the Sathankulam father-son death case has clearly exposed the malady of the ruling dispensation under Palaniswami, who is also the minister for home department.

On June 24, as entire Sathankulam went on a protest mode, demanding justice for Jayaraj, 58, and his son Bennicks, 31, both killed in a brutal custodial torture, the chief minister was in Coimbatore, reviewing coronavirus relief work in the city. “The father died of respiratory illness and the son died of heart attack.” Three days later, on June 28, he said “the case will be transferred to the CBI”. Apparently, the chief minister was well informed that the case has been taken up suo moto by the Madurai Bench of Madras High court; Kovilpatti Judicial Magistrate Bharathidasan was appointed to investigate into the police excess on the night of June 19. From day one, even as he is in charge of the home portfolio which handles law and order in the state, Palaniswami seemed to have been groping in the dark. At the first instance, after Sathankulam went into a protest mode, the two police officers alleged to have been involved in the case were shifted to the Armed Reserves. Subsequently, two sub inspectors—Raghu Ganesh and Balakrishnan—were placed under suspension. The SHO-inspector of police was also suspended.

Incidentally, Thoothukudi ASP D. Kumar and DSP C. Prathapan have also been transferred. While Kumar has been transferred and posted as ASP, Enforcement and Prohibition wing in the Nilgiris, Prathapan has been posted as DSP, anti-land grabbing cell in Pudukkottai. This transfer has been made when the matter is before the Madurai Bench and the court has initiated contempt proceedings against the officers. Moreover, the court has made Strong observations against these two officers after Magistrate Bharathidasan had submitted a report against them for non co-operation during investigation. The state home department and the chief minister who should have taken into account the proceedings in the court. A senior officer in the police department says that "this shows the height of arrogance of the ruling dispensation. I don't think the CM comprehended what he had done."

The court, for the first time in the history of the state, ordered revenue officials to take control over the Sathankulam police station and protect every bit of evidence. This came as a major embarrassment for the police department and its minister Palaniswami.

The entire batch of 24 officers in the Sathankulam police station was transferred in a single order after the court’s intervention. Thoothukudi Superintendent of Police Arun Balagopalan, who was shielded by the government till June 30, was shunted out. He was replaced by Villupuram SP S. Jeyakumar, while the South Zone IG post, which was held by Shanmuga Rajeswaran, was handed over to S. Murugan IPS. Incidentally, both the officers have antecedents of accusations against them.

The appointments of Jeyakumar and Murugan have been mired in controversy. While the former was named and probed by the CBI in the gutkha scam, the latter was embroiled in a sexual harassment case against a gazetted rank woman IPS officer. The woman IPS officer had launched a complaint against him and went to court, which is still under investigation.

Despite these moves to save the police personnel and the image of the government, the Madras High Court had gone a step ahead and asked the CB-CID to investigate the case till the CBI takes over. Highly placed sources in the police department say that the system has completely collapsed. “During any such excess, the chief minister will get an internal report from the home secretary, the DGP and the intelligence. Based on the reports, after discussion with the home secretary and the DGP, the chief minister or the home minister takes his own decision. These days, there is no such coordination happening in the department. The police personnel, like in Thoothukudi case, seem to have taken law into their hands,” said a senior IG rank officer, who has worked under both Jayalalithaa and Karunanidhi.

Apparently, Palaniswami doesn’t seem to have learnt from former leader Jayalalithaa’s, or even his own, mistakes. In May 2018, when 13 people were fired upon by the police during the Thoothukudi Sterlite protests, he said that “I too saw it on TV and came to know about it.” The Sterlite protest killings case too was handed over to the CBI and a commission to probe into the killings was set up under retired judge Aruna Jagadeesan. The one-man committee under Jagadeesan is yet to make any breakthrough in the case.