'I have many times bought meals for the accused, and the police pay for it.'
Illustration: Dominic A Xavier/Rediff.com
The deaths of father and son Jayaraj and Beniks two days after being arrested by the Sathankulam police on the night of June 19, 2020, in the general hospital in Kovilpatti, Tuticorin district, has brought Tamil Nadu's Friends Of Police project into the limelight.
The Central Bureau of Investigation is probing the alleged police brutality that led to the father and son's deaths, a case that threatened to be India's George Floyd controversy.
News reports alleged that members of the Friends Of Police, a volunteers group set up to involve local youth in basic policing work for a retainership, may have been involved in provoking the policemen, leading to the police beating up the father-son in custody.
The Friends Of Police was started in 1993 in Ramanathapuram district by the then superintendent of police, Dr Prateek V Philip, and was meant as a community policing initiative where local youth would help spread awareness about preventing crime. Dr Philip is now a director general of police who heads the Tamil Nadu police's criminal investigation department.
Following the negative reports about the Friends of Police, its state administrator G Lourduswamy clarified that 'the youth in Sathankulam who were helping the police were not part of the state FOP, but were only involved in COVID-19 related work there'.
Stung by reports that the Friends of Police may have exceeded its brief, the Tamil Nadu government has now banned the outfit.
Did the Friends Of Police turn into an extra-judicial force? A Velmurugan, who has been involved with the FOP in Rameswaram for seven years, shares his experiences with A Ganesh Nadar/Rediff.com.
Velmurugan, 22 years old, says he had been interested in police work and social service from his school days, and he was part of the Boy Scouts, the National Cadet Corps, the National Service Scheme and the Junior Red Cross.
He says he has been going to the police station since he was 15 years old to help out, but was issued an FOP identity card only when he was in the first year of college and a white T-shirt with FOP printed on it.
The commerce graduate said he normally went to the police station at 10 in the morning and at 5 in the evening. "They call us for duty when there is work, otherwise I go back home," he says.
While reports say FOP volunteers were paid small sums, Velmurugan says he wasn't. But the respect the FOP invoked among villagers more than made up for it.
When elderly villagers come to the police station and they don't know how to write a petition, he writes it for them.
He was attached to the Rameswaram town police, Ramanathapuram district, in southern Tamil Nadu.
Rameswaram is a popular pilgrimage town. As there are regular temple festivals there for which huge crowds assemble, he used to work to control the crowds.
"If I see anyone misbehaving I don't interfere personally, I tell the police and they take action," he says.
When the police go on night patrol, they used to take him along sometimes. "I would go with them till midnight and then go home," he adds.
When there was a temple festival on, the policemen and home guards on duty in the town could not leave their posts. At such times, Velmurugan made sure they had water and food, and if they didn't he would go and get it for them.
"When they took a break, I would stand there till they came back," he says.
"I have worked with the FOP for so many years, I have no bad remarks against me, you can come and ask anyone here," he asserts.
"As for FOP having been banned, I have now decided to join the home guards," he adds.
While the FOP is a voluntary outfit, the home guards are paid when called on duty, he says.
Why not join the police itself since he has been with them for so long? "I cannot join the police as I am one-and-a-half inches shorter than the minimum height required."
His elder sister is a teacher and her husband is in the army. His younger sister is a lawyer while his father is a mason. "He is a daily wage-earner, but made sure we all got a good education," he says.
What about police brutality, has he seen any incidents?
"At the Rameswaram police station to which I was attached, they don't beat up the accused, I have never seen that happen," he claims.
"When the accused are remanded, I have many times bought meals for them, and the police pay for it."
And what of the ban on the FOP? "I am very upset by it. There might be bad apples among them, but all of us have been banned because of them," he says, adding that it was with a heavy heart that he returned his FOP identity card to the police.