Fence eating crop: Cases against cops in Kerala puts spotlight on police criminality

In the first two weeks of November, multiple cases of abuse towards women and children have been filed in the state where cops were booked as perpetrators.
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As per the Indian Police Foundation (IPF) Smart Policing Index 2021, which indicates the level of citizen satisfaction and trust, Kerala, with a score of 7.53 stood fourth after Andhra Pradesh, Telangana and Assam. It was also the only State to register a score of more than eight points in the Perception Index of Integrity and Corruption-free services.

But the recent spurt in the number of crimes, including those against women and children, in the state perpetrated by police officers, who are duty bound to protect people, has brought sharp focus into increasing criminality among the force in Kerala. This is apart from several allegations of custodial violence and torture that regularly surface in the state, reflecting its dismal record on the human rights front.

In the month of November alone, police officers in the state have been accused of crimes against women and children including gangrape. Two of these cases pertain to inappropriate behaviour towards survivors in the cases registered under the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act, 2012. 

On November 13, PR Sunu, a Circle Inspector (CI) with the Coastal Police Station in Kozhikode was held for interrogation by the police after a woman accused him of being part of a group of people who raped her. Sunu, who has several cases against him including rape, was taken in for questioning by the Thrikkakara police. 

On November 14, a civil police officer of the Kodanchery station in Kozhikode district was booked under provisions of the POCSO Act after he allegedly misbehaved with two sisters aged 12 and 13. The incident came to light when the girls were talking with their counsellor, who then informed the police. 

Based on a complaint filed by the girls' mother, a First Information Report (FIR) has been registered against the officer Vinod Kumar under sections 354 (assault of women) of the Indian Penal Code (IPC), section 7 (read with 8), 9 (read with 10) and 11 (read with 12) of the POCSO Act. Vinod has been absconding ever since the case was filed.

On November 12, TG Babu, an Assistant Sub-Inspector (ASI) with the Ambalavayal police station in Wayanad, was suspended on charges of sexually harassing a minor girl who is a rape survivor. According to reports, Babu misbehaved with her while she was being taken for evidence collection from the shelter home. A case has been registered under relevant sections of POCSO Act and the IPC, reports The Hindu. The Kerala State Commission for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes has also registered a case against Babu, who is absconding. 

Last week, another cop was arrested for allegedly blackmailing a woman and sexually abusing her for seven years. Sabu Panicker, grade Senior Civil Police Officer (SCPO) of Vigilance department in Thiruvananthapuram, had allegedly been raping the 40-year-old woman, by threatening to release her nude video.

In October, 2022, a policeman in Kochi was suspended from the service for stealing eight sovereigns of gold from his friend's house. Another cop was suspended in the same month after a video of him stealing 10 kg of mangoes from a shop surfaced.

"It is worse when people who are in a position of trust, like a teacher or a policeman, commit such crimes against women and children. The complainants will always have an anxiety in approaching the police, there will be a lack of faith in the system,” says lawyer and women and children’s rights activist J Sandhya. 

She feels it becomes all the more serious when children who are supposed to get protection from the police are violated. “There should be immediate action. They should not be in service any longer. Serious repercussions should follow,” says Sandhya.

Isolated incidents or a worrying trend?

Are these alleged crimes committed by police officers one-off incidents or do they point to growing criminalisation within the force that needs to be addressed? All the crimes listed were reported in a short span of time, questioning the assumption that such incidents are isolated. 

On October 23, Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan, wrote a post on his Facebook page, calling Kerala the best state in India when it comes to policing. Stating that there was a significant fall in the number of criminal cases registered in the state in the past six years, Vijayan said the government cannot agree with labelling the police on the basis of isolated incidents. "While the list of accolades is long, it is serious that some incidents which give a bad name to the police are happening. People responsible for such isolated incidents are defaming the force. No mercy would be shown to them," he wrote. The FB post was written a day after video footage of two brothers being assaulted by cops at Kilikollur police station emerged, sparking outrage.

In the same month, while attending a high-level meeting of police officers, the Chief Minister acknowledged the increasing criminality among the force in Kerala and said several officers have links with criminals and communal forces. In November, 2021, while answering a question by KK Rema, the MLA representing Vadakara, the Chief Minister said a total of 744 police officers in the state are facing criminal charges. While 691 of them are facing departmental action, 18 personnel have been dismissed from service.

On Saturday, November 12, the Chief Minister again expressed displeasure over “few bad apples” that are bringing a bad name to the force. 

Gender imbalance in police force

Gender sensitisation of police personnel and adopting appropriate measures for swift and salutary punishment to public servants found guilty of custodial violence against women are essential if crimes against women are to be reduced.

A long-standing demand to achieve this is increasing overall representation of women in the police force in all levels so that they constitute 33% of the force. But the performance of Kerala in this regard is dismal. Bureau of Police Research and Development (BPRD) data as on January 2020 shows that women representation in Kerala police force is 7.23%. The total number of police personnel in Kerala is 53,723. According to India Justice Report, 2020, which ranks states based on performance of police, judiciary and prisons, Kerala has slipped further in this front and may take another 117 years to achieve 33% representation.

According to a paper by B Sandhya IPS, Kerala and Maharashtra were first in recruiting women in the police department. The paper says that Kerala needs to open up police services in the state, laterally and horizontally, to both men and women equally to democratise it.

Criticism of CM Pinarayi’s handling of the force

Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan has been criticised on several occasions for his handling of the Home department, which falls under him. Even as the CPI(M)-led Left government came to power for a second term in 2021, he continued to head the Home department. Once, Thomas Isaac, a strongman of the ruling party and the finance minister in the previous term, had questioned the police action. "What made a section of the police act like criminals?" he asked after the custodial death of 26-year-old Sreejith, who was arrested in a suspected case of abetment to suicide in Kochi.

There have been numerous complaints against the police ever since Vijayan assumed office in 2016 including alleged extra-judicial murders of Maoists and custodial deaths and torture. In 2019, after four suspected Maoists were shot dead, the Communist Party of India (CPI), the second largest constituent in the Left Democratic Front coalition put the Kerala government in a spot by terming them ‘fake encounters’ in a report. In the last seven years eight people have been killed in 'encounters' by the police. 

While the Opposition leaders have many times spoken out against the lapses of the Home Department, a portfolio under the Chief Minister, the sharpest criticism came from within the party during Palayam area committee meeting in December 2021. Party leaders speaking at the event said the LDF government had no control over the police force but stopped short of criticising Pinarayi Vijayan.

The CM was forced to put his foot down when last month, two men, brothers Vignesh and Vishnu, were subjected to brutal police torture in a station in Kollam and a video of it had allegedly leaked. 

‘Faith of people in the police will be lost’ 

In 2020, National Human Rights Commission data showed Kerala, which witnessed eight custodial deaths in 2018-19 period, fares worse than the states of Bihar, Punjab, Chhattisgarh when it comes to police brutality.

When the force that is meant to protect your rights becomes violators of it, it can never be justified, says Byjunath, member, State Human Rights Commission (SHRC). “It is humiliating for the entire police force. Also the faith of the people in the police, who are supposed to protect their rights, will be lost. Such incidents should be strongly dealt with,” he says.

When complaints of police torture come to the SHRC, and when they come such news, the SHRC registers cases on their own, says Byjunath. “When such incidents happen, proper punishment should be given, so that it becomes a model. Recommendations to curtail this behaviour already exist,” he says. 

Lack of action against accused officials

Police officers in the state accused of custodial murder and torture often rejoin duty after a brief suspension period and are rarely punished. Most of the time this happens because they get help from their colleagues in tampering with evidence and delaying trials.

A police officer in Kerala who was found guilty of abusing power 18 times by the High Court and dismissed from service was reinstated in August this year. In an order recommending his reinstatement, ADGP Vijay Sakhare observed that the charges against Sreemon are minor when taken separately. The charges include unwarranted harassment of people and threatening of a witness among others. 

The Chief Minister recently made several statements regarding the need to rein in the police and have announced steps like installing CCTV cameras in police stations to ensure that no human rights violations take place. A directive by the Kerala High Court to expeditiously appoint a Chief Investigation Officer at the State Police Complaint Authority to investigate complaints against it has not been met with even after several months. During the passing out parade of the third batch of women battalion in May this year, Vijayan also said the government was keen on increasing women's representation in uniformed services. But these statements are yet to reflect on the ground. The measures taken by him to instil confidence among people regarding policing seems few and far between.

(With inputs from Cris)

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