Sarasamma has bottled up her sorrow. Just two weeks ago, her family was rejoicing as her 64-year-old husband Sugathan turned entrepreneur with a small automobile workshop at Vilakkodu at Kollam district in Kerala. Today, her husband is no more, and the initial capital invested in the business has all but vanished.
Pausing between sentences, the 62-year-old recalls how her expat husband stumbled upon a small piece of land to start his new venture. “We had lived in Muscat for more than 35 years, and he had returned only a month ago to start the business. He happened to spot a property not very far away from home,” Sarasamma narrates. That piece of land eventually led to his death.
What played out in Kerala's backyard is a sad saga of its political system’s crushing blow on a small entrepreneur, snatching away his dignity, and pushing him to suicide.
On February 23, Sugathan was found hanging from the beam of the mechanic’s shed he had built just a few days ago. The family says Sugathan chose to take his own life after being harassed by members of the All India Youth Federation (AIYF), the CPI’s youth wing, who allegedly refused to let him start his business even after taking bribes from him. As the family grapples with the tragedy, the death has sparked a furore in Kerala.
Laws of the land
Like many other men in Kerala, Sugathan left for the Middle-East nearly four decades ago to earn a living. Even if Kerala could not provide him with satisfactory employment, he always nurtured a dream – returning to his homeland and setting up his own business. Both his sons grew up and joined him in his work in Muscat. But his dream remained unrealised, until January 2018, when he found a piece of land in Kerala he could rent out.
“It was a small piece of land, just about 15 cents. He had tried several times earlier to buy land on his own. After many failed attempts he decided to rent this one out,” says Sarasamma. But it turned out that the land-use classification was under dispute - AIYF party workers claimed that it was classified as agricultural land under the Kerala Conservation of Paddy Land and Wetland Act.
The family claims that when they approached the village panchayat, they were given an unofficial confirmation by officials to go ahead with the construction of the workshop. “My father had approached the village panchayat president and the secretary to seek permission to set up the workshop. They told us to go ahead immediately,” says Sujith, Sugathan’s eldest son. The family was told that the land wasn’t classified as farmland anymore and seeing several other such establishments come up nearby, encouraged them.
“Since we were asked to quickly set up the workshop, we pledged all the gold we had to start the business and raised about Rs 4 lakhs,” says Sarasamma.
“We were almost done with the construction by February 17. Next day was a Sunday and none of us visited the site. On Monday, when we went to the site early in the morning to resume work, we saw an AIYF flag planted on the site. This devastated my father and he got very upset,” recalls Sujith.
Caught in political crossfire
Sugathan approached the AIYF to solve the problem, but in vain.
“My father was harassed. He was made to wait for several hours, at different places and at odd times by the AIYF workers. He spent a lot of money on them as they demanded bribes to settle the issue. But they would simply take the money and ask my father to return another day,” says Sujith.
“He never told us who the money went to, but he did spend a lot on them. I knew that he was withdrawing money from the Oman Bank. The day before he killed himself, he held his grandson and cried, lamenting that he had spent a lot of money on the party workers,” recalls Sarasamma.
The family believes that Sugathan could have been caught in the political crossfire between the CPI and CPI (M), brought on by another local business. According to Sujith, the land his father had taken on rent to set up his workshop was denied to Janata Garage by the panchayat officials, owing to political conflict. “Janata Garage’s owners are supporters of CPI, while the panchayat members are with the CPI (M). When Janata Garage approached the panchayat for the same piece of land earlier, the request was denied,” says Sujith. “When we were given the same land, it must have irked them. They bribed AIYF workers to protest against us.”
Following Sugathan’s death, the police have so far arrested three AIYF workers viz. Imesh, Girish and Sathish Kumar, for abetment to suicide. While Girish was arrested on Wednesday, Imesh and Satish surrendered to the court. The three accused are now in judicial custody.
Meanwhile, R Saji Lal, the state president of AIYF, while talking to TNM denies all the charges leveled against the organisation, and maintains that their fight was always against the panchayat president for giving sanction to the project, although he accepts that his party workers did erect a flag on the land. “We never fought with Sugathan or his family. Harassing him and his family was never our agenda. We wanted to question how the panchayat officials could sanction the construction of a workshop on a piece of land that came under The Kerala Conservation of Paddy Land and Wetland Act,” says Saji Lal.
“Even if our workers had not put up the flag, they could not have moved forward with the project. That was our only bone of contention. None of our workers have demanded or accepted bribes from Sugathan or his family,” he asserts.
Meanwhile, the panchayat president of Vilakudy says that they never gave him a written permission but were indeed trying to help him. “Several such constructions have come up in such lands, we did not want to make their lives miserable,” he says.
He is, however, quick to point fingers at the AIYF workers. “Why didn’t they formally approach the panchayat officials if it was about the land classification? To date, the AIYF workers have not given us a formal complaint concerning the issue,” he says.
As the blame game continues, Sugathan’s friend Vijayan says that the saga is a reminder of how tough it is for expats to return to the country and stand on their own. “Things are not easy for us. It is in the air that nothing cannot be achieved without bribing officials,” says the 59-year-old. Vijayan himself has managed to open an automobile workshop, just like the one that Sugathan wished for, but now lives under the fear that perhaps one day it could happen to him.