From the Kerala government’s delay in appointing a special public prosecutor to the detached approach of the SPP, the 2018 case is fraught with alleged political influence, as most accused are local leaders of the ruling CPI(M) party.

Kerala Adivasi man Madhu, who was lynched in 2018
Delve Justice Tuesday, January 25, 2022 - 16:51

“It has been four years since my son was lynched. We don’t know why the trial has not started. We just want justice,” said a despondent Malli, the mother of a 30-year-old tribal man, A Madhu, who was lynched on February 22, 2018, in Palakkad district’s Attappadi, for stealing rice from a grocery shop. A special investigation team had filed a 3,000-page charge sheet in May 2018, named 16 persons as accused, and charged them with murder and offences under the Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989. Come February 22, it will be four years since Madhu was brutally beaten to death. And Madhu’s mother is still perplexed about why the trial has not commenced yet.

“They (the police) cite different reasons, which I do not understand. We have no money and influence. All the accused men have been walking freely all these years,” said Malli, who is clueless at this point on whom to meet to seek justice. When the case came up for hearing in the Mannarkkad SC / ST Special Court Tuesday, January 25, 2022, there was no legal representation for Madhu. The Special Public Prosecutor assigned to the case resigned from the post a week ago. 

The road to a trial was pocked with setbacks from the beginning. From the government’s delay in appointing a special public prosecutor to the detached approach of the SPP, the case, today, is fraught with alleged political influence as most accused in the case are local leaders of the ruling CPI(M) party. One of the accused,Shamsuddin, was elected as the CPI(M) branch secretary in September 2021, although the decision was withdrawn after much opposition. There were also allegations of the involvement of a member from the IUML party, an ally of the Congress-led United Democratic Front (UDF). Although Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan and other CPI(M) leaders condemned the incident, many blamed state inaction in promptly securing justice for Madhu.

Madhu was captured by a group of men in the buffer zone area of forest near Attapadi, where he was residing. The men accused him of stealing rice from a grocery shop, and brutally assaulted him. The mob then handed him over to the Agali police in Palakkad. However, on the way to the police station, Madhu collapsed and died in the police jeep as he was being taken to a Government Tribal Specialty Hospital at Kottathara. People across Kerala decried the incident and widely criticised “mob justice.”

Read: ‘What he stole is rice. The reason, hunger’: Shock over Kerala Adivasi man’s death

The protracted trial

After the charge sheet was filed, the hearing did not take place as the Mannarkkad SC/ST special court in Palakkad, which is looking into Madhu’s case, did not have a permanent judge. Then, the CPI(M)-led Kerala government took a long time to appoint a special public prosecutor in the case.

The ‘Justice for Madhu’ action council, which was formed soon after the Adivasi man’s murder, was strongly against the government-appointed public prosecutor, as they believed he had political connections. They then sought a special public prosecutor.

Initially, the Kerala government appointed Advocate P Gopinath the Special Public Prosecutor. “Later, in November 2018, the government cancelled this appointment order as Gopinath’s demands for temporary accommodation and office in Attapadi was not approved,” Suresh, the present chairman of the action council said.

The fee had also become a point of contention. The LDF government was reportedly not willing to afford the expenses for hiring P Gopinath. However, according to OnManorama, an RTI revealed that the government had spent more than Rs 2.59 crore towards the fees of senior counsels in at least five cases in the Kerala High Court. P Gopinath had contented the claims of fee and said there he was only asked to sign a consent letter, the report said.

AK Balan, then Minister for SC/ST Development in Kerala, had reportedly said that the appointment was delayed as the government did not feel the need to have an SPP for a single case.

The action council and family were not ready to hand over the case to the public prosecutor of the court as the post is mainly a political appointment, and most of the accused were part of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) or CPI(M) party.

Meanwhile, the initial members of the council withdrew from the body, alleging harassment. “We were all government servants. Ever since we started getting involved in this case, we had been receiving troubles. So we had to step down and some others took charge,” said a former leader of the ‘Justice for Madhu’ action council.

This is when an organisation called the Central Human Rights Forum (CHRF) stepped in to offer assistance to Madhu’s family. Advocate VT Raghunath was the president of CHRF. “The forum offered us help and Raghunath told us he would attend the case without any compensation. That is when the family and I filed a petition with the government to appoint him as the special prosecutor in the case. The government approved it and advocate Raghunath took charge in 2019,” Suresh said.

However, the family and the action council say they are regretting their decision now.

Lapse by Special Public Prosecutor

Advocate Raghunath appeared as the special public prosecutor for the official proceedings only twice. “We learnt that he did not even prepare the brief for the case. He never appeared in court. Every time the court called the case, it was postponed as the prosecutor was absent,” Suresh alleged.

A former member of CHRF, who sought anonymity, alleged that the organisation lacked credibility. “There should be an inquiry into the organisation. The Attapadi court had also criticised his continuous absence,” he said.

When Madhu was being assaulted, a few members of the mob captured the incident on the phone camera, with one man even clicking a selfie while the hapless Adivasi man was being hounded. These videos and pictures have served as digital evidence. However, the police told TNM that all the accused persons have sought a copy of digital evidence, which has further delayed the case.

In 2019, when one accused sought the digital evidence of the case, VT Regunath did not object to it, alleged the former CHRF member. The court ordered the police to give the evidence to the accused. “We all were shocked. One after the other, each accused started asking for it in court.  Currently, there are some procedural delays in officially handing over the evidence to the accused, but the police have to give them,” the member said.

“VT Raghunath has to explain why he did not appear in the court these three years and why he did not object to giving digital evidence to the accused,” Suresh said.

A week ago, on January 14, 2022, VT Raghunath resigned as the special public prosecutor in the case, citing health issues.

This was not the first time advocate Raghunath was embroiled in controversy. In the 1992 Sister Abhaya murder case, VT Raghunath had alleged that retired High Court judge, AV Ramakrishna Pillai tried to sabotage the case by transferring him from the CBI special court. However, human rights activist Jomon Puthenpurackal, who led the Sister Abhaya Case Action Council, alleged that it was VT Raghunath who tried to sabotage the case, by accepting the CBI’s initial version that Sister Abhaya had died by suicide.

Read: Sister Abhaya murder case: 28 years later, both accused found guilty

“The Kerala government should have done due diligence before appointing him as the special public prosecutor in an important case like Madhu’s lynching,” Jomon added.

Was Madhu subjected to custodial torture?

Meanwhile, there are also allegations that Madhu’s death was not just the result of the mob attack but also police custodial torture. After Madhu’s death, the Circle Inspector of the Agali police station had told TNM that Madhu had three cases of theft registered against him and that they had been trying to nab him for quite some time.

Forensic experts at the Thrissur Medical College, who conducted Madhu’s postmortem, had said that the young tribal man had died due to severe internal injuries. Apart from the injuries on his body and back of the head, his ribs, too, were broken in the brutal assault. Some reports also said that Madhu was allegedly assaulted a day before the killing, too.

Eyewitness statements to the Agali police also alleged inaction by forest officials despite being present at the site at the time of the assault, the Deccan Chronicle had reported. Madhu’s sister Chandrika alleged that it was a forest staff member who tipped off the accused about the young man’s presence in the forest. A Kundumbashree worker alleged that a forest jeep followed the mob of men as they were making Madhu walk to the town, making him carry a heavy bag on his shoulder.

“Madhu’s post mortem report said his body had bruises caused due to rolling sticks on him. We suspect lathi was used against him. Besides, it will take only 15 minutes to reach the Kottathra hospital from where the incident took place. But the police vehicle took an hour to reach the hospital with Madhu. We believe police and forest officials, who were present at the spot, are also involved in his assault,” Suresh alleged.

The Adivasi Bharat Mahasabha, a tribal organisation, had also demanded a comprehensive inquiry on Madhu’s death, and “expose the role of police and forest department in this killing.”

The action council is also in the process of seeking a CBI inquiry into these allegations of police torture.

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