Most Malayalis are proud of the state’s rich political past and overall social development. But there are some events that shake this myth of a politically matured and socially inclusive state.
The killing of Madhu, a tribal youth by a mob in Attappady in February 2018 for allegedly stealing rice shook Kerala’s consciousness and showed that caste and class discrimination was indeed a reality in the state. If Madhu's killing ended one myth, then another- that a Left government would deal with the Naxalite movement differently than the right wing would- has also been shattered.
The killing of four people who were allegedly Maoists by the Kerala police this week and then the arrest of two law students under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA) has rattled many in the state, especially those who believe in the Left ideology. The killing of the alleged Maoists is the third in a series of ‘operations’ carried out by 'Thunderbolt', an elite force of the Kerala police for dealing with anti-insurgency, ever since the Pinarayi Vijayan-led Left government assumed power in May 2016.
It was in 2015 that the Kerala High Court while hearing a petition by Syam Balakrishnan, who was detained and allegedly tortured by the ‘Thunderbolt’ commandos, observed that being a Maoist is not a crime in itself and a person cannot be imprisoned on the basis of this.
“If the individual or organisation abhors and resorts to physical violence, law agency can prevent or take action against individuals or organisations,” Justice A Muhamed Mustaque said in his judgement.
Though insurgency has not been much of a problem in Kerala in the recent years, the elite force exclusively for handling Maoists and Naxals was formed in 2008 when a Left government with VS Achuthanandan at its helm was in power.
The force, however, did not take a single life until 2016. The first time the name of the force was associated with an 'encounter' was in November 2016 when two Maoists- Kappu Devaraj and Kaveri A Ajitha- were shot dead in the Nilambur forest. The Communist government had been flayed at that time too, but neither did it make the government stop Thunderbolt from carrying out questionable encounters, nor did it lead to an introspection.
CP Jaleel, another suspected Maoist was killed in 2019. So far there are seven victims of the Thunderbolt operations under the Communist rule. And increasingly it is the Home department administered by the Chief Minister himself that is putting the government in a spot repeatedly- including the glaring and criminal lapses into the investigation of the deaths of two minor sisters in Walayar.
A special investigation team led by IPS officer Poonkuzhali was formed in March 2017 to probe the deaths of the Walayar sisters. The investigation into the deaths was being monitored by north Zone DGP Rajesh Diwan. But despite the high profile investigation, the shoddy case ended with all the accused getting acquitted by the First Class Additional Sessions Court on October 24.
"It was state Police Chief Loknath Behera himself who informed the media and the people in 2017 that the investigation had been entrusted with the north Zone DGP and other IPS officers. Weak evidence collection and not even a proper station Mahasar. This is the status of a case probed by an officer of the DGP rank," says MB Santhosh, Associate Editor of Metrovartha daily in his weekly column.
The inefficiency of the police force was in glaring display only a few months ago in the case involving IAS officer Sriram Venkitaraman. Despite the CM’s office promising justice, the blood examination of the IAS officer was delayed by hours, after a car he rode in mowed down journalist KM Basheer.
The string of goof ups and criminal negligence has made even fellow Left supporters criticise the government. Director Aashiq Abu who recently made the much-acclaimed movie Virus has used the term 'police-criminals' to describe the force.
"The Walayar case, hunt of Maoists and the incident in which a journalist was killed by a car driven by an IAS officer have shown that the government has no control over police criminals and bureaucrats. It's objectionable that a party like the CPI(M) which has scores of workers who had been subjected to state terrorism is not able to do anything about it," Ashiq Abu said in a Facebook post.
K M Basheer (L) and Sriram Venkitaraman
Ironically, Pinarayi Vijayan himself had been subjected to serious police torture during the Emergency. While in the opposition, he has been a fierce critic of the UAPA, calling it a draconian Act that has been often misused.
Senior journalist and political observer BRP Bhaskar, however, observes that the police administration in the state under Pinarayi Vijayan has been in a peculiar situation from the beginning.
“There is a DGP, and a police advisor (Raman Srivatsa) who is a former DGP. His human rights records are not stellar either. It seems there is an over dependence on the police force, which is not a healthy situation. Moreover, despite lapses in many cases, no strict action has been taken against such police personnel,” BRP says.
The two students arrested in Kozhikode under UAPA are CPI(M) workers. BRP Bhaskar says that just because CPI (M) is in power, that should not stop the police from taking action against erring members of the party, but in this case, he points out, the usage of UAPA was uncalled for.
“Slapping UAPA on people suggests that there is an attempt of denial of rights that are available to citizens. Imposing UAPA straight away denies certain rights which a person accused of a crime has- like the right to get bail. Such laws, which were passed in specific situations, now being used recklessly is clearly undemocratic and that is a problem we have been experiencing in Kerala for quite some time,” BRP adds.
He believes that in Kerala the situation does not warrant the use of such extreme measures by the state. “Maoists activists are there all over the country, but the threat they pose is being exaggerated by the police for selfish reasons. In the name of dealing with Maoists, the government is willing to close its eyes towards illegal activities (staged encounter) by the police. Even the CPI, an ally of the CPI(M), says that this is a false encounter. But the Chief Minister keeps on repeating the police version," he says.
It’s not just the CPI that has been vocal about the police ‘encounters’ and the arrest of the youth under UAPA, even CPI(M) Kozhikode district secretary P Mohanan has spoken out, stating, “UAPA should have been used with much caution and only after thorough investigation.”The CPI(M) Secretariat too has reacted and said in a statement that UAPA should not have been imposed on the students and CPI(M) had sternly opposed the Act and amendments while it was introduced by the union government.
Pinarayi Vijayan, whose advisors range from experts on science and technology to the media, seems unfazed. The backlash to the arrests, however, prompted him to seek an explanation from the DGP. The Home Department during the previous Left government was not given to the then Chief Minister VS Achuthanandan-but instead was held by Kodiyeri Balakrishnan, who is the current state secretary of the CPI(M).
When Pinarayi was sworn in as Chief Minister, he like many other CMs, kept the Home portfolio to himself, and hardly anyone questioned it. But the blunders of this department in the last three years, many times eclipsing the achievements of other government departments, has proved costly for people of the state.