A year after his death, Basheer’s family and friends are still fighting the case where an IAS official has been accused of causing an accident that killed the promising journalist.

Basheer stands on a railway track running over the sea wearing a light violet shirt with both his arms raised up
news Human Interest Wednesday, August 05, 2020 - 19:29

There were two minutes between the last call that KM Basheer made and the accident that would kill him in the early hours of August 3, 2019. Parking his bike on the side of the Vellayambalam-Museum stretch in Thiruvananthapuram, Basheer, unit chief of three districts of the Siraj newspaper, was making a call to the production manager of the press, Subair. They spoke for three-and-a-half minutes on the finer details of printing that night’s paper before Basheer cut the call. Perhaps he checked something more on the phone and was just about to start his motorbike again when a swerving car running at a speed of over 90 km/hr hit him and crashed into the fence opposite the Museum compound.

Basheer breathed his last before the ambulance that hurriedly took him to the Medical College Hospital could even reach there.

Inside the car that hit him were an IAS official whose name had previously cropped up in controversies with the government, Sriram Venkitaraman, and the owner of the car, Wafa Firoz. Though eyewitness accounts alleged drunken driving, the suspicion could not be proved; the blood test of the accused was delayed by several hours.  

A year later, the trial on Basheer’s case has not yet begun and the prime accused, Sriram Venkitaraman, has joined back service after months of suspension. For a family that could not get over the shock of the brother, son, husband and father who left too soon at the age of 35, this was too much to bear.

“We cannot help but see the delay in the case as sabotage. The accident happened so near the Museum police station and it is understood that the police had reached the spot within minutes. When he (Sriram) showed his credentials, the police on duty realised that it is no ordinary guy,” says Abdu Rahman, one of Basheer's elder brothers.

A media person who reached the spot had informed the Siraj office and they all went along to the Medical College to see Basheer. Mohammed Kassim, senior journalist who has taken over the role that Basheer held in Siraj, was one of the first to know. They go way back, having joined the newspaper together as young men in 2004 and working in different districts before coming together in Thiruvananthapuram again.

An old picture of Basheer and Kassim, among friends

“I called the chief editor to ask about letting the family in Thiroor know. But the chief editor felt that it shouldn’t be done by us over the phone and informed a friend of the family to convey the news in person,” Kassim says.

The friend reached Basheer’s home at half past 3 in the morning. “We were first told that there was an accident and later came to know that he died. It is afterwards, when we contacted Saifudeen Haji, director of Siraj daily in Thiruvananthapuram, that we got to know more details. We understood that Sriram was taken to the General Hospital where the doctor on duty recorded a smell of alcohol. No blood test was done and despite being referred to the Medical College, Sriram went off to a private hospital. Meanwhile media persons went to the police station and made enquiries and were wrongly informed that a blood test had been done!” Abdu Rahman says.

The investigations had several pitfalls, allege the family members, until a new team was formed and a much delayed charge sheet was filed six months later – in February 2020. It came after the internal investigation report led by then Chief Secretary Tom Jose recommended Sriram’s reinstatement on the basis of his claim that he hadn't driven the car, and that Wafa had.

“We are satisfied with the charge sheet that includes the statements of a hundred witnesses including six eyewitnesses. We are also happy with the government’s action in suspending the IAS official for six months. But we were very disappointed to hear that he was taken back in service under the pretext of COVID-19,” Abdu Rahman says.

Sriram was appointed as Joint Secretary of the Health Department in March 2020, in charge of COVID-19 prevention work.

Sriram Venkitaraman

“Although the state government can punish an IAS official by suspending them for a few months, there should be fresh reason to further extend the suspension. Or else there should be a court order or significant proceedings in the existing case. The ultimate decision in the matter will be taken by the Central Tribunal and Sriram could approach the body if his suspension was further extended. So the government sought the legal advice of the AGO (Accountant General’s Office) which said that there was no scope for further extension of the suspension,” explains Kassim, who has been following the case since the beginning.

Basheer had only finished his degree course when he joined as regional reporter of Siraj in 2004. Born in Thiroor in 1984, he had studied there till class 5 before going off to Kozhikode to finish school. He returned to Thiroor to continue his studies and begin life as a cub reporter when he was only 20. The first byline he used was Basheer Vaniyannoor before getting known as KM Basheer, KMB to friends.

Seven years later, he joined the Thiruvananthapuram office as a 27-year-old and a year later, became the bureau chief of the district. “He would study issues deeply and build good relations with his colleagues as well as higher officials, ministers and other media persons. His political views never came in the way of his journalism and in a few years he became unit chief of Thiruvananthapuram, Kollam and Pathanamthitta districts. On the night of August 2, he was returning from a promotion council campaign meeting for the paper in Kollam,” Kassim says.

Only four months before that fateful day, Basheer had built a new home for his family of four – Jaseela, his wife, Janna and Azmi, his daughters. Azmi was only seven months old when her father died.

“It was on April 14 that his housewarming happened – the same day that one of his brothers got married,” Kassim says. They were four brothers and two sisters in all.

Basheer and his brothers

Abdul Khader, Basheer’s brother, elder to him by five years, says, “I was asleep when the phone began ringing at 4 am. My elder brother (Abdu) said in a broken voice that our Basheer had met with an accident. I could feel my head reeling. After a few moments, I began thinking of mother, his sisters, his wife and little girls.”

He went into a mechanical haze after that, Khader says, and didn't in the days that followed, care to listen to the blast of news discussions surrounding his little brother. "In a world without him, everything else seemed insignificant."

But he too expresses discontent at the government’s decision to hire Sriram back to service. Now the family is waiting for the next court hearing in September.

Having looked closely at the case, Kassim points out the soundness of the charge sheet with the statements of the six eyewitnesses under section 154 of the Indian Evidence Act, the reports of over-speeding by the Transport Department, the CCTV visuals which were first reported to be unavailable, the finer details such as the presence of airbag-powder, and burn-like wounds and fingerprints on the steering seat, produced by the forensics team.

“Initially, the First Information Report was filed as involuntarily causing hurt. However, it was later written as voluntarily causing hurt. So the case should be redirected to a Sessions court instead of the Magistrate court which is now handling it. But in order to do so, the charge sheet has to be read out to the accused in the Magistrate court. Both the accused Sriram and Wafa have not turned up for the first two hearings they were called for. The third hearing is scheduled in September and if they miss that too, there is provision to issue an arrest warrant,” Kassim says.

The family still hopes that justice will be served to Basheer. A year ago, his lifeless body had reached them on the night of August 3, a little before midnight. “The biggest pain in the family had been our father’s death, when Basheer was studying in class 9. Now it’s Basheer…It is next to our father’s grave in Vadakara that he too was laid to rest. We hope that the court will give us justice,” Abdu says.

Also read: A year since journalist Basheer’s death: No trial yet, accused IAS officer back in service

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