Shafeek, an autorickshaw driver, was travelling to Palayam from the Vellayambalam side around 1 am on August 3, when a speeding Volksvagen Vento car overtook him. A bike driver, who was riding ahead, tried to move to the side. “The car was speeding. The bike driver knew that perhaps, and tried to move and give way,” says Shafeek. But within minutes, the car crashed into the Honda Livo bike. The driver of the bike, 35-year-old Muhammed Basheer, a journalist with the Siraj newspaper, was thrown off his bike and crashed against the wall along the side of the road, bleeding profusely from his head.
“I saw him get out from the driver’s seat,” Shafeek says – referring to 32-year-old Sriram Venkitaraman, a doctor-turned-IAS officer, who recently returned to Kerala after his stint at Harvard University, and took charge as the Director of Survey and Land Records. Shafeek did not recognise the tall, lanky man at first, but he remembers what he saw. “The man who got down from the driver’s seat held the bleeding man in his hands and called out for help from others passing by. A woman also got out of the car, and she watched on as more people gathered around,” Shafeek says.
Barely 100 metres away from the accident spot is the Museum police station. Sub-Inspector Jayaprakash was standing just outside the station building when he heard a loud crash. Gauging that an accident has taken place nearby, Jayaprakash and station driver Binu rushed to the spot in their jeep. Here, they saw Sriram holding Basheer in his hands – not near the wall, but in the middle of the road. According to what Jayaprakash told his senior officer, Sriram kept saying that he had not driven the car, and that the woman – Wafa Firoz – had. The woman, too, repeated this to the policeman.
Shafeek corroborates this: “I heard the tall man telling the policeman that he had not driven the car. To that, the Sub-Inspector irritatedly asked him not to lie, as he was clearly drunk.”
This statement by the duo – Sriram Venkitaraman and Wafa Firoz – was just the beginning of their conflicting narratives, going against everything that other eyewitnesses have said.
Using position and privilege to change the narrative?
Twenty-three-year-old Benson Benny, a food-delivery person, was travelling on the opposite side of the road when he saw the crash. By the time Benson rushed to the spot, Sriram had already shifted Basheer from behind the bike and placed him on the road.
“A police jeep came there and the Sub-Inspector yelled at Sriram. Sriram then took out an ID card and told the policeman that he was a doctor. The policeman toned down a bit at this point, however he rebuked him, saying as a doctor, he was supposed to save lives, and not get involved in accidents,” Benson recalls.
Benson and a few others gathered there thought that Sriram looked familiar. When they heard him tell the policeman that his name was Sriram Venkitaraman, one of them immediately Googled. “This is when we understood that he was the IAS officer who was in the news,” Benson says.
It was only when the small crowd started murmuring that Sub-Inspector Jayaprakash, too, understood that the man in front of him was an IAS officer and a medical doctor – an MD in General Medicine.
For an IAS officer celebrated for speaking truth to power, the Sub-Inspector and three eye witnesses including Benson confirm that Sriram was trying hard to hide the truth. He insisted that the woman had driven the car, despite several witnesses to the contrary. “I heard him tell the policeman that the woman drove the car, though it was a lie,” says Benson.
What shocked Benson more was Sriram’s attitude. He says that it was evident even to a lay person like him that Basheer was critical, and his body badly battered. “But Sriram did not want to wait for an ambulance, though the policeman said they had called for one. He was using an authoritative tone and asking the police to just take Basheer in the jeep to a hospital,” Benson recounts, “It almost seemed like Sriram wanted the accident scene to be cleared before the crowd became larger, and he wanted Basheer to be taken away so that he could manage the situation at ease.”
However, an ambulance arrived at the scene and Basheer was taken to the Thiruvananthapuram Medical College which is about 5 kilometres away. Wafa was allowed to leave in an autorickshaw because there was no woman police officer to accompany her, while Sriram was taken in the police jeep to the General Hospital at Vanchiyoor.
Did Sriram deliberately delay blood sampling?
According to Dr Sheeja, the Resident Medical Officer of Thiruvananthapuram General Hospital, Sriram was brought there just before 2 am. At 2.07 am, Dr Rakesh Kumar, the duty doctor, inspected Sriram and noted in his report: ‘Alcohol smell – Positive’. However, despite the accident and the doctor’s preliminary noting, Sriram’s blood test was not taken at this hospital. The doctor told Asianet News that since Sriram was neither an accused and nor had an FIR been filed against him, he did not ask for a blood test. According to the doctor, the SI Jayaprakash, too, did not insist on a blood test.
A blood test taken later and analysed at the Chemical Examiner’s Laboratory in the city showed that Sriram’s blood did not have any trace of ethyl alcohol. However, the blood was drawn only after 10 am – several hours after the accident, and many hours after Sriram was brought to the GH. The state government in its petition to the High Court said that the delay was because they couldn’t trace the IAS officer – who had by then left the GH. It was only at 9.45 am that they found out he was at KIMS – a private hospital in the city – where they then went to get his blood sample.
According to Poorvisha Ravi, a Scientific Officer in the Department of Forensic Sciences, Tamil Nadu, alcohol in the blood metabolises completely in about four to six hours, and becomes difficult to trace. The traceability becomes tougher as time lapses. A urine test is a better gauge to test alcohol traces in the body since it is not eliminated immediately; however, there is no indication that a urine sample was taken from Sriram.
Meanwhile, it is Jayaprakash who has come under fire for not insisting on a blood test. The Sub-Inspector, who has been placed under suspension, told his higher officials that he was only concerned about the safety of Basheer and Sriram. “They were both in an accident. While Basheer was critical, Sriram insisted that he could have internal injuries. If he had any internal bleeding and an IAS officer had died, then the public would have blamed this Sub-Inspector. How could he stop Sriram from getting specialised treatment?” a senior police officer asks.
Jayaprakash has also told his higher officials that though he asked the doctor to take a blood test, the doctor said that since there was no FIR, they would need Sriram’s consent. Sriram, meanwhile, had refused to give a blood sample, and Jayaprakash believed that it was not possible to do so without the person’s consent.
It is not just Jayaprakash who erroneously believed that Sriram’s consent was crucial – this was a line repeated by Thiruvananthapuram Additional Police Commissioner Sanjaykumar Gurudin in a press meet on Sunday morning. When the ACP himself, after several hours to prepare for a press interaction, got the law wrong, can a Sub-Inspector be faulted for making a mistake – especially when an IAS officer was at the other end?
Here’s the law: Manu Sebastian, a Kochi based lawyer says that the police can insist on blood or urine test. “It is clear from Section 53 of the Code of Criminal Procedure, which states that ‘reasonable force’ can be used for the medical examination of the accused,” he says. According to this provision, a medical examination includes “examination of blood, blood stains, semen, swabs in case of sexual offences, sputum and sweat, hair samples and fingernail clippings etc.”
Attempt to tamper with blood sample?
The delay in taking the blood sample is not the only procedural lapse; Sriram was allowed to remain at a private hospital for almost seven hours – from 3 am to 10 am – without any police personnel monitoring him.
Dr Sheeja says that Sriram had complained of a prolapsed disc during the medical examination at General Hospital. “There were no specialist doctors at the hospital at that hour to confirm this, so we had referred him to the Thiruvananthapuram Medical College hospital,” she adds. A friend of Sriram’s, Dr Anish Raj, had arrived at the General Hospital, and after assuring Jayaprakash that they would go to the Medical College, the duo instead went to KIMS Hospital, a private hospital in the city.
“It was only at 3 am that the Medical College intimated the Museum station that Basheer was no more. So at 2.07 am, when the doctor did the test and referred Sriram to the Medical College, Basheer’s death was not known to the Sub-Inspector and he could not stop Sriram from getting treatment,” a senior officer tells TNM.
Though the sub-inspector’s dilemma is understandable, what is puzzling is that it was only by 10 am that the city police, accompanied by a team from General Hospital, went to KIMS.
Benson, Jayaprakash and Shafeek are clear on what they saw: Sriram was very drunk. “He could barely stand,” is what both Benson and Shafeek say. But with the Chemical Examiner’s Laboratory finding no trace of alcohol, there is understandable speculation that Sriram could have attempted to influence the test results in some manner.
According to forensics experts, while alcohol content can be eliminated from the body completely in nine hours, there are ways to speed up the process. “You can take plenty of water or a medication that will produce urine, through which all the toxins will be washed away,” says Dr Sampath Kumar, a forensics expert. Further, if a person has a high metabolism, the liver can break down the alcohol at a fast pace.
The Kerala government in its petition to the High Court has accused KIMS of collusion.
Will privilege shelter Sriram?
It was around 3 am that Saifuddin Haji, the Thiruvananthapuram Unit Chairman of Siraj newspaper, where Basheer had been working, reached the Museum police station. Sub-Inspector Jayaprakash who had come back to the station by then, told him that a medical examination had been conducted on Sriram. Saifuddin initially assumed that this included a blood test.
“I had spoken to the eye witnesses and they told me that Sriram was smelling of alcohol and could hardly stand. We also knew that he had driven the car, and we wanted the police to call the woman to the station. We wanted to know whether she was drunk too, and why she had initially said that she had driven the car,” says Saifuddin.
On Saifuddin’s insistence, police summoned Wafa to the station at around 4 am, after two women constables from the Cantonment police station were brought to the Museum police station.
“She was later taken to the General Hospital, around 5 am, where she was subjected to a medical examination; there were no injuries on her. She was then taken to the Cantonment women’s police station around 6 am to record her statement,” recalls Saifuddin.
Later on Sunday morning, senior police officers including the DGP clarified to Saifuddin that Sriram’s blood sample had not been taken. “A few of them said that Jayaprakash was speaking about ‘medical examination’ – while Jayaprakash meant that Sriram got medical help, the officers, including the City Police Commissioner as well as the DGP, say they assumed that his blood sample was taken,” Saifuddin says.
Saifuddin dismisses these claims. He alleges that a powerful clique of young IAS and IPS officers, who were Sriram’s friends, had ensured that his blood samples were not taken on time. And considering there is little information on the party at IAS club where Sriram allegedly got drunk, he says there is more reason to believe there is a cover-up.
With the Chemical Examiner’s Laboratory test turning up as negative, the case now hinges on other evidence, including the testimonies of witnesses. Wafa, in her statement to the magistrate has reportedly said that she had picked Sriram up as he had sent her a Whatsapp message after midnight. Though she had first driven the car, he took over the wheels. “He smelled of alcohol,” she is reported to have said. However, in an interview to Asianet later, Wafa said that Sriram smelt of something, but she was not sure if it was alcohol.
There is other circumstantial evidence like the car skidding 17 metres before it came to a halt, suggesting that they were speeding. But if the police are unable to prove that Sriram was drunk while he was driving, a charge of culpable homicide not amounting to murder will not stick, and he can only be charged with causing death due to negligence. That's a question of whether he could face ten years to life imprisonment or a maximum punishment of two years in jail.
For the family and friends of Basheer, who died in the middle of the night, alone, on a road, negligence just doesn't cut it.
As Benson says, “What is the point of us giving testimonies if an officer like him doesn't want the truth told?”