Honesty is very, very important – being true to yourself is as important as being true to others, Sriram Venkitaraman had said, sitting on a couch opposite Dhanya Varma, answering her question on what values he upholds the most. Values on which he doesn’t ever want to compromise. The IAS officer had given the interview on the Happiness Project about a year ago, at a time when he was hailed by many as one who could not be shaken. The tough one.
Two days ago -- in the wee hours of August 3 -- when the car he was in smashed into a motorbike outside the Thiruvananthapuram Museum and killed the rider, the admirers could not believe the news. The dead man was a journalist of repute – KM Basheer, bureau chief of Siraj. Several reports said that Sriram had been drunk, that he'd insisted on driving in such a state, and that he'd tried to put the blame on the woman who was in the car. A day and a half later, Sriram is still in a high end hospital in Thiruvananthapuram – that he went to on his own accord – and being treated there, unavailable for comment. The police had recorded his arrest on Saturday evening.
After the shock and the condolences, different versions of the accident began emerging – on who drove, how drunk Sriram was, conspiracy theories on why the blame was being "pinned" on Siram. He had just come back from Harvard and joined as director of the Kerala Survey Department. At Harvard, he did his Masters' in Public Health, taking a year off from work. He had left soon after a transfer following a controversy. Sriram as sub collector of Devikulam, Idukki, had been actively involved in an anti-encroachment drive. When he moved a Christian cross out of the way as part of the initiative, trouble erupted. The Kerala government – especially power minister MM Mani – had not been pleased with the move. Mani even said that Sriram should be sent to a "mental hospital". Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan said it (removing the cross) was done without consulting the government and that the act would portray the government as anti-religion.
But Sriram was admired for sticking to his stand. People expressed support for the sub collector they believed would stand no wrongdoing. Thus, Saturday morning came as a jolt for many. His fans took to the same social media they had once used to express their support. Radhika Gopakumar, a blogger, wrote, “A year-long sabbatical at Harvard for higher studies and back to service only recently, the last thing we imagined he would make the headlines for was drunken driving and manslaughter! Coming from a model officer who inspired so many, it is nothing but a disgraceful fall, especially with him lying that it was his friend who was driving at the time of the accident which killed a senior journalist. It is painful to think that a man of 35 lost his life only due to someone else’s negligence. It is also painful to think of how a promising young officer who could make a huge difference with his continued fight against corruption, threw all that away in such a deplorable manner.”
She added that the justice for which he once fought would prevail, and that she hopes "he receives the punishment for what he has done, not only for the accident which was his making, but also for shattering the trust of so many who looked up to him".
Deepa Ananthapadmanabhan, a social entrepreneur, said, “It was quite a shocker. I have nothing against a person having a drink. But to drink and drive, trying to escape stating lies, not following the very laws one promised to uphold as a civil servant..... That was quite shocking coming from someone who looked promising in his chosen career. I know quite a number of youngsters who looked up to him as a role model. This will be a letdown for most. But then such are the vagaries of life!”
JV Ramana, an engineer with BSNL, Thiruvananthapuram, who has been recording a 100 Days of Running campaign on his Facebook, wrote that he had been on that Museum road, running, just two hours before the accident. He could easily have been a witness if it was a couple of hours later, or even turned out to be a victim. “A tragic end to the two promising youngsters who were contributing immensely to the society, one lost his life, and the other will be losing his career, and all because of liquor and drunken driving. Every drunkard feels that he is steady and can drive easily, never realising liquor is actually driving the senses,” Ramanan wrote, on the 99thday of his campaign.
Along with the posts of disappointment, there were also those in Sriram’s favour – ridiculing people who were in a hurry to make a criminal of a “very truthful man”. Arguments broke out in the comments section of such posts, with some users pointing to the report of Sriram having tried to escape all blame by finding a scapegoat in the woman companion. “What kind of truthfulness is that?” they asked.
Others picked out old videos of Sriram advocating road safety in sessions. In one of these -- a television programme with actor Annie -- Sriram had said that the least you could do when you cause or witness an accident is to help out the victim.
When a man and a woman who are not married to each travel in a car past midnight, it doesn't take too long for the issue to take a moralistic slant, though it is totally irrelevant to the accident. Some claimed that Sriram was attending a "joining back" party, and since he was too drunk to drive, he'd called his friend to take him. These supporters argued asking how someone who'd been so particular as to ask a friend to drive, would insist on driving himself later. Some went snooping around and dug out unnecessary details about the woman and her relationship with Sriram.
“It is deeply disturbing how the morality factor in the Sriram Venkitaraman issue is being celebrated among the public and the media over the mourning of the death of an innocent man. While it is only natural to roast and mock him following the incident, the fact that he was with a female friend has been brought in multiple times, questioning their morality. Various media platforms are doing a great job as well, feeding the audience exactly what they desire. The laughing reaction in almost all the posts related to this incident proves that literacy and education has nothing to do with humanity,” wrote Krishna Radhakrishnan, a student of journalism.
Another Facebook user put the focus on the victim and his bereaved family, adding a link of NRI businessman Yusuff Ali’s contribution to the family. “Have been seeing a lot of posts in social media against Sriram Venkitaraman. It is great that we are reacting spontaneously against such crimes. And being a democracy, it is of utmost importance to ensure that all are equal before law. It is equally important to do the needful for the journalist's family. He has two daughters aged 6 years and 6 months old respectively.”
But the most common emotion is still shock, especially from those who have known Sriram for long. Writer NS Madhavan tweeted, “Attended a family function in which some of the relatives were Sriram’s old classmates and a former principal (Bhavan’s, Girinagar). They were all so immensely sad. The word most heard was why. Why oh why?”