Capital punishment in one, no trial in others: The story of three political murders in Kerala

TNM takes a look at three murder cases in Kerala where religion and politics intertwined and why one case moved at a much faster pace than the others.
Capital punishment in one, no trial in others: The story of three political murders in Kerala
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On the night of December 18, 2021, KS Shan, a Muslim man and a state office bearer of the Social Democratic Party of India (SDPI), was killed in Kerala’s Alappuzha, allegedly by supporters of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). The next morning, seven hours after Shan breathed his last, Ranjith Sreenivasan, a Hindu man associated with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), was hacked to death by SDPI members.

Both of them were lawyers and the murders occurred in the same district. In two years, the back-to-back incidents, considered acts of political revenge, have taken different trajectories. Fourteen men associated with SDPI and the banned Popular Front of India (PFI) were sentenced to death for Ranjith’s murder, a verdict welcomed by his kin. But Shan’s family is still waiting for the trial to start though the charge sheet in the case was the first to be filed.

There are allegations that Shan’s murder was in retaliation to the murder of an RSS worker, Nandu R Krishna, that happened in the same district in February 2021. The chargesheet in the case was filed in February 2022, and the trial is yet to commence.

So how did the three cases where religion and politics are intertwined proceed, and why has one moved at a much faster pace than the others? Were the delays caused during investigation or prosecution, or is there some other reason behind it? Those following the case of the three political murders in Kerala have many questions but few answers.

Shan’s murder — and the immediate aftermath 

Fansila received a call from her husband, advocate KS Shan, on the evening of December 18, 2021. The state general secretary of the SDPI and a businessman, Shan told her he would be late getting home because one of his workers had not returned to the shop selling curtains that he owned. That was the last conversation Fansila had with Shan. An hour later, she got a call from the police who wanted to know her identity. “I told them I was Shan’s wife, and suddenly their tone changed. They said Shan had met with an accident, and immediately cut the call,” said Fansila. 

Shan was attacked allegedly by RSS workers in Mannanchery in Alappuzha. CCTV footage from a nearby building showed Shan, who was on a two-wheeler, being hit by a car from behind and then assaulted by a gang as he fell. He was first rushed to a hospital nearby, where his wounds were dressed. Later, he was taken to the Medical Trust Hospital in Ernakulam, where he passed away around 11.30 pm. Shan’s father said the postmortem report showed he had 40 injuries.

Shan was 36 years old when he died and had two daughters—11-year-old Iba Fathima and five-year-old Liya Fathima. He owned a curtain shop in Mannancherry near his house, and even though he was a trained advocate, he didn’t practice law.

Two hours after his death, Shan’s relative Shaji filed a complaint with the Mannancherry police. The very next day, the district police chief appointed a 34-member police force to investigate the case. Within 86 days, on March 16, 2022, the crime branch Deputy Superintendent of Police (DYSP) KV Benny submitted a chargesheet.

Ranjith’s murder and the aftermath

On December 19, 2021, around 6.30 am, hours after Shan was killed, attackers belonging to SDPI and PFI entered Ranjith Sreenivasan’s home in Alappuzha and hacked him to death in front of his mother Vinodhini, wife Lisha, and their child Hridya. CCTV footage showed the 12-member gang arriving in six two-wheelers at Ranjith’s house. 

Three days later, on December 22, a special Investigation team (SIT) was formed under the leadership of Alappuzha DySP NR Jayaraj. After 86 days, on March 18, 2022, the police filed a chargesheet and arrested all 15 suspects in the murder. 

In 2022, Public Prosecutors were assigned to both cases — Kottayam-based advocate Ajayan for Shan and Kayamkulam-based Prathap G Padickal for Ranjith. It was at this point the timelines of the trial process began to diverge. 

Lawyer unrest

Ranjith’s murder had caused a furore among the lawyers in the Alappuzha Bar Council as he was a practising lawyer They held protests on December 20, 2021, and declared that none of them would appear for the accused in the case who belonged to the PFI and SDPI. When this happened, the 15 accused approached the Kerala High Court and asked for the case to be transferred to another district. The High Court refused but did move the case from the Alappuzha Additional District and Sessions Court to the Mavelikara Additional District Sessions Court-1, which is in the same district but 44 km away from the former. Mavelikkara has another bar association.

In Shan’s case, the Public Prosecutor (PP) Ajayan resigned within a month of his appointment citing personal reasons. A second PP — advocate Suresh Babu Thomas, also from Kottayam — was assigned the case. However, the police officers investigating the case allegedly refused to work with this lawyer since he was also representing the accused in the Ranjith murder case. 

“There is no rule against the lawyer for the accused in one case appearing as a PP in another case,” says SDPI Alappuzha district president K Riyas. The SDPI and Shan’s family did not want to lose a senior advocate like Suresh Babu Thomas, a former Additional Director of Prosecution and Additional State Public Prosecutor. They refused to agree with the police. Jaidev, who was the Alappuzha Superintendent of Police (SP) at that time, refused to budge as well.  

It was only in January 2024, when the Ranjith trial had almost reached its end that Shan’s case got a new PP — advocate PP Harris from Thrissur. Harris was also representing the accused in the Ranjith murder case, however, the police did not have any objection this time, says Riyas. 

The trial in Ranjith’s case was completed and on January 20, 2023, the court found the convicts guilty.  

Allegations of delayed justice and bail denial

When the court rejected the several bail applications of the accused in the Ranjith murder case, the accused of Shan’s murder case were able to get bail eight months after getting arrested. SDPI alleges that this is an instance of double justice reflected during the trial process.

In December 2022, when three people who were accused in the Shan murder case sought bail, the PP did not oppose the application. The delay in trial was also cited as a reason for the bail. 

Shan’s family alleges that, from the beginning, they have been treated unfairly. “None of the accused in the Ranjith murder case were granted bail, but all the accused in this case were granted bail. I felt it was so unfair,” Fansila said. Among those who received bail, Sreenath, the accused number nine, was also convicted of the murder of SFI leader Ajayaprasad in 2007.

Trial in murder that allegedly triggered Shan’s killing delayed

Nandu R Krishna, a native of Vayalar in Alappuzha, was murdered, allegedly, by SDPI-PFI activists on February 24, 2021. Three days before, on February 21, Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath had arrived in Kerala to inaugurate the Vijaya Yatra by BJP state president K Surendran. This sparked protest rallies by the SDPI-PFI activists across the state, including in Vayalar. Reports said Nandu’s murder was the result of a provocation in the backdrop of the volatile atmosphere during the time. 

The trial of Nandu Krishna too, has not moved forward, and the chargesheet in the case was submitted only in February 2022. There was also a delay in arresting the accused.

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