'They said wearing white clothes won't hide my caste': Dalit artist alleges harassment by Kerala cops

The Thiruvananthapuram based percussionist was allegedly taken to the police station and made to strip down to his underwear for smoking a cigarette in public.
'They said wearing white clothes won't hide my caste': Dalit artist alleges harassment by Kerala cops
'They said wearing white clothes won't hide my caste': Dalit artist alleges harassment by Kerala cops

Thiruvananthapuram-based percussionist K Satheesh is an award winning chenda melam artist. However, on July 14, he was allegedly at the receiving end of caste-based harassment by the police - a shameful incident in which he was stripped down to his underwear and manhandled.  

Speaking to TNM, Satheesh sounds deeply upset as he recounts his story from the Chief Minister's office in Thiruvananthapuram, where he had gone to file a complaint.

Satheesh, who belongs to a dalit community, alleges that on the evening of July 14, he experienced the worst insults and casteist persecution from the Vanchiyoor police. And, it all started because he'd revealed the address of his house, located in the Chengalchoola Dalit colony in the heart of Thiruvananthapuram city. 

"The officers asked me if I was a Parayan (an Adi Dravidar community in south India). I always wear white clothes and they told me that wearing a white shirt and mundu would not hide my caste. The grade SI Sabeer even choked me and threatened that he would have 'done much more' had he not been just promoted," Satheesh recalls.

He was returning home in an autorickshaw from a performance when the driver stopped to fill fuel. Since the driver did not have any money, Satheesh lent him Rs 500 and asked him to bring the change.

"In the meantime, I sat in one of the shop fronts and lit up a cigarette. This is when the Vanchiyoor police vehicle pulled over. The SI approached me and charged a fine of Rs 200 for public smoking. I agreed to pay and asked them to wait for five minutes as the driver was returning with the change," Satheesh says. 

According to the artist, things went awry when he was asked his house address by the police to fill up the fine receipt. 

"I told them I live in Rajaji Nagar. The SI asked me where that was. To this, the police driver replied that it was in Chengalchoola colony - an area where 6,000 odd residents from the SC/ST community live. My address seemed to have displeased the grade SI. The next thing I know, he asked me to get into the police jeep and come to the station," he claims.

Inside the police jeep, Satheesh alleges that the SI directed the worst cuss words and insults at him. He adds that the officer asked him if he had planned on looting the shop where he had been smoking and if he was drunk. Inside the station, he was reportedly stripped down to his underwear and manhandled by the SI.

"The police and outsiders assume that the Chengalchoola colony is filled with criminals and gangsters. There is already a bias. When I tried explaining things to the officers, they were not willing to listen," he says.

Satheesh's wife and author-activist Dhanuja Kumari alleges that the Vanchiyoor police did not bother enquiring with the Cantonment police station (under whose jurisdiction Chengachoola falls) about her husband's background.

Chengachoola colony is an old settlement in the heart of Thiruvananthapuram city, and a five minute walk from the Secretariat. However, residents claim that they are discriminated against as it is a colony where many residents are from the SC/ST community.

"There are highly educated people in our colony and there are those who live a decent life. We are not forcing anyone to respect us, but please do not insult our people," says Dhanuja Kumari.

The couple has now raised the issue with the DGP, Thiruvananthapuram Commissioner, Assistant Commissioner of Shanghumukham and the Chief Minister's office. They will also file a complaint with the Kerala State Commission for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes on Thursday. 

Satheesh has been playing the chenda, elathalam and veekanchenda for the last two decades and has performed with famed Indian musicians such as Hariharan. He attempted to secure a Guinness World Record in 2005 for playing three instruments for an unbroken 48 hours. He also runs a successful music school teachig chenda melam to 60 odd students in the locality. 

Satheesh was also recognised by previous governments and political leaders. In 2006, he founded the Highness Samskarika Samithi - an association for percussionists - which was inaugurated by former Minister for Welfare of Scheduled Caste, Scheduled Tribes and Other Backward Classes, AK Balan. 

However, Satheesh now says that he has experienced the worst kind of humiliation from the state police. 

"I attempt to bring glory to my state. I don't want to be humiliated for my address and my identity. On Sunday, I experienced humiliation like never before," he says. 

Speaking to TNM, an officer from the Vanchiyoor station dismissed the allegations stating that the police did not have any reason to discriminate against a person based on where he lived. 

"We had taken this person to the station, registered a petty case against him and immediately released him on bail. The case was registered as he was creating a commotion and causing a public nuisance," the officer claimed. 

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