Kerala Police under scanner after Dalit boy's autopsy report suggests suicide was abetted by custodial torture
The Kerala Police find itself in a tight spot but what makes it more precarious is that majority of the victims are young Dalits.
Even when the nation was celebrating the election of the second ever Dalit president, down south in the most literate state of the country, a grim picture had evolved.
An 18-year-old Dalit boy had taken his own life after having been allegedly subjected to terrible custodial torture by the state police and his post-mortem report confirmed the worst fears.
Not many believed the allegations of Vinayak’s family initially when the boy was found hanging inside his home on 18 July.
But even as Ram Nath Kovind took his oath at Central Hall of the Parliament, the post-mortem report on Vinayak which emerged on the same Tuesday substantiated the claim that he was indeed physically tortured.
The report claims of multiple injury marks and abrasions on his chest, back of the head, trunk and toe. There were six clear abrasions on his chest, his right nipple was smashed and his toe had stamp injuries, suggesting that perhaps Vinayak could have even been kicked and stamped up on by the policemen’s boots.
While all this calls for a major investigation, the state police are running for cover and a Communist Party of India (Marxist)-led LDF government has nowhere to hide from this terrible embarrassment. Dalit activists and civil society are up in arms even as the family says it will fight till the end to get justice for their son.
“My son died because he was pushed to take his life out of the shame after being beaten by the policemen at the station. These people have murdered my son. Just look at the post-mortem report which clearly shows how he was manhandled by the cops. I shall not rest until I get these cops behind bars," Krishnan Kutty, father of Vinayak told Firstpost from his home in Engandiyur in Thrissur.
It was on 17 July that Vinayak and his friend Sharath had been picked up by a policeman who was on beat duty on his bike.
While the cop claims that he had sensed some ‘suspected activity’ by the duo eyewitness say that Vinayak was only talking to a female friend of his with Sharath standing close by when the cop stopped and asked him to ride pillion with him. Sharath was asked to follow them to the station with Vinayakan’s bike.
While Vinayak did not have a driving license, a petty offence which calls for a fine, Krishnan says the cops at Pavaratty Police station were trying hard to frame his son as the elusive ‘chain snatcher’ that they had been after for a long time.
"When they called me to the station they first told me over the phone that he was caught with a girl. But when that claim of moral policing was refuted by me as I know the girl is his friend, they said perhaps he is the chain snatcher. They even asked me to slap my son in front of them. It was such a harrowing experience," said Krishnan.
Vinayak was soon let off the same day with his father but as his friend Sharath claims the damage had already been done even before Krishnan got to the station.
"They were hitting him and telling him that we will leave you but you have to first agree that you are the chain snatcher in this area to which Vinayak did not," Sharath told media persons.
On 18 July, the day after he returned from the police station, Vinayak was found hanging inside his room. However the boy, as the family claims, never told them that he was beaten badly by the cops. Though they suspected foul play initially, the family realised that their son was brutalised by the policemen only when the post-mortem report emerged on 25 July.
"He was very gloomy and upset and we thought it was because of the bad experience at the station. But he never told us that he was beaten. May be he felt a deep sense of shame in it," said Krishnan.
Though the state Director General of Police had ordered an inquiry into the incident by the range IG and even suspended two constables who were on duty then, the family says that is little compared to what they have lost.
The family is gearing up to move a private complaint at the local court as the police continue to take the line that there is no evidence to point towards torture. A mass movement in support of Vinayak is also slowly taking shape in his home town.
"We all know Vinayak so well. He is not the type who would want to break the law. See till now even the police are not clear about why he was picked up in the first place. We all want to get to the bottom of this. How can police treat an innocent person like this," Narayanan, a neighbour to Vinayak told Firstpost.
String of police high-handedness
Vinayak’s episode is only the latest in a chain of many such alleged custodial tortures reported from across the state in the last one year. While media reports suggest more than half a dozen such incidents in the state, activists claim that this is only a tip of the iceberg as a number of them go unreported.
In July 2016 a harbour worker named Suresh was brutally beaten up in police custody in Kochi. After prolonged treatment, he still finds it difficult to walk.
In September the same year, the state was rocked by a custodial death when one Abdul Lateef from Vandoor was found hanging inside the toilet of the police station. In the same month, two more incidents came to light as an auto driver and a Dalit boy were beaten up in separate incidents in Kochi.
In October, two Dalit youth Rajeev and Shibhu allege that they were detained and tortured for five continuous days for a theft case in Kollam.
Surely the Kerala Police find itself in a tight spot but what makes it more precarious is that majority of the victims are young Dalits.
"It just seems that the moment you find a person who is black in colour and who is a Dalit, the police brutality increases. Even in Vinayak’s case, he was beaten up after the police asked about his caste. What has caste got to do with someone doing a crime? Or does the police believe that Dalits are destined to be criminals?" asks Dhanya Raman, a well known Dalit activist.
That this is happening under the regime of a communist government that talks loudly about protecting the rights of the lowest sections of the society have also baffled many activists.
"It is very sad but true. Under the present left government’s rule, the police have been given such unrestricted freedom that most of the times they go over the board. It’s not just about custodial deaths but such high-handedness has now become so natural," says NM Pearson a social activist.
The role of the state home department had come under severe criticism from many quarters after a housewife named Mahija and her family were manhandled and dragged on the road right in front of the office of the Director General of Police early this year when they were protesting against police inaction into the death of their son Jishnu Paranoy.
Hardly had the outcry settled, another brutal face of the police was evident in Kochi when a young IPS officer of the superintendent rank went about canning protestors along with innocent bystanders including women and children a day before Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited Kerala. His excuse was that they were obstructing the trial run of the prime minister’s visit.
People had gathered for a peaceful protest against the dangers of an Indian Oil Corporation’s LPG bottling unit coming in the vicinity of their homes and had nothing to do with posing a security to the prime minister.
Activists now allege that the police in Kerala are not only perpetrating such violent action but also have no qualms in justifying it saying that restraining the force would affect their morale.
"There is no use blaming the police alone. If you give unrestricted freedom to the men in uniform, this is what they will do. Such instances have happened during the emergency times also. So unless the government of the day ensures that the police acts according to the book alone, you will keep getting more Vinayaks in this state," noted civil rights activist CR Neelakandan told Firstpost.
Call for corrective steps in the force
Following a Supreme Court order in line with National Police reforms, Kerala had set up its own Police Complaints Authority a few years ago. But in spite of its active functioning, nothing has deterred the cops from doing what they want to.
Justice VK Mohanan who is the present chairman says that unless we take steps to change the mindset of those being trained to be policemen nothing can be done.
"Once you become a policeman your attitude is not going to change. Problem is that we do not address the issue at the root level, but try to untrain a force which had been trained to do certain things in certain ways which favours the state. What you need is perhaps a complete overhaul of the present obsolete syllabus and bring in that which teaches good policing," Mohanan told Firstpost.
The claims of the present chairman who recently took charge also agrees with the what his predecessor justice K Narayana Kurup had earlier told this reporter that a particular batch of probationers who passed out in 2014 and who later went on to become SHOs at different stations across Kerala were increasingly found getting involved in such custodial beatings and that they should all be sent back to the Police Training College for a crash course on behaviour.
The top brass of the state police is meanwhile tight-lipped on the issue of Vinayak and has not responded despite repeated attempts by Firstpost to elicit one.
While senior officers continue to be in denial mode with many even saying that the boy committing suicide had nothing to do with police detention.
But well-known psychologist KS David based in Thiruvananthapuram does not agree with this argument. Rather he says that the policemen who had detained Vinayak should be charged with abatement of suicide.
"See this is a time when the boy’s identity as a responsible individual is being created. Even a minor issue can have far reaching psychological impacts during that time and here the teenager was subjected to humiliation at a police station in front of his own father. Perhaps it had become too much for him to bear," said David.
Meanwhile the Dalit organisations in the state are gearing up to petition almost everyone from the State SC/ST to the Human Rights Commission to the Police Complaints Authority and the Congress-led opposition has already demanded a crime branch probe into the case part from the investigation conducted by the Northern Range Inspector General of Police which is progressing.
Justice for Vinayak is surely set to become a mass movement in days to come, something that could hurt the LDF government dearly.
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