Jishnu Pranoy suicide: P Vijayan's heavy-handed authoritarianism could cost CPM dearly
Kerala chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan's justification of the killing of two Maoists by the police, within six months of assuming power, left many scratching their heads
Kerala chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan's justification of the killing of two Maoists by the police, within six months of assuming power, left many scratching their heads. Several instances of police action against those who have raised their voice against injustice since then have strengthened doubts that were shared even by a section of Vijayan’s own Communist Party of India (Marxist) party and some of its allies in the Left Democratic Front (LDF).
The latest in the series of such excesses is the arrest of four social activists, who went to the state police chief’s office to express solidarity with a protest staged there by the mother of engineering student Jishnu Pranoy — who died under mysterious circumstances in his college hostel three months ago — against the police failure to arrest those responsible for her son’s premature death.
None of the four — AN Shajahan, who served as private secretary to VS Achuthanandan when he was chief minister, and Socialist Unity Centre of India (SUCI) leaders Shajir Khan, Mini and Sreekumar — who have been arrested under non-bailable sections, have any past criminal records. On the contrary, they were known for championing important public causes. While Shajahan tried to expose Vijayan’s corrupt deals and ideological deviations, the other three fought against the ills in the self-financing sector. In fact, Shajir was the first to bring the Jishnu issue to the public.
The SUCI leader had brought to light several incidents of exploitation and torture of students by the management of the Nehru College of Engineering, Thrissur, where the 18-year-old engineering student was found hanging in his hostel on 6 January this year. The police slapped conspiracy charges under section 120 B of IPC against the four. They are currently under judicial custody. Human rights activists and leaders of Opposition parties have viewed the action against them as evidence of state-sponsored terrorism led by Vijayan.
Congress MLA PC Vishnunath said that the arrest of Shajahan, who did not participate in the protest in front of the DGP’s office, was a clear case of political vendetta. He told the Firstpost that Shajahan had turned critical of Vijayan, since he was a strong critic of his actions. "But what angered Vijayan more was the attempt he made to implead in the revision petition filed by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) in the high court against a lower court verdict discharging him from the SNC Lavalin corruption case. Vijayan considered Shajahan as a potential threat because he had access to the files related to the scam during his tenure in the secretariat," Vishnunath said.
The Kerala chief minister had realised the harm Shajahan could do to him at the time and had forced Achuthanandan to remove him from his personal staff in his capacity as state secretary of the party. He was later expelled from the party on the charge of leaking party decisions. Vijayan, who was discharged in the case without a hearing, has fielded a battery of senior lawyers, including Harish Salve, to bail him out of the case. If the high court refers the case back to the trial court, it will be a big setback to the chief minister.
Vendetta is also suspected to be a motive behind the arrest of the SUCI leaders. KS Hariharan, leader of the Revolutionary Marxist Party (RMP), believed that the arrest could be the result of the unholy relations between top CPM leaders and the self-financing college mafia. "Although the CPM was very vocal against the commercialisation of education while in the Opposition, it adopted a helpful stand towards self-financing college management after the party came to power. The change became evident when the chief minister rejected an Opposition initiative to reduce the fees of the management quota seats last year," the RMP leader said.
Education activist and Muslim Youth League leader PK Firoz said that the Opposition United Democratic Front (UDF) had tried to bring the government and the self-financing college managements to the negotiating table after some colleges had agreed to bring down the fees approved by the government. However, the government turned down the plea without citing any reason. The CPM was angry with Shajir because he had opposed the fee hikes allowed by the government, using solid facts and figures. He alleged that several top ruling front leaders were hand-in-glove with Nehru Group chairman Krishna Das, who is also the president of the the Kerala Self-Financing College Managements Association.
He said that the government had shielded the Nehru College management initially. This was the main reason the police could not make any headway in the investigation and arrest Das and others who were found allegedly responsible for the death of Jishnu. Civil rights activists say the arrest of the four activists smacks of the sort of intolerance that the Sangh Parivar is showing at the national level. There have been several cases of action taken against those who have expressed dissent. The arrest of many in the National Anthem row had triggered outrage across the state.
Six delegates of the International Film Festival of Kerala were arrested for not standing up when the National Anthem was played during the screening of a film, on the complaint on Bharatiya Janata Yuva Morcha (BJYM). Noted writer Kamal C Chavara was arrested for his comments on the National Anthem on a Facebook post. The police viewed a reference to the National Anthem he quoted from his book as an insult and slapped sedition charges against him.
His friend, who visited him at the hospital, where he was admitted during custody, was also not spared. He was detained by police and a case registered under the draconian Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA). Many see this as a warning against dissent. Interestingly, party veteran Achuthanandan and politburo member MA Baby, who criticised police action against Jishnu’s mother Mahija Ashokan, toned down their criticism after the chief minister and the CPM state secretariat expressed displeasure against their reactions.
Similarly, Kanam Rajendran, state secretary of the Communist Party of India (CPI), the second largest constituent of the LDF, has gone silent after former CPM general secretary and politburo member Prakash Karat said he will take up the continued criticism of the government by the CPI with its national leadership. Opposition leader Ramesh Chennithala believes that Mahija, who comes from a Marxist family, may end the protest if the chief minister visits her at the hospital and explains the government position.
"If the chief minister has an iota of humanity left in him, he must give up his false pride. Vijayan should visit Mahija in hospital and agree to her demands to end the protest," he said in the open letter. He pointed out that Jishnu, who was a member of the party’s student wing, had rejoiced when Vijayan became the chief minister. "Even now, his mother is even not ready to speak against the chief minister, as she feels her son’s soul will not forgive it. The chief minister should not turn a blind eye to the angst of this parent," he said.
The case has become a topic for heated debate in the social media. While critics portray Vijayan as a villain, who will take the party the West Bengal way, supporters of the LDF are blaming the media for showing the government in a poor light and Opposition parties for trying to gain political capital from the case. The police has issued a warning to a popular Facebook community against trolling the chief minister. In its message to administrators of Outspoken, a Facebook group that satirises social and political issues, the high-tech cell of the state police said it had received complaints that many of the group's posts were offensive in nature.
The cell has asked the group to reveal the sources of such posts and remove them immediately or face action under Kerala Police Act and Information Technology Act. The police has already registered cases against around a half a dozen people, including a government employee for posting comments against Vijayan. A civil police officer at Alappuzha was suspended for criticising the chief minister in connection with the attack on media persons at a court in Kozhikode. Many who waved black flags against the chief minister have also been booked.
Political analyst NN Pearson said that the chief minister has not been showing tolerance because he considers himself above criticism. "This is not good in a democratic set up. The CPM will have to pay a heavy price if the chief minister is allowed to continue his authoritarian style," Pearson told Firstpost.
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