Recently, the Neyyatinkara incident concerning the death of Rajan and his wife, Ambili, brought to the fore the important question of police violence. If the police were a force for good, how would one then construct the issue surrounding the death of the couple? The idea of state-sponsored violence isn’t new and the police’s participation has been a cultural, political, legal, and ethical issue. While the progressive members of Kerala have often pointed to other states and their “hot-headed” policemen, Kerala has its history of police violence too.
Coming to the latest incident in Neyyatinkara, the police are one of the defendants in a plea filed by the children of Rajan and Ambili. In their plea, they claim that the police had used brutal force to pull their father out of their home while they were about to have their food. Moreover, the police had decided to evict them much before the Court’s stay on the eviction became public on the afternoon of December 22. That is, the officials had participated in an illegal eviction as per the plea. Following the threats, the Rajan poured petrol over himself and his wife. In a video capture of the event, Rajan can be seen holding the lighter and threatening to use it. However, the police officer slaps the man’s wrist, hitting the lighter and resulting in Rajan and Ambili burning to their deaths. In their plea, their son alleges that the police hit the lighter intending to kill them.
The National Human Rights Commission report released by the Ministry of Home Affairs notes that Kerala recorded eight custodial deaths in 2017-18, which is more than a 100 per cent increase over the three deaths in 2017-18. This is not including the many other hospitalisation, torture, and violence that the state police have executed in the last few years.
In September of this year, the State Human Rights Commission had ordered the State Police Chief Loknath Behera to conduct a probe into the alleged police brutality that led to an injured spine. According to complaints, the police had brutally assaulted Johny Joseph following a domestic quarrel he had with his wife. The incident happened in June 2015, and nothing had happened to the probe until September 2020. Johny died in 2019 in an accident without getting justice.
One of the most important cases in recent periods would be the death of 19-year-old Vinayakan, who took his own life following custodial torture. He was called into the police station using flimsy excuses and when there the officers accused him and his friend of “snatching necklaces”. The two were put through a string of violent gestures from the police’s side, resulting in hospitalisation for both, and Vinayakan taking his own life. Dalit, human rights, and public activists clamoured for justice and called his death an institutional murder.
Another incident would be the custodial death of 26-year-old Sreejith, who was arrested by the police on April 2018 in Varapuzha. He was mistakenly picked up by the police who was looking for another person concerning an assault case. However, before the mistaken identity came to the fore, Sreejith had died in police custody. The medical probe revealed severe abdomen injuries, which the State Human Rights Commission believes is a result of custodial torture. This was also based on the fact that Sreejith had made a final statement implicating two police officers of torturing and beating him. At the time of his death, Sreejith was married and had a two-year-old child.
While there were investigations against accused officers, suspending them from service, it went nowhere. Moreover, the suspended officers returned to their duties and their position of power.
Parassala police have a similar history where they arrested Sreejeev accusing him of theft in 2014. He was admitted to hospital after “consuming poison” and the latter died there. Public accused the police of faking the scenario, and Sreejeev’s brother protested the event. A later CBI probe would call his death a suicide but it still has many more open questions yet unanswered.
Violence against Dalits and transgenders were also common in the last five years. Vinayakan’s example being one, and another was the police’s brutal lathi charge against Dalits protesting a caste-wall in Vadayampady in Ernakulam. Meanwhile, the transgender community has come out in protest against the violence they face in society, and they have no one to turn to since the police have also exhibited biased, bigotry, and transphobia. Multiple instances of police violence against transgenders have taken place in Kozhikode, Thrissur, Alappuzha and Thiruvananthapuram.
Jishnu Prannoy’s mother Mahija, who was protesting demanding justice for her son — Jishnu committed suicide because of alleged torture by the authorities — was dragged through the street by police officials. They had claimed that she had no permission to protest in front of the state police headquarters. The police assaulted and removed her by force, until Mahija fell unconscious after a while. This was excessive action against a mother who had been protesting her son’s death as democratically as possible.
The cases did not stop there. During the lockdown, there were multiple incidents of police taking extreme actions against people, and the justification was that the “officers were just as tired and frustrated”. However, their position of power isn’t exactly the right place to vent their frustration. In an instance in March of this year, the police attached with Sreekaryam station in Thiruvananthapuram beat a man who was returning after dropping his wife, who is a doctor, at her workplace. The man had later taken the case with higher-ups and a probe was initiated.
On September, two youth were allegedly assaulted by the police in Wayanad for not wearing masks. According to sources, one of the youths was badly beaten and both had allegedly faced verbal assaults. However, the police had denied the allegations and claimed that the youth had done that to his self, adding that the CCTV visuals at the station were not working and so the officers cannot prove their claims.
In another incident, Prabhavati Amma — mother of Udayakumar — waited 13 years to get justice for her son, who was tortured to death by two policemen on September 2005. They accused Udayakumar of stealing and tortured him to confess to the crimes. A CBI Court sentenced the two responsible officers to death row, and other accused to prison. However, the delay in justice seemed too long a struggle to be had. Moreover, there haven’t been reforms introduced to bring down the actions, which is evident in the rise of custodial deaths in Kerala according to the NHRC. We will have to wait, and see how long will pass before Rajan and Ambili get justice.