Following a slew of controversial contracts, the Kerala government has engaged in yet another but this time with a PR agency to promulgate the state government’s achievements in the past five years. The initial issue had been the hurried release of a notice issuing the contract to the company on February 26, the same day on which the Model Code of Conduct had begun. However, according to the latest update, the PR organisation in this issue had been the same employed by the Uttar Pradesh government to whitewash the Hathras rape incident.
The rape of a Dalit girl by a few upper-caste men had invited the collective wrath of media and social activists against the Yogi Adityanath-led BJP government in Uttar Pradesh. The cremation of the victim’s body without informing her parents only added to the fuel. They couldn’t easily escape it, but the Yogi government decided that a PR whitewash could help shift the balance. In October 2020, the government brought in Mumbai-based Concept PR and soon after, many foreign correspondents in India, and national journalists received a “clarification note”.
The “clarification note” pointed out three things. Firstly, the “Hathras girl was not rape” as “revealed by forensic investigation, preliminary medical and post-mortem report”. Secondly, the note referred to “reports” that “revealed a conspiracy to push the state [UP] into caste turmoil”. The clarification added that the “SIT [Special Investigation Team] is sure to unveil evil design behind the whole incident”. Thirdly, regarding the hurried cremation of the victim’s body, it said, “Police action was prompt to prevent untoward incident: a further intensive probe into the matter”.
The first matter had been promptly criticised by medical experts as well as legal professionals. The second matter had been the apparent “conspiracy” to which the PR added that the UP Police will “now probe as to who was responsible for this mala fide campaign and twisted the facts despite the statements of the responsible officers otherwise”. This seemed more a threat to the national and online media, and it worked to a particular limit. Until the CBI commented that the girl was gang-raped in December 2020, the widespread media attention that issue had received until then slowly died down.
Coming back to the Kerala example, the fact that the LDF government contracted the same PR organisation has been called into question by political observers. Moreover, some are pointing out that Kerala has its rape case to “whitewash”, which is the rape and death of two Dalit sisters in Walayar. The incident rose to prominence thanks to the ineffective and “debilitating” investigation by the then police officers.
After the Kerala High Court cancelled the POCSO court’s verdict on the Walayar rape case — acquitting the four accused — the court came down heavily on the local police and the prosecution. The High Court termed the initial police investigation as ineffective, “debilitating the DySP’s efforts to effectually reinvestigate the case”. “A lack of efficient investigation by an officer is embarrassing to the entire state police force. The government must make sure that their police officers can professionally handle such cases. Serious lapses in the investigation of such high profile cases can create contempt for the state government,” the HC observed.
The two minor Dalit sisters were found hanging in their hut in Walayar in 2017. The 13-year-old elder sister was found on January 13, following which the nine-year-old girl testified seeing her sister’s attackers. The younger sister was found in a similar state on March 4.
The original probe did not pursue murder, but a case of unnatural death and they tried to push the suicide argument. The case began to pick up traction following the younger sister’s death and the post mortem report claiming sexual assault. Much before that, the autopsy report of the 13-year-old had stated that the girl died by hanging, and added that while there were no genital injuries, the “anal orifice appeared stretched with multiple mucosal erosions…” The police, having ignored this fact, had to follow through when the conditions repeated in the case of the younger girl.
After the original investigation, and the acquittal of the accused due to lapses in the prosecution’s case, many have argued for the removal of the erring investigators. Their demands were met with a positive nod from Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan. However, instead of disciplinary action, the officers were promoted. The then Deputy Superintendent of Police Sojan was promoted to SP and Sub Inspector Chacko is now a Circle Inspector. Even more problematic is including Sojan’s name in the list of officers to be conferred the IPS title.
The deceased Walayar girls’ mother, who has been leading an agitation demanding action against the police officer who investigated her daughters’ deaths in mysterious circumstances, tonsured her head on Saturday in protest against the government attitude. The mother had said that she would stage protests in all the districts across Kerala against the LDF government. She had announced that she would shave her head if no action were taken against the investigating officer before the election notification.
According to the Kerala government, the company, which has relevant experience at the national level, would assist the Information and Public Relations Department and C-DIT. The company would market the governmental achievements of social media such as Twitter, Instagram and Facebook, for Rs 1.53 Crore. However, the opposition has claimed that such a decision is against the principles of MCC.
Firstly, regardless of when it was issued, the government cannot engage in such marketing after the Model Code of Conduct has begun, as it would go against the electoral policies. Secondly, political observers opine that while it is the state government’s achievements, it would be credited to the ‘LDF’ government, which would earn the left alliance political brownie points in the upcoming Assembly elections. Since the alliance is mentioned, at the cost of the public exchequer, then the whole process is violative of the code of conduct.
Moreover, political observers believe that the company could also aim to whitewash the allegations against the government including the Walayar case. This includes a long line of recent incidents such as the PSC protests, the EMCC India deep-sea fishing deals, and many others. Moreover, giving the contract to a company that has engaged in the whitewash of the Hathras rape seemed a bit hypocritical considering how the CPM had been very vocal about the state actions, claims some.