As govt defends lapses, Kerala police under scanner  

The incidents of alleged police high-handedness reported during just over the last two months tell a story.

When the chief minister of a state says that a protest against alleged police brutality was “extremist” in nature, it could reflect many things – could an effective, inclusive policing system be one of them? A section of the public in Kerala doesn’t concur; the state’s Congress-led opposition certainly doesn’t.

Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan, who holds the Home portfolio in the CPM-led Left Democratic Front (LDF) government, has over the past couple of months been in damage control mode due to recurring allegations of police atrocities and slipshod law and order enforcement. He has acted on these violations every time, removing erring officials from duty, announcing internal inquiries and largely maintaining a tough public face while addressing these failures. The statements of intent, however, have not quite translated into results.

The incidents of alleged police high-handedness reported during just over the last two months tell a story. S R Sreejith (26), who was tortured in custody, died in Varappuzha in Ernakulam district. It was later revealed that local police had detained the youth in connection with a case of abetting suicide, based on a false lead; in Malappuram, police failed to act on a complaint by the district Childline about the abuse of a 10-year-old girl during a film screening in Edappal. The accused, Moideenkutty, was arrested after TV channels aired visuals of the abuse, submitted by proprietors of the cinema.

In what is alleged as an act of “revenge”, the police detained one of the proprietors for “hiding” information on the abuse; in Kottayam, suspects in the alleged honour killing of Dalit Christian youth Kevin P Joseph — three days after his wedding — are learnt to have interacted with a local police official after abducting the victim. At the Gandhinagar police station, SHO M S Shibu is reported to have told Kevin’s wife Neenu that her petition regarding her missing husband would be taken up later since he was engaged in arrangements for the chief minister’s visit to the district.

The latest flashpoint surfaced at Edathala in Ernakulam, where a 39-year-old man, Usman, was allegedly assaulted by policemen, causing severe injuries to his face. Four policemen have since been booked on assault charges over the incident, believed to have been set off by an altercation between Usman and the plainclothesmen over a minor road accident. Chief Minister Vijayan made the statement about extremist influences while responding to protests against police action in Edathala.

Police officials have faced action in the Varappuzha, Edappal and Gandhinagar cases as well, but criticism has come from human rights activists and from within the ruling Left, against their functioning. The CPM leadership and the chief minister himself have chosen to view the incidents as “isolated” but have their task cut out in defending these recurring lapses.

“There is a small section of police officers who are trouble-makers. They could even be acting as part of an agenda to dent the government’s credentials. The government should take stringent measures, including their removal from the force,” CPM state secretary Kodiyeri Balakrishnan said. V S Achuthanandan, former chief minister and chairperson of the Administrative Reforms Commission, is among leaders who have raised concerns on policing in the state.

The murder of Latvian tourist Liga Skromane in Thiruvananthapuram was also followed by allegations that local police was non-responsive during the crucial initial hours after she went missing. The police have since announced tourism police aid centres at key destinations, in what is seen as an attempt to regain credibility.

Initiatives, including transgender help-desks, at all police stations are part of an ongoing process of correction but human rights activists feel the right start would be in addressing the issue of political affiliations within the force and strengthening systems to redress grievances, including the State Police Complaint Authority.

The CPM has fought back by pointing to similar incidents — and alleged failures in follow-up action — under the previous Congress-led United Democratic Front government. Balakrishnan said officials who were heading the police association under the previous government continued to be a disruptive influence. The party’s standard line of defence has also been backed by the LDF’s massive win in the Chengannur assembly by-poll in May, a result the CPM projects as an overwhelming endorsement by the people of its two years in office.

For a state that has traditionally ranked high in surveys on law and order indices, reports of policing lapses could serve as a point of introspection.

The recent incidents are significant when viewed together with a report by DGP Loknath Behera, submitted to the Kerala State Human Rights Commission (KSHRC). The report said that a total of 387 police officials, of different ranks, are facing criminal charges in the state. The government has initiated corrective measures, on rather expected lines, by forming a committee to study the situation. Its unofficial take on the charges, however, is that political motives and media biases are at play in targeting the government. When KSHRC acting chairperson P Mohanadas sought a CBI probe into the Varappuzha custodial death, Pinarayi Vijayan countered by accusing the commission of acting for political interests.

The Congress has tried to mobilise consensus against police brutalities and the alleged influence of the ruling CPM in the state police, but has itself been criticised for not going beyond the politics of it all. “By defending the police assault in Aluva, the chief minister has adopted the line of the Sangh Parivar, which brands its critics extremists and asks them to go to Pakistan,” opposition leader Ramesh Chennithala said.

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As govt defends lapses, Kerala police under scanner  


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