Kerala: How recurring police brutalities are denting the image of ‘strongman’ Pinarayi Vijayan

Excesses are happening despite the chief minister's claim that the state has the best police system in the world.

ByK A Shaji

Published Oct 22, 2022 | 1:00 PM Updated Oct 22, 2022 | 10:41 PM

Pinarayi journalists

An ardent fan of Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan and an activist of the ruling CPI(M)’s youth wing DYFI, 25-year-old P Vignesh of Kilikollur from the state’s Kollam district, never thought he would be subjected to brutal police excesses one day, and that too for refusing to stand surety for an accused in a drug-peddling case.

The constables continued their third-degree torture even when Vignesh identified himself as an activist of the ruling party; he never expected such an assault from the police force under Vijayan.

Vignesh’s soldier brother, 30-year-old Vishnu, who reached the station, was also subjected to extreme brutality.

The police slapped a false case of attacking officers inside the station on them, and they had to spend 12 days in judicial custody.

Public anger

Though the sequence of events occurred in August, it caused widespread consternation only this week in Kerala after the government — which had suspended four police personnel — decided to limit the punishment for the erring policemen to mere transfers, and the mother of the youths wrote a letter to Union Defence Minister Rajnath Singh to intervene in the matter on behalf of the soldier son.

Vignesh swore that he reached the police station as demanded by one of the constables, and only then was he told that he must stand surety to the drug case accused. The altercation began when he said the DYFI policy was against standing surety to drug peddlers.

“Station House Officer (SHO) Manikandan, who summoned me to the station, was my neighbour, and I expected no bad treatment there. But they brutally attacked even my brother for my refusal to stand surety to such an offender,” Vignesh told South First.

“Three officials attacked us, breaking my fingers and damaging my legs. We never thought such atrocities would happen under this government. We feel disappointed that the disciplinary action ended in just a transfer.”

A slew of such incidents

This was not an isolated incident.

On midnight of 19 October, cops dragged a 34-year-old woman, her 10-year-old son, and her 24-year-old brother along the road on the Manjeri-Nilambur route to the police station, claiming they were spotted under “suspicious circumstances” in a car on the roadside.

The three were on the way to Nilambur to attend a family function, and stopped for a while, looking for a tea shop. The police beat them up and showered them with abuse.

With no remedial measures on the part of the police top brass and the government, the victim, Amritha N Jose, lodged complaints with state-level and national human rights commissions.

On 12 June, activist Aysha Renna was brutally attacked by the police in Malappuram for participating in a protest against the demolition of the house of fellow activist Afreen Fatima in Uttar Pradesh. In preventive custody, she was humiliated by an officer.

Hardly a week ago, a sub-inspector in Kothamangalam was placed under suspension for beating up a leader of CPI(M)’s student wing SFI, who arrived at the local station enquiring about another student who was detained by the cops.

Outrage begets action

Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan being escorted by police officials in Thiruvananthapuram. (South First)

Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan is escorted by police officials in Thiruvananthapuram. (South First)

The action from the authorities in these cases came only after visuals of the excesses surfaced on social media.

The continuing excesses of police, despite Vijayan’s projecting of himself as an able chief minister, has landed the state’s Home Department in a tight spot.

Even the usual social media defenders of the chief minister are now using their platforms to dub him the weakest home minister the state has ever seen.

Across the state, they are now listing out the excesses by the police under Vijayan, despite Industry Minister P Rajeev coming out in support of the chief minister, claiming the state has the most robust police force in the world.

Related: Why Kerala Police uses KAAPA to quash dissent

Vijayan unwavering in his stand

Despite mounting criticism, Vijayan is sticking to his old stand that any corrective action would adversely affect the morale of the police force.

Hardly two months have gone by since the chief minister used the inaugural session of the annual conference of the Kerala Police Association to claim that the police force under him was the best in the country.

Claiming the state was now in a golden age of police reforms, he said the old days — when the police frequently indulged in atrocities and targeted ordinary people — would not return.

Within an hour, local news channels began scrolling news of a superintendent of police placing his gunman under suspension for dereliction of duty because the latter refused to bathe his pet dogs. The furore later forced the inspector general of police to step in and revoke the suspension.

On the concluding day of the same conference, three constables who attended it went on a rampage in the nearby Kilimanoor village. After the conference’s conclusion, the three imbibed cheap, locally-available liquor and, under the influence, urinated in front of a railway employee’s house.

When the man protested, the constables brutally attacked him, breaking one of his ribs. The constables were arrested only after a huge hue and cry, and under immense public pressure.

Related: Has Pinarayi Vijayan lost his grip over Kerala Police?

CM abusing his powers?

Last year, the 64,000-strong state police force topped the Indian Police Foundation’s integrity and corruption-free service ranking among all state police forces. It was ranked third on police sensitivity, fourth on good behaviour and smart policing, and fifth on accessibility and responsiveness.

However, Vijayan himself confirmed in the assembly that the state reported 10 custodial deaths after he became chief minister on 25 May, 2016.

Vijayan kept the Home Department to himself when he became chief minister. Hardly anyone questioned the decision, and the widespread perception was that he would be an able home minister, given that he had suffered extreme police brutality himself, especially during the Emergency.

But his critics now say that Kerala has witnessed unprecedented police brutality and denial of natural justice despite the chief minister’s claims of police reforms. They accuse Vijayan of being a mute spectator as the police engage in fake encounters, custodial torture, and excesses targeting the weaker segments of society.

And with some of his policies, such as the K-Rail project, facing widespread opposition from the people, he is also being accused of using the police to target critics.

Where are the repercussions?

Kerala Police

Police constables of Kerala in action. (Kerala police official website.)

When the media reports major breaches of human rights, the chief minister makes public declarations that those responsible would not be protected and that strict action would be taken against them.

However, in practice, nothing much happens. And the police continued to interpret law and order on their whim.

According to journalist-turned-human rights activist BRP Bhaskar, almost all departments in the first Vijayan government performed well. That was why people gave him a second mandate. The sole exception was the Home Department, Bhaskar told South First.

However, the ruling CPI(M), while deciding to drop all its existing ministers — including top performers like Health Minister KK Shailaja, Finance Minister TM Thomas Issac, and PWD Minister G Sudhakaran — retained Vijayan because the party fought the election under his leadership.

According to Bhaskar, the Home Department under Vijayan failed to make any positive impact even one year after returning to power, and recent actions of the police are resulting in large-scale anti-government sentiment in the state.

The police under Vijayan are drawing flak even from the CPI, the second-largest constituent of the LDF.

At its just-concluded state conference in Thiruvananthapuram, CPI leaders accused Vijayan of using the police to assuage his ego and not to improve the overall image of the ruling front.

The recent appointment of controversial CPI(M) leader P Sasi as Vijayan’s political secretary may only worsen matters, according to political observer Joseph C Mathew.

Sasi, embroiled in many scandals, now controls the police, Mathew told South First. Sasi is alleged to be behind the many unprecedented types of investigations the police are conducting that end up embarrassing the ruling LDF.