Kerala Police: Is Pinarayi Vijayan responsible for increasing police excesses, or has he lost his grip?

The state has witnessed several instances of police excesses, especially those targeting protesters and critics of the CPI(M) strongman.

ByK A Shaji

Published Jul 25, 2022 | 3:17 PM Updated Jul 29, 2022 | 1:09 PM

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

While inaugurating the annual conference of the Kerala Police Association at Thonnakkal on the outskirts of Thiruvananthapuram on Saturday, 23 July, Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan termed the police force under him as the best in the country. He said the state was now in a golden age of police reforms. Gone are the days, he added for good measure, when the state police frequently indulged in atrocities and targeted ordinary people.

In an under an hour of the speech, the chief minister had egg on his face.

Police high-handedness

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 the SP’s pet dogs. The furore forced the inspector general of police to step in and revoke the suspension.

There was more embarrassment in store for Vijayan.

Three constables who had arrived in Thonnakkal from Changanassery for the very conference Vijayan had addressed, went on a rampage in the nearby Kilimanoor village.

After the conference, the three apparently 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 immense public pressure.

Is Vijayan, who has reputation of being a strongman, losing control of a force that had built for itself an enviable reputation in recent years?

Losing its reputation

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

When Vijayan became chief minister on 25 May, 2016, he kept the Home Department to himself. 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 been witnessing 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 engaged 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.

Targeting critics

When the media report 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. But in practice, nothing much happens. And the police have continued to interpret law and order per their whims.

According to journalist-turned-human rights activist BRP Bhaskar, almost all departments in the first Vijayan government performed well, and that was the reason people gave it a second consecutive 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 on the grounds that the party had fought the election under his leadership.

According to Bhaskar, the Home Department under Vijayan has 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.

Senior journalist and Asianet TV Associate Editor Vinu V John — an arch critic of the chief minister and a coterie of CPI(M) leaders who comprise his kitchen cabinet — realised only last week how lawless the police had become. Or how the CPI(M) was not perhaps chary of using the force against opponents.

When John approached Thiruvananthapuram city police for verification related to the renewal of his passport, he was informed that renewal would not be possible as he had a “serious” criminal case pending against him.

The case was filed without informing him, and was clearly kept in “safe custody”, waiting for the right occasion to invoke.

Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan interacts with police officers. (South First)

Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan interacts with police officers. (South First)

The charge against John was that he “threatened” and “humiliated” CPI(M) Rajya Sabha member Elamarom Kareem during a prime-time TV discussion on a bandh called by different central trade unions. All John had done was criticise Kareem’s indirect justification of the violence unleashed on civilians by a section of bandh’s supporters.

For his efforts, John was booked under Sections 107, 116, 504 and 506 of the Indian Penal Code, which deal with “abetment of offence”, “intentional insult with intent to provoke breach of the peace”, and “criminal intimidation”, among other offences.

Aping BJP’s actions

John says the episode has helped people understand the extent of police highhandedness under the Pinarayi regime. He wondered how the CPI(M) national leadership would continue with its campaign against the BJP government at the Centre for showing insensitivity to the right to dissent and freedom of expression.

“In practice, the action taken against me is a nano version of the insensitivity of the BJP towards freedom of the press,” he said.

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

At its just-concluded district meet 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 reference was to the recent incident in which the police took a bus owned by airline major IndiGo into custody for not paying road taxes. The move was severely criticised as it came just a day after IndiGo enforced a three-week travel ban on LDF convener and top CPI(M) leader EP Jayarajan for his alleged physical assault on two Youth Congress workers, who attempted to protest onboard against Vijayan.

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

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

Just last week, a former Congress MLA was arrested on the charge of hatching a conspiracy to murder Vijayan, only to be granted bail by a judge who pooh-poohed the suggestion that WhatsApp messages about holding a black-flag protest against the chief minister amounted to an attempt to murder conspiracy.

There are several such cases where police action has been termed unwarranted or downright illegal by legal experts.

Losing his grip?

Former CPI(M) leader and social thinker, KM Shajahan, contended the recent police excesses and illegalities are a result of a “weak chief minister at the helm”, someone who justifies whatever action the police take by claiming he will not do anything to lower the morale of the force.

Shajahan told South First the CPI(M) has failed to learn any lessons from Vijayan’s first tenure, when the mother of an engineering student, who was found dead in mysterious circumstances in his college, was roughed up for holding a peaceful protest in front of the state secretariat.  Everybody condemned the action, except Vijayan, he said.

When a young man who married from an upper caste was kidnapped and murdered in Kottayam by the girl’s relatives, the police helped them by delaying the registration of an FIR and not diligently following up on the case.

In the sensational hit-and-run case involving IAS officer Sriram Venkataraman, in which a senior journalist was killed, police are accused of destroying crucial evidence and not following required procedures. Despite an ongoing trial, Venkataraman is back in service and was appointed Alappuzha district collector two days ago.

CPI(M) leaders South First contacted refused to make any comment, but agreed that actions of the police force have dented the party’s and the government’s image.

Within the party, Vijayan remains the most powerful and influential leader against whom few would level even fair criticism. So the possibility of the party correcting its Vijayan is remote, even though he has clearly failed in reining in the state police — whose actions may well mar the LDF’s electoral prospects in the coming months.