A movie poster in Kerala has brought back the memories of a horrendous act committed 37 years ago.
The poster of the movie Thankamani — The Bleeding Village, released on 4 September, has evoked memories of a nightmarish incident that happened on 22 October 1986, at Thankamani village in Idukki’s Kamakshy grama panchayat.
Considered a dark episode in the history of Kerala politics and police, the development is notoriously known as the “Thankamani Incident”.
A squabble between passengers of a private bus and its crew had then culminated in one of the most brutal police excesses in the state.
A bus skipping stop
Thankamani, a small hilly village, had around 1,000 families 37 years ago and a majority of them were agriculturists. The village then lacked many basic amenities, including electricity and roads.
The nearest township is Kattapana, 42 km away from Thankamani. The only mode of transport available then was bus services operated by private carriers and KSRTC.
The bus permit granted was between Kattapana and Thankamani. But one private bus, ‘Elite’, used to wind up its service from Kattappana at Paramada. To reach Thankamani, one had to travel another 2 km from Paramada.
The passengers of the Elite bus service thus faced great inconvenience as they had to walk from Paramada to reach Thankamani.
How it started
On 20 October, 1986, the bus ended its service at Paramada as usual. But four students on the bus questioned this and pleaded with the crew to proceed to Thankamani.
An altercation followed and, eventually, the crew pushed out two students from the bus. The other two, who refused to alight from the bus, were taken to the Kattapana police station.
It has been alleged that the police manhandled the students before letting them go.
The next day, a group of students surrounded the bus. They demanded an unconditional apology from the bus crew. The students, with the help of locals, took the bus into custody and went to Thankamani.
The fateful day
On 22 October, 1986, to the surprise of students and locals, a group of policemen led by then Peerumedu Circle Inspector IC Thampan reached Thankamani in two jeeps. The owner of the bus, Elite Devasi, was also with them. Tension flared up when the police tried to release the bus from the villagers’ custody.
According to the government version, the protesters turned violent. The police resorted to a lathi charge before opening fire. The police action left one dead and many injured. Kozhimala Avarachan, 60, became a martyr in the incident. It also left many living martyrs like Udambakkal Mathew, a physically handicapped person with one leg.
The altercation didn’t end there. It took a turn for the worse.
Around 11 pm on that day, a large contingent of police arrived at the village and launched “Operation Thankamani”. It lasted till 3 am on 23 October, 1986. Under the pretext of a manhunt, the policemen were said to have committed inexplicable human rights violations and sexual violence.
For the Congress government led by K Karunakaran, the 13th session of the seventh Kerala Legislative Assembly was testing.
One after the other, the Opposition led by CPI(M) leader EK Nayanar got enough ammunition to attack the government.
It started with the police firing at Ponkunnam Coco Processing Unit in Kottayam on 20 October, 1986, the day on which the 13th session commenced. Two days later came the Thankamani Incident.
A day after the incident, on 23 October, the Opposition moved an adjournment motion on the Thankamani incident in the Assembly.
Chief Minister Karunakaran, who defended the police action at Thankamani, then announced a judicial inquiry to pacify the Opposition. He also added that one policeman was seriously injured and 15 others suffered minor injuries in the violence.
But Nayanar, who demanded an inquiry by a Joint Assembly Committee, comprising MLAs from all political parties, alleged that it was the police who unilaterally attacked the locals. He also alleged that the judicial inquiry was just an eyewash.
The adjournment motion was eventually rejected.
The horrid details of the police atrocity at Thankamani came to light on 30 October, 1986, as the then MLA of Udumbanchola constituency in Idukki, M Jinadevan, presented a calling attention motion on the incident.
In his words, the 300-odd policemen who arrived at Thankamani committed horrendous acts, including assault, theft, molestation, and rape.
“Every house and shop at Thankamani was raided by the police. They destroyed whatever they saw. They stole valuables including money,” Jinadevan said.
He further added, “They even stole stereo sets, bedsheets, pillows, toothbrushes, talcum powder, and others. Young women’s modesty got outraged. Policemen found pleasure in injuring young women by biting their cheeks.”
The MLA said normalcy was not restored even a week after the incident.
“The police are still engaged in searching. The police camp opened there has become a nightmare for the locals. If the government has any commitment towards the people, it should
conduct a thorough inquiry on the police atrocity and must take immediate steps to discontinue the camp,” Jinadevan said.
However, Karunakaran stated that the village has returned to normalcy and no new cases of police atrocity have been reported since 23 October.
On 7 November, 1986, 17 days after the incident, Karunakaran made a statement in the Assembly. According to him, a primary investigation report on the incident found some procedural lapses on the part of the police.
“It was also found that some personnel violated the directions of the higher officials. There is also merit in complaints of policemen misbehaving with women. But there is no rape. Such allegations are baseless,” Karunakaran said.
The government then announced that it had suspended one circle inspector (Ahmad Kunju), two sub-inspectors (Alex Mathew and Purushothaman Pillai), and a constable (Vijayan) in connection with the incident.
Second adjournment motion
Almost a month after the incident, the Opposition once again brought an adjournment motion on the police atrocity at Thankamani on 17 November, 1986.
The Opposition highlighted that the people at Thankamani live in fear and the government has yet to alleviate their concerns, including announcing compensation for the victims of police atrocity.
According to Nayanar, the police treated people as if they were enemies from a foreign land. How could one define the act of policemen who ate all the snacks in a teashop operated by a woman, Rukmini, and didn’t pay a single penny, he asked.
At the same time, the then finance minister Thachadi Prabhakaran made the government’s stance clear that it had nothing to hide and was open to any suggestions and information from the Opposition. He also requested the Opposition to not play politics on the incident especially when the Assembly election was due.
The Congress government had appointed two commissions, including a judicial commission, to investigate the Thankamani Incident. The first was the Justice Sreedevi Commission and
the second was the Prahladan Commission.
Significance of Thankamani Incident
In his book Keralathinte Rashtreeya Charithram (The History of Kerala Politics), RK Bijuraj remarks that it was during the Thankamani Incident that the women’s rights organisations in the state came under a banner for the first time. The organisations protested against the government and demanded the resignation of Karunakaran.
According to Bijuraj, the incident became a political weapon in the Assembly elections as both fronts used it to score political brownie points.
“Women’s organisations campaigned against Karunakaran in his constituency, Mala. A ‘Thankamani Rally’ was even organised against him. Karunakaran countered these by bringing martyr Avarachan’s wife Elikutty for his campaigning after offering her a job,” Bijuraj wrote.
In Idukki, the left brought a woman, Chinnamma, whose daughter slashed the hand of a policeman when he tried to molest her, for campaigning against the government.
In the elections to the eighth Kerala Assembly, the Left eventually won and Nayanar became the chief minister.
Within months after coming to power, the Left government suspended nine police officers, including a Superintendent of Police (S Pulikeshi). With that, the number of officers who faced disciplinary action in connection with the incident rose to 13.
A total of 27 crime cases were registered at Kattappana Police Station in connection with the Thankamani Incident. The left government decided to hand over these cases to the CBI, as per the recommendation of the Sreedevi Commission.
A request in this regard was also forwarded to the Ministry of Personnel, Pension and Public Grievances. But later, the ministry turned down the request.
Then came the directive from the Kerala High Court, asking the government to appoint a special squad and appoint an officer not below the rank of DIG to oversee the investigation of the cases registered at Kattappana Police Station.
The government formed a special squad and appointed then Central Zone DIG PK Hormis Tharakan to oversee the investigations.
Though the fate of the investigation by the special squad is not known, records show that a total of 14 police officers were suspended in connection with the incident. But later, the suspension of 10 officers was revoked pending departmental inquiry.
Compensation to victims
The Kerala High Court in a judgement on 18 November, 1991, granted compensation to various petitioners, observing that the state must repair the damage done by its officers.
Of the many compensations awarded by the court, the highest, ₹25,000, went to a petitioner who alleged inhuman and barbaric behaviour by the police. The petitioner, a woman, complained of outraging her modesty as well as her two daughters by the police.
When the incident occurred, the then-Opposition leader Nayanar had alleged that the police were registering false cases against the locals. More than a decade after the incident, in 1999, PP Sulaiman Rawther, MLA, asked Nayanar whether his government was ready to withdraw the cases against the locals.
To this Nayanar answered that two cases were registered against the locals: One for threatening the bus crew and another for damaging the bus, and police vehicles and attacking the policemen, and charge sheets for both cases were filed by the crime branch.
He then added that the MLA’s petition for withdrawing the said cases would be considered.
Since then, nothing was heard about the incident and it slowly faded into oblivion until it again got a fresh lease of life, thanks to the movie poster.