Kerala police : Whither goest thou?

M G Radhakrishnan


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Kerala was ranked top in PFI’s Smart Policing Index | PTI Photo

The repressive and the ridiculous. The twin characteristics of every authoritarian regime as repeatedly shown by history and also tellingly portrayed by Charlie Chaplin in his classic Great Dictator (1940). Chaplin roared with laughter watching the Nazi propaganda documentary, Triumph of the Will (1935), made by the ace German director, Leni Riefenstahl when it was screened at the New York’s Museum of Modern Art, while the rest of the audience sat appalled. According to Jurgen Trimborn, biographer of Riefenstahl, much of Great Dictator was inspired by her documentary.

We often hear that Kerala Police is one of the best police forces in the country. Although my multiple experiences make me skeptical, this has been corroborated by a 2021 survey conducted by the Indian Police Foundation (IPF), an independent think tank run by former police officers. The top states that came on 1st to 5th ranks in PFI’s Smart Policing Index are Andhra, Telangana, Assam, Kerala and Sikkim. The worst performers are Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. The ranking was based on indices like integrity, accountability, fairness, efficiency, trust, accessibility, sensitivity, responsiveness, technology adoption, etc. The IPF is led by Prakash Singh, former DGP, UP, and N Ramachandran, former DGP, Assam & Meghalaya who belongs to Kerala.

But even those who believe in Kerala Police’s worth would be appalled by its ridiculous performance over the past few months. Although there have been various incidents of police brutality in Kerala since independence, including the infamous murders of Rajan and Varghese, the state has had a lower number of incidents like custodial deaths in recent times. Kerala is 16th in the number of deaths in judicial custody and 12th in deaths in police custody among 24 major states and Union Territories during the last five years. Among the 11,419 custodial deaths that occurred in India during 2016-22, Uttar Pradesh accounted for 2580 while Kerala’s share was 235 according to the National Human Rights Commission.

However, the recent series of inept actions and downright blunders by the Kerala Police appear unprecedented. But it doesn’t mean that the blunders have had no harmful consequences. They were clearly driven by political vendetta, they wreaked havoc in many lives and brought huge shame upon themselves and on the government in the process. If a police force known for its quality commits so many gaffes in a row, who should be held primarily responsible? Certainly, the political leadership under which it functions. Hence both the culpability and the consequent shame are on the Left Democratic Front government and especially Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan, who runs the Home portfolio. It is not a vicarious responsibility either. For, most of the recent blunders by the police were committed ostensibly to help the government. And all of them followed the appointment as Chief Minister’s Political Secretary, P.Sasi who was expelled from CPI(M) for sexual misconduct in 2011.

The last Pinarayi govt brought itself a bad name on account of the brutality of the police

Police leadership is the second accused in this pathetic flop show. Professional and competent leadership of the police would either ignore the wrong directives of the political masters or it would try to convince them of their wrongness. Kerala even had a DGP, Jacob Punnuse, who openly stated that the force was not liable to obey illegal orders given from the top. But when police leadership is chosen more on the basis of sycophancy than merit, no surprise that it shoots itself in the foot more often. Naturally, those who receive undue positions would bend over backward to appease their masters by doing whatever they want. The other side of sycophancy is sleaze and the stinking stories being heard about the present high echelons of police were unheard of before.

The last Pinarayi government brought itself a bad name more on account of the brutality of the police than the blundering which characterizes the present one. The inhuman treatment of Mahija, mother of Jishnu Prannoy who committed suicide following harassment by his college management (2017); custodial death of Sreejith at the Varappuzha police station (2018); arrest of Alan and Taha of Kozhikode accusing them of Maoist activities which even the National Investigating Agency’s court found appalling (2019); the encounter killings of alleged Maoists (eight persons in total during 2016-2020, a record in Kerala), etc. The most hare-brained was the initiation in 2019 of the ordinance to amend Kerala Police Act, 2011 to bring in repressive clauses which were thrown out earlier by the Supreme Court. The embarrassed government withdrew the ordinance even after it was signed by the Governor, bowing to public outcry. It badly mauled the image of the Left when it was shouting from rooftops against the Modi government’s repressive ways.

Vendetta-driven blundering seems to be the hallmark of the second Pinarayi government. Look at the number of police gaffes that occurred in the past month alone. Palakkad Vigilance team apprehended without the due procedure P.S.Sarith, the co-accused in the Life Mission scam a day after Swapna Suresh attacked the Chief Minister. The hasty move only exposed the fears triggered by Swapna in the government. Next came the revelation that Shaj Kiran, a small-time middleman, was called multiple times by no less than M.R. Ajitkumar, ADGP (Vigilance) in connection with Swapna’s revelations which finally led to the police officer’s ouster from his post. But within 10 days, an ex-cadre post was created to accommodate Kumar indicating that his actions were at the government’s behest. Soon followed the mockery of an arrest of P C George on a sexual assault case. George was freed on bail the same day by the court making the government lose face. On June 18, Ottapalam Police charged a case against film director Kunjila Mascillamani for “insulting Hindu gods” on social media, a day after she was forcibly removed for shouting slogans against the government from the venue of the International Women’s Film Festival at Kozhikode. This was followed by the dramatic arrest of K.S. Sabarinath, charged with conspiracy to kill the Chief minister. The court issued bail immediately and pooh-poohed at the police’s “proof” -a screenshot from a WhatsApp chat asking Youth Congress members to show black flags inside an aircraft!

CJI expressed concern about hasty and indiscriminate arrests that assault personal liberty | Mathrubhumi Photo

Ironically, Sabarinath’s arrest came two days after the Chief Justice of India, NV Ramana, expressed concern about hasty and indiscriminate arrests that assault personal liberty. The Hindu commented that the CJI’s expression of concern is a timely reminder to regimes that have been using their police powers to crack down on critics, activists, and those politically not aligned with them. On the day Sabarinath was arrested, the Supreme Court Bench of Justices D.Y. Chandrachud and A.S. Bopanna warned the UP government against taking any precipitate action against Mohammed Zubair, founder of Alt News who was arrested for his tweets. The next day, the apex court’s Bench of Justices Surya Kant and J.B.Pardiwala directed five state governments not to take coercive action against BJP’s Nupur Sharma in the multiple FIRs registered against her following her comments on Prophet Muhammed.

Now, another shocker has been revealed by Asianet News anchor Vinu V John that a criminal case is registered against him for making some comments on his show against CPI(M) leader Elamaram Kareem in April. This was never conveyed to John who knew it only recently during a police verification for the renewal of his passport. So much for Kerala’s outburst against the arrest of Zubair.

Taking action against buses owned by IndiGo airline company for non-payment of tax by the State Motor Vehicles department, a day after the company barred CPI(M) leader E.P.Jayarajan and two Youth Congress activists from flying on the airline is the latest repressive/ridiculous. Kerala Police which booked the Congress youths for shouting slogans, let Jayarajan who shoved them to the floor, scot-free. The next day, police had egg on the face when the court ordered them to register a case for attempted murder against Jayarajan. As the Abba line goes, Should I laugh or cry?

Postscript: Kerala has the uncanny skill to spring a good surprise even when dystopic clouds appear to overwhelm. The week saw three expressions of regret that repose our faith in ourselves. Saji Cherian for his irresponsible comments about the constitution, K Sudhakaran for his uncivilized comments about MM Mani, and Mani himself for his vulgar outburst on KK Rema after a powerful rebuff from Speaker MB Rajesh. Now let us, as incorrigible optimists, wait for wisdom to dawn on those who rushed in where angels feared to tread to defend and justify the three foul-mouths.

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