Shooting to Kill: In LDF-ruled Kerala, Two Gruesome Encounter Killings

Recently the brutal attack on eight undertrials outside the Bhopal Central jail had generated national outrage. Will these killings in Kerala, at the moment under the Left Democratic Front (LDF) government, also generate the same kind of opposition and criticism?

Kerela Encounter

The brutal shooting down of two persons, alleged to be Maoists have brought the spectre of extra-judicial killings, ‘encounters’ to haunt left-ruled Kerala. Last week, on Thursday, two persons were shot dead in a brutal fashion with several bullets being ploughed into the bodies of two persons.  The killings took place in in the forests of Nilambur, close to the Kerala-Tamil Nadu border. Significantly, the Maoists killed in the encounter, Kuppu Devaraj, a senior member of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of India (Maoist), and Ajitha, a woman leader of the group’s Karnataka wing, do not have any cases registered against them in Kerala. As many as 19 bullets found inside of the body of Ajitha have shocked the conscience of rights defenders in the state.

Alliance partner in the LDF government in the state, CPI has raised serious questions over these actions. An article in the party mouthpiece Janayugom drew parallels between this encounter and the infamous fake encounter in 1970 in which Naxalite Arikkad Varghese was killed. Varghese was then close to the present chief minister, Pinarayi Vijayan. Chief Minister Vijayan has brushed aside the allegations and has chosen to stand with the police. On Sunday, he ordered an investigation by a magistrate into the incident.

The disease of “encounters”, or extra-judicial killings, by members of the police, security or armed forces is at least half a century old, but has now assumed epidemic proportions. In Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand, the police have been on the rampage.

A report by the National Human Rights Commission of India states that half of the 2,560 police encounters reported between 1993 and 2009 were found to be false. Action was not taken against approximately 85 per cent of the culprits. Recently the brutal attack on eight undertrials outside the Bhopal Central jail had generated national outrage. Will these killings in Kerala, at the moment with an LDF government, also generate the same kind of opposition?

“No government has a right to kill the voices that dissent,” said Kanam Rajendran, state Secretary of the Communist Party of India, in Alappuzha. “Such steps to do away with the people who raise genuine issues of the downtrodden should never be adopted by a civilised society. The CPI organ said:“…if Varghese’s custodial killing had shaken the entire civil society in Kerala 40 years ago, leading to the conviction of the police officer responsible for it, this time round it is the duty of the Pinarayi government to tell the people what really happened at Nilambur.”

“There had been some Maoists activity in that area for the last few years and the police have been continuously attacked by this group,” Vijayan said in response to the allegations. “As far as I know this was a genuine police operation.” The Communist Party of India (Marxist) leads the ruling coalition, followed by the Communist Party of India and several smaller parties. The coalition came to power earlier this year.

With no credible explanation from the government as to why the two—a woman and a man—both not from the state, were killed and not captured, the suspicions of a fake-encounter are credible. That both were ripped apart by bursts of bullets and that the police couldn't produce any evidence of them being armed, makes the suspicions very strong.

For one, it is difficult to recall an encounter in Kerala in recent memory. Even when the previous Congress-led coalition – which is seemingly at ideological loggerheads with the Maoists – was in charge, despite conducting several raids in the Western Ghats section of the state, the police did not report encounters. All these years, a few arrests here and there were perhaps the maximum the administration did to keep Maoists at bay.

The demand for a fair enquiry has grown and the Pinarayi Vijayan government is under a lot of pressure primarily because the state's tolerance to "encounter" killings is very low. The state hasn't had one in the last 46 years since a legendary Naxalite leader, Arikkad Varghese, was killed in a fake encounter.

Varghese's killing is a perpetual blot on the state's public conscience. Its perpetrators of the crime had been sent to jail decades later when the police constable who pulled the trigger confessed in his old age out of crushing guilt. The police atrocities during the emergency later made the people of the state extremely vigilant against possible rights-abuses by the police and the government.

The CPM's problem will also be its historical baggage regarding the radical left. The most well-known Naxalite leader in the state, K Ajitha, has publicly recounted how inimical the CPM had been to the far left even in the 1960s when their ideology was taking roots in the state. In her memoirs, she quotes AK Gopalan, the leader after whom the party headquarters in Delhi is named, as saying that their effort would not help the labour-peasant movements, but would destroy the "revolutionary organisation" while strengthening the bourgeoise ruling class.Gopalan's problem was that his party was in power and his point was simple: our revolution was for the working class and against the bourgeois ruling class, but your revolution is against us. Pinarayi's  problem is no different, says Ajitha.

Beyond the debate about encounter-killing, and whose ideology is really left, the more fundamental question is if Kerala really needs such an overkill? Does the Maoist situation in the state really warrant an excessive operation? Is to secure central government's anti-Maoists funds as some allege?

The Supreme Court on Encounters
In 2009, the Andhra Pradesh high court had held: “If a person goes with a gun to kill another, the intended victim is entitled to act in self-defence and if he so acts, there is no right in the former to kill him in order to prevent him from acting in self-defence.”
It held that, “where a police officer causes the death of a person acting or purporting to act in discharge of official duties or in self-defence as the case may be, the first information relating to such circumstance shall be recorded and registered as a first information report (FIR)”.

The Supreme Court unfortunately stayed this judgment on an appeal from the Andhra Pradesh Police Officers Association and has kept it pending all these years.

In 2014, another bench of the Supreme Court has laid down 16 guidelines to be followed in investigating police encounters resulting in death.

The number of encounter cases has gone up from 90,946 in 2008-09 to 105,664 in 2005-16.

In a detailed expose in Frontline (November 25, 2016), Divya Trivedi reported: “Statistics released by the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) for 2015 show that Muslims constituted a greater share in the prison population than any other segment of people. While their share in India’s population as per Census 2011 was 14.2 per cent, their proportion in the undertrial prison population stood at 20.9 per cent.” The percentage of convicted Muslims was 15.8 per cent. The percentage of Muslims among detainees was also high at 23.8 per cent. In fact, they fared as badly as dalits and the tribal people. Together, these three communities constituted 39 per cent of the population but accounted for more than 55 per cent of all undertrials and 50.4 per cent of all convicts.”

The arrogance of state power and unaccountability are evident in such killings, whichever state they take place in.



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