The Malappuram bypoll is the first electoral test for the LDF government since it came to power in Kerala last year. And the tragic death of an 18-year-old student shows all signs of affecting the poll outcome.
On April 8th, the Kerala government put out a newspaper advertisement justifying the use of violence against the mother of the 18-year-old who had allegedly committed suicide. Apart from claiming no evidence of police “high handedness”, the ad also promised an efficient and impartial handling of the case.
The mother Mahija from Kozhikode in north Kerala and her teenaged daughter had been fasting since April 5th demanding justice for their son and sibling Jishnu Pranoy who they allege was murdered. They then called off the fast four days later.
Jishnu, a first-year engineering student, was found dead in his college under mysterious circumstances on January 6th. The family that has been protesting since then, travelled 450 km from their village to Thiruvananthapuram on April 5th to the DGP’s office demanding justice.
Mahija says she had exhausted all other options. “I tried everything. My son did not kill himself; he was killed by someone. Eighty two days have passed without the police nabbing the culprits. I have written to the CM. What else do you expect a woman to do?”
At the time of filing this report all the accused had been arrested and subsequently let off on bail. But that an entire administration had to be pressurised into taking action because of a family’s open dissent is significant.
The only ‘concrete’ action that the police took was on the grieving family itself. Mahija, her husband Ashokan and her brother Sreejith, were dragged through the road and bundled into a police van following their peaceful protest in front of the DGP’s office. As the videos flashed across news channels in Kerala, all hell broke loose and trending topics on social media changed from #JusticeforJishnu to #JusticeforMahija.
So where did it go wrong for CM Pinarayi Vijayan and his top brass in the state police? Or was it a concerted effort to look the other way in an attempt to protect some vested interests?
The answer lies in unravelling the string of incidents that started with Jishnu’s death.
The immediate reaction by the college management was what sparked off a revolt from the students in Nehru College of Engineering and Research, a private institution in Thrissur. The early allegations were that Jishnu was caught cheating in an exam he wrote on January 6th and was reprimanded by his teachers in the evening, and that Jishnu then hanged himself in shame.
But a few classmates blew the lid off the college’s claim. Akhil Mohandas, who was close to Jishnu, was among the first to speak out. “If what the college says is true, why did they not report the matter on the same day. How come nobody from the college helped us when we wanted to rush him to the hospital?”
Mohandas’ claims were substantiated on January 10th when the college failed to provide any proof of Jishnu’s malpractice to the fact-finding team sent by the Kerala Technical University (KTU) to probe the incident.
Students across political affiliations in the college went on strike on January 10th and alleged that Jishnu had died because of torture and harassment. They did not believe that he committed suicide. Some even said that he was beaten up and hung.
This allegation gained strength when the Principal AS Varadarajan gave a testimony before a team led by the local inspector that he wasn’t sure whether Jishnu had copied, but it was the Vice-Principal Shakthivel and the Public Relations Officer SanjithViswanathan who claimed that he had.
Both Shakthivel and Vishwanathan are now the co-accused for abetting Jishnu’s suicide, along with Praveen, the invigilator.
Within a few days of Jishnu’s death, allegations against the college had turned into serious accusations when injury marks were found on his body, a claim later substantiated by the post mortem report on January 19th.
It was then that Jishnu’s family began to suspect that he might have been murdered. “From the moment I saw his body, I knew this wasn’t a suicide. He had injury marks from his feet to neck. How will there be marks on a person who hanged himself,’’ Jishnu’s uncle Sreejith told HT.
It took the reluctant police 38 days—February 13th—to file an FIR against the authorities for abetment of suicide under Section 306.
“Why did the police wait for more than a month to file an FIR? There were testimonies of Jishnu’s classmates. Who were the police trying to protecct,” asks Sreejith.
It was only in mid-February when blood stains were recovered from the college’s board room, used mainly by Vishwanathan, that the police finally gathered their wits. There were no blood stains in the bathroom where Jishnu was found. A full month later, when it was learnt that the stains matched Jishnu’s blood group, a test that typically takes a few hours, the cops launched a hunt for Vishwanathan. But by then, Vishwanathan had gone underground and applied for anticipatory bail.
The family claims that by delaying the arrest the police had deliberately given enough time for the accused to move bail, especially for the college’s all-powerful chairman and accused number one in the case, P Krishnadas, around whom the whole script now revolves.
The final nail in the coffin was an audio clip of Jishnu on the phone, and a few WhatsApp messages, which clearly showed that the boy’s questioning of the management didn’t sit well with the authorities. Both were recovered by the police from his phone after forensic analysis. Jishnu had called up SFI leaders to protest against the frequent shifting of exam dates.
The college initially decided to conduct the last semester examination a day after Christmas, so students had gone home early. Suddenly, the college decided to change the date to December 13th at short notice, which made it difficult for some students. The students protested, and the protest was led by Jishnu.
Jishnu, who comes from a middle-class family, was known to be an above average student and an activist. While doing so, he had run into trouble with the authorities, say classmates.
Though political activity is banned in Kerala’s private colleges, Jishnu, a Student Federation of India (SFI) activist since school, wanted the union to interfere. Students allege that the college had become a den for torture in trivial matters where Jishnu had raised his voice against. Students say that Jishnu had been branded a troublemaker by the management and that calling the SFI could have been the trigger.
Most private colleges in Kerala are run with an iron fist. There have been a number of reports over the last few months about strict measures on the campus. Nehru College students say there was a ‘torture room’ where students who don’t fall in line with policies were taken to task. It was the same ‘board room’ where blood stains believed to be Jishnu’s were found.
Jishnu’s family has attributed the initial police inaction to the nexus between the management and the top leadership of the ruling party. P Krishnadas, the chairman of the college, is a name synonymous with the private college sector in south India. Now the first accused, he runs a multi-crore business in the education sector. The Nehru Group of Institutions run by Krishnadas has 20 colleges, including engineering, medical, law, pharmacy, nursing and management. Nine of these are in Kerala, the rest in Tamil Nadu.
Krishnadas’ clout with the LDF government has never been in doubt. His name was most prominent when the state government in 2016 was reworking its agreement in terms of student intake and management quota fees. This year, the colleges wanted 40 percent as the minimum qualifying mark since seats were vacant; but the government stood on 55 percent. Krishnadas brokered a deal where colleges could increase the fees while sticking to 55 percent.
Krishnadas had leveraged his influence in the Kerala Self Financing Engineering College Managements’ Association regarding fee hike. Many say that while the Kerala government projected the MoU signing as taking control of the sector, the real deal involved alleged pay-offs to top politicians by Krishnadas.
“Most of us know that Krishnadas was the one who broke the stalemate between the government and the colleges. He extracted his pound of flesh now and the government turned a silent approver, says CR Neelakandan, a well-known civil rights activist in Kochi.
At one point, when the heat was on Krishnadas, 120 self-financing colleges shut shop for a day because there were rumours that an FIR would be filed against him.
Neelakandan also alleges that the political leadership in Kerala across parties is hand-in-glove with most private college managements. “Some leaders take a cut from the management, and capitation fee. When you do all that, you have no option but to protect them when they are in trouble,” adds Neelakandan.
Others allege that Krishnadas holds sway across four districts in Kerala—Kozhikode, Thrissur, Wayanad, Palakkad—by throwing in cash. “When elections are near, he pays off every political party in these areas. That is the closeness he enjoys. Who will speak up against him?” asks veteran journalist Roy Mathew.
The other accused in the case (Sanjith Vishwanathan, Sakthivel, and Praveen) are nowhere to be seen and investigators didn’t bother to trace them. Sakthivel was arrested only after the fast by Jishnu’s family.
For the government, more allegations started to emerge—about AK Balan, a minister in the present government and his wife PK Jameela, a doctor who previously served as the directorof State Government Health Services (GHS). When the allegations surrounding Jishnu’s death surfaced, a retired Jameela was the director at the PK Das Institute of Medical Sciences, another college owned by Krishnadas. Though there wasn’t enough evidence to suggest that she may have influenced the investigation in any way, Jameela’s leave of absence from February 2017 raised eyebrows and prompted questions from prominent activists and the opposition about a conflict of interest.
“I don’t think the Balans would have derailed the investigation. But then the commitment these politicians make to people like Krishnadas and even the top brass of the police is a story unto itself. So if family or friends close to Jishnu believe that there might have been some give and take, you can’t rule that out completely,” says Jayashanker, an advocate and a well-known political analyst.
That Mahija had written three letters of plea to the CM to look into Jishnu’s case and did not even get a reply speaks volumes about the nexus.
The Jishnu case is no longer just the tragedy of one family.
Already, the opposition has employed it as a political tool in the Lok Sabha. “There is no doubt the government was dancing to the tune of the college management. How do you explain the police giving so much time to the accused,” Ramesh Chennithala, leader of the opposition told media in Malappuram.
Even the BJP is not far behind. “There seems to be police raj in Kerala. They will harass an innocent family and let the culprits free. There is a complete breakdown in law and order,” BJP state chief Kummanam Rajasekaharan told HT. That the CPI(M) central leadership had to intervene to end the fast by Mahija has also hit Pinarayi Vijayan’s image.
It now remains to be seen what effect this will have on the Malappuram bypoll result. It’s a boost for the Muslim League and if the vote percentage goes up dramatically, Vijayan will have a lot of explaining to do to his party.
(Published in arrangement with GRIST Media)