At a time when the Kerala government is under fire for the growing frustration with police inaction in investigating crimes against women and children, the state has faced another acute embarrassment. Transport minister AK Saseendran resigned on 26th March following allegations of a lewd phone call with a woman. This latest incident only points to a larger malaise in the state along with the growing fury against injustice in cases of sexual harassment and violence.
On 5th March, chartered accountant student Mishel Shaji failed to turn up at her hostel in Kochi. Her worried parents rushed to the local police station to file a missing person complaint. Since she used a cell phone, the family assumed that the police could, and would, easily trace her location.
Mishel’s father Shaji Varghese recounts the horror at the station. “Initially, they told us to go to the nearby all-women station. There, the police just refused to do anything. We were asked to wait till the next morning when the inspector arrived.
“There is a lack of sensitisation in the lower rungs of the force and it is not because they are ignorant of the law, but because they are not skilled to handle such gender-sensitive cases.”
Eighteen-year-old Mishel’s body was recovered from the Kochi Lake the next evening. According to the preliminary investigation, she died by drowning – late the previous night. “Had the police acted on time, perhaps my girl would have been alive today. They could have easily located her through her mobile. At least, they could have tried. How can men in uniform make excuses when we ask for help?” asks a teary-eyed Varghese.
The Mishel Shaji case and police’s gross negligence shook Kerala after people on social media rallied to her cause—among others, actor Nivin Pauly called for justice in the case and soon #JusticeForMishel started trending. Politicians rallied as well to voice their support—Piravom MLA Anoop Jacob raised the issue in the State Assembly, Ernakulam MLA Hibi Eden requested a special investigation team, while MP Jose K Mani also sought a probe into the girl’s death. Under immense pressure to show that he was taking the gathering storm seriously, Kerala chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan eventually ordered an investigation by a special Crime Branch team and assured that the culprits would be severely punished. He also promised that a separate investigation would examine the Kerala police’s laxity.
Kerala police have been on the defensive for the last few months as they have been caught out again and again as being sluggish, insensitive and downright abusive of their power when it comes to crimes against women, children and transgenders. Stories of shoddy investigations, victim-blaming, covering up errors and simply a failure to act have hit the headlines in the local media regularly, leaving the Left government red-faced. The current government, less than a year in power, had come to power with loud promises of increasing safety for women and children.
Kerala police have been on the defensive for the last few months as they have been caught out again and again as being sluggish, insensitive and downright abusive of their power when it comes to crimes against women, children and transgenders.
Protests against the Kerala police in the Mishel Shaji case have only intensified, which resulted in an all-party meeting on 13 March, while activists of the Youth Congress and the Kerala Students’ Union took out a march to the Commissioner’s office. The Congress and BJP also marked their protest by taking out rallies in Kundara and Walayar, where police recently bungled sensitive cases. Opposition leader Ramesh Chennithala slammed the Kerala government for its inept response, and called the cops a “spent force”, saying that the law and order in the state has worsened by the day. He also staged a walkout (including the Kerala Congress [M] and the BJP) after the government disallowed a discussion on the matter in the Budget session of the assembly on 28th February.
An irked CM Vijayan, who also holds the Home portfolio, had to defend his forces at least on half-a-dozen occasions whenever the Opposition raised the issue of police negligence and inaction. The only politician who admitted that the Kerala police has failed was CPM general secretary Sitaram Yechury, who added that the mistakes of the Kerala government won’t be covered up.
The senior police officer who handled the Mishel Shaji case was suspended. Meanwhile, DGP Lokanath Behera, also the Kerala State Police Chief, admits having received more than 25 complaints against erring officers in the last few weeks alone. More than half a dozen cops have faced suspension in March alone, including two circle inspectors and five SHOs. There is also a departmental inquiry against two Deputy Superintendents of Thrissur district. The DGP also said that a state-wide circular, following the department’s negligence in such cases, has been sent out to all Station House Officers (SHOs) with strict guidelines on how to investigate cases relating to Protection of Children from Sexual Offences (POCSO). Furthermore, the department’s external watchdog, the State Police Complaint Authority (SPCA), has taken cognisance of the situation and has demanded an explanation from the police chief.
However, apart from some lip service and knee-jerk disciplinary actions, the police top brass is still groping in the dark on how to tackle its own officers and growing public frustration.
No Country for Women and Children
Take one case where the police’s indifference actually led to a second crime. In Walayar, Palakkad, two sisters aged 13 and 9 were found hanging in their homes—within a span of 52 days. The post-mortem report of the older girl clearly mentioned sexual assault. The mother, according to news reports, even informed the police about the repeated sexual abuse her elder daughter had faced from her (the mother’s) cousin. However, the local inspector brushed it aside.
The parents, both daily wage labourers, allege that it was police inaction that killed the younger daughter. “If only the police had acted on time, we would not have lost our younger girl too. They knew everything but did nothing to help us,” says the mother to HT.
The younger girl had pointed out the suspect to the mother and the police was alerted, but after questioning, he was let go. The investigating officer has been suspended and taken off the case.
“If only the police had acted on time, we would not have lost our younger girl too. They knew everything but did nothing to help us.”
Despite public outrage and political intervention, the police in Kerala continue to be apathetic and oblivious. This is best (and sadly) illustrated in the case of a 32-year-old rape survivor from Thrissur who, in November last year, revealed that she was raped two years ago by four men, including the Wadakkancherry municipal councilor of the CPM party. When she went to complain to the police, however, they harassed her and subjected her to lewd comments. Her ordeal was publicised on social media by a popular talk show host, following which the CM called her and assured an investigation. The police claimed that they didn’t have any “scientific evidence” to prove the rape took place, and so couldn’t take any action against the accused going by just the statement of the victim.
The Kerala police aren’t just negligent towards crimes against women and children—their purview of indifference and cruelty includes transgenders as well, despite Kerala being the first state to declare a state-wide transgender policy in 2015. On 17 March, a group of policemen in Thrissur attacked three transgenders waiting outside a bus station. Raga Ranjini and two of her friends claim that lathi-wielding policemen abused and thrashed them in public.
“We just don’t understand what we did wrong that night,” says Raga Ranjini. We had just finished dinner and were standing to catch a bus like many others when the cops shouted at us to run us away from there—like you do with cattle on the road.”
What’s their Excuse?
The huge issue staring at the Home Department is the behaviour of these cops and their shoddy investigation methods. In the Walayar case, despite the mother, younger daughter and post-mortem doctor notifying the police about sexual abuse, the investigating officer only performed an interrogation and termed the case suicide.
Lokanath Behera says that the problem is clearly the lack of sensitisation among the cops, which has led to inefficiency and inaction. “Let us face the reality. There is a lack of sensitisation in the lower rungs of the force and it is not because they are ignorant of the law, but because they are not skilled to handle such gender-sensitive cases. There is also a lack of propriety. Training is the only way out and we need to have a multi-pronged approach.”
Meanwhile, police officers keep repeating their one astounding excuse for inaction in every case—that “the family of the victims failed to cooperate with the investigation”. And hence, the police’s hands were tied and it couldn’t investigate properly. Advocate CP Udayabhanu, Special Public Prosecutor at High Court of Kerala, says that this remains an empty excuse. “If information regarding a cognisable offence is obtained, the police have to find out who the culprits are. If people don’t cooperate, then they [the police] should tackle this in an intelligent manner. Both the non-cooperating people as well as the policemen are liable to be prosecuted otherwise.”
DGP Behera points out that the curriculum at the Police Training College in Thiruvananthapuram has nothing in it to guide new recruits on how to tackle sexual crimes against children and the sensitivity needed for such investigations. “We are hoping to bring in this new element in the curriculum at the training college, and I hope it would help us sensitise the force,” he promises. “For existing officers, we will also bring in some on-site training in stations to make the situation better.”
Police, Politics and Corruption
Citizens and activists angry with the police disagree with the DGP’s diagnosis of simply a lack of sensitisation. They say that the force is fundamentally corrupt and, with political interference playing a huge role, the law often takes a backseat.
“Just see the Walayar case alone,” says noted civil rights activist Bala Murali. “You had in custody a person whom the younger girl claims is the accused. But then you let him out bowing to political pressure. How do you expect justice from such a force that mixes politics with rape? The lower-rung officers are succumbing to this pressure every day.”
Others claim that the attitude of officers at stations is the major issue and point to the Wadakkancherry case as an example. “The mindset is still a huge handicap. A highly patriarchal society still demands a ‘character certificate’ from every woman who gets raped, and the police are no different,” says T Parvathy, a women’s activist who exposed the Wadakkancherry rape case.
There are also allegations that the CPM’s ‘cadre power’ controls police stations in Kerala, and that the incidents at Wadakkancherry and Walayar are only testimony to the pressure the party puts on the force to go easy on some sensitive cases. Political pressure or not, in his main excerpt of the order, SPCA Chairman K Narayana Kurup’s criticism of the state cops is a timely reminder for the force to correct its apathy: “The time has come to remind all concerned that policing should not be considered as bell and the bill job leaving affected citizens high and dry with no remedy… cases are galore exposing inexcusable lapses on the part of the police in various situations throwing up the question whether the policing has collapsed.”
The government might have introduced a slew of schemes to benefit women, but when it comes to their safety, it lacks a fundamental rigour to investigate and help them during distress. For all of CM Vijayan’s strong words—“Persons responsible for such crimes will be brought before the law and subjected to severe punishment”—and despite coming to power by promising safety to women and children, the public’s confidence in his police force continues to crumble rapidly.
(Published in arrangement with GRIST Media)