Updated: Mar 25
Kochi: “Oh Allah, Umma (mother), please don’t beat me, sir. I might die. I have two daughters. My father is a cancer patient. Let me live…”
Those, said Sumayya, were the last words she heard from her husband, a fish vendor called Shameer Abdul Salam, 32, while jail officials were beating him in the next room in a Covid-19 quarantine centre in a jail in the central Kerala district of Thrissur on 29 September 2020.
Dressed in a white churidar and headscarf, Sumayya, 31, was still in trauma when Article 14 spoke to her, talking softly and with sadness.
Shameer’s autopsy report listed more than 40 injuries on his body, with death caused by “beating with a long, blunt object. The injuries “inflicted were aged above 24 hours and below 96 hours”, the report said, indicating prolonged violence.
Indian Union Muslim League leader from Shameer’s native village of Kallara village near the state capital of Thiruvananthapuram, Shibu Kallara, who received Shameer’s body after postmortem, described Shameer’s death as “the most brutal custodial death ever committed by the Kerala police”.
“They didn’t even let us photograph the body,” said Kallara.
Shameer’s death was the latest to join the rising graph of deaths in police custody in Kerala, which ranks 13 by population in India but six by custodial deaths, with such deaths more than doubling to eight over a year to 2018-19 (there were three and five deaths the previous two years, 2016-17 and 2017-18), according to National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) data.
“Before criticising the police we need to be realistic,” said former director general of police (DGP) Alexander Jacob, who added that the police “at times need to act assertive to maintain law and order”.
Jacob said the rate of custodial tortures in Kerala is “pretty much negligible” compared to other states. But NHRC data indicate otherwise.
Kerala is worse off than Bihar, Jharkhand, Chattisgarh, and Punjab in terms of police atrocities, although Bihar and Chhattisgarh have larger populations. The states that do better than Kerala include Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu, all of which have larger populations.
In 2018, of 70 deaths in police custody nationwide, mandatory judicial enquiries were conducted only in 27 or 39%, according to a 2019 National Crime Records Bureau report. Kerala was one of six states that did not order such judicial enquiries (the others were Bihar, Jharkhand, Karnataka, Odisha and Telangana), NCRB data said.
“In reality, getting too friendly with citizens is not a pragmatic idea in a country like ours,” said Jacob.
But police violence is not uniform. The majority of those who die in police custody are from poor and marginalised communities, whose vulnerability makes them “soft targets”, according to a 2019 report from the National Campaign Against Torture.
The report documents that of 125 deaths in police custody in 2019, 93 (74.4%) died during of torture, as alleged by family members/local residents, while 24 persons ( 19.2%) died under “suspicious circumstances”. Of these 125 death cases, 76 persons (60.8%) belonged to marginalised communities.
The stories of Shameer and Vinayakan fit these parameters: both were poor; one was Muslim, the other Dalit.
The Muslim Fish Vendor Tortured In Quarantine
On 29 September 2020, the police arrested Sumayya, Shameer and two friends for allegedly possessing marijuana. After being remanded by a lower court to custody, all were sent to a Covid-quarantine centre, where each locked room contained six prisoners, with food given through a window.
After a short while, Sumayya told Article 14 on 11 November 2020, she heard the sound of glass shattering, which, according to a fellow prisoner, was a precursor to a beating. She recalled hearing their friend Jaffer, pleading with the jail officials to stop beating Shameer, who was epileptic.
The jail officials continued beating and abusing her husband, and instead of taking him for medical treatment, alleged Sumayya, took him to the top floor of the three-storey building and pushed or forced him to jump. The next day, he was taken to a government hospital in Thrissur, moved to surgery because of extensive injuries but died on 1 October 2020.
Sreeja Gopakumar, a recently released inmate who was with Sumayya when Shameer was allegedly being beaten, said in a witness statement that she recalled an officer telling her that Shameer died when he bashed his head against a wall while having withdrawal symptoms.
But Sreeja said she had heard Shameer crying in pain, and another prisoner said he had witnessed the beating. To this, the officer said Shameer was already injured by local police before being handed over to colleagues at the Covid centre.
Siraj MH, Shameer’s friend told us on 12 November 2020, that Shameer was “energetic” and well before he was arrested. Sreeja said the witness statements she and others gave to another officer investigating Shameer’s death had angered jail officials.
“The jail officials asked us,” said Sreeja, “Why did you testify on issues that don’t affect you?”
Article 14 sought comment on Shameer’s custodial death from DGP (Prisons) Rishi Raj Singh, who asked us to contact the local police station. There was no response to calls to the police station on 29 January, 13 February and 17 February.
Two deputy prison officers, A R Ramesh and M S Arun, allegedly involved in the torture, were suspended, as was the district jail superintendent, Raju Abraham. Later, on 9 November 2020 the police arrested Ramesh and Arun, besides four other jail officials. The officers were later released on bail as the crime branch officers failed to submit the chargesheet time boundedly.
The Dalit Beautician Who Was Mocked, Tortured
It was in Engandiyoor, Thrissur, that we met Krishnan Kutty, a 50-year-old Dalit, who for four years now has been fighting for judicial retribution against the officers who he alleged were responsible for the death of his son Vinayakan (he used on name), a 18-year-old beautician, on 19 July 2017.
Head constable Sajan and constable Sreejith of Pavaratty police station, the officers accused in the death of Vinayakan, who was then 18-year-old, were suspended that year but reinstated after six months. Sajan was recently promoted.
At the time, Vinayakan’s death became a public issue and sparked a number of protests (here and here) against alleged moral policing and casteism by the Kerala police. Vinayakan, his friends said, was in love with an upper-caste girl.
Today, public enthusiasm has dwindled, and only Kutty and Vinayakan’s elder brother, Vishnuprasad, 25, soldier on.
“The police mocked Vinayakan for wearing skinny pants, his earrings, expressed disgust about his long hair, and ordered me to get his hair chopped. ” said Kutty, recalling their reaction when the police took his son to Pavaratty police station for questioning.
Vinayakan’s friend Sarath said they were talking to Vinayakan’s girl friend when a plainclothes police officer questioned them, made comments on their long, coloured hair and accused them of being chain-snatchers.
On 18 September 2020, a day after being mocked and beaten at the police station, his family and friends said, Vinayakan hung himself at home with a saree.
“Inside the station, they accused us of being involved in chain-snatching, and verbally abused us,” said Vinayakan’s friend Sarath (he uses one name), a coconut-tree climber, who said he witnessed police brutalities against his friend. “They stomped on our feet and toes with their boots. They pressed Vinayakan’s nipples with a hard object, pulled out his hair, pinched his genitals, and beat him on the head.”
Although an autopsy and 24 August 2017 testimony to the Lokayukta, the government’s ombudsman, by doctors who examined Vinayakan’s body reported injuries consistent with torture—including contusions and abrasions on his scalp and chest, scars on his lower abdomen, forehead and nipple—the Vadanappally police first information report (FIR) on 29 August 2017 alleged that Vinayakan committed suicide and removed relevant sections, including abetment of suicide against the police officers.
During the crime branch investigation, an officer of Pavaratty police station denied custodial torture and alleged that his Vinayakan may have committed suicide because of his father's torture. On 24 Aug 2017, the Lokayukta even ordered the Thrissur rural superintendent of police to arrest the Vadanappally sub inspector for a delay in submitting the case diary.
Kutty alleged that the investigation was “fully botched up” by deputy superintendent of police (DySP) Feroz M Shafeeque. “The investigating officer purposely avoided incorporating the offence of abetment of suicide and relevant sections of the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act (1989),” said Vinayakan’s lawyer Suresh Babu.
On 20 February, 2021, Article 14 sought comment from DySP Shafeeque, who refused, saying the case was “under investigation”.
Police Vs Common Man
Data for 2020 and 2021 are not yet available, but deaths in custody continue in Kerala, as do reports of violent police behaviour.
On 13 January 2021, Shafeeq, a 35-year-old undertrial, hails from Kanjirappally in Kottayam district, died at Kottayam Medical College hospital. He was admitted to the hospital after he had a fall following a seizure while in judicial custody at Kakkanad in Ernakulam district. The police said Shafeeq had “fits” that caused his death, while the autopsy revealed a blood clot in the brain due to a fall on a hard surface or impact from a hard object.
On 12 October 2020, the beating of five young men playing cricket by police in Fort Kochi sparked public anger.
On 24 August 2020, police in the eastern town of Palakkad allegedly stripped two Muslim youth, hurled anti-Muslim slurs and pepper-sprayed their genitals, refusing to act on an FIR filed by the father of one of the young men, instead accusing them of spreading fake news over social media.
On 25 January 2021, 17-year-old Nikhil Paul commited suicide at his house in Kalamassery in Ernakulam district, allegedly due to the police harassment. Paul was one of six teenagers detained over a viral video about seven friends attacking their teenage friend and later released. Paul’s family accused police of mental trauma and treating them harshly without calling for special adolescent counselling.
Kerala High Court lawyer and rights activist Thushar Nirmal Sarathi said the rate of custodial torture was increasing because most officers accused of such violence were “getting away without punishment”.
The 2019 Annual Report on Torture pointed out that 54 police officers were charge-sheeted in the death or disappearance of persons in police custody on court remand nationwide between 2005 and 2018. None of them was convicted.
“There is always a bias,” said Sarathi, “When police investigate a case against a police force.”
(Ashfaque E J and Nidhin Chandran are independent journalists based in Kerala, reporting on human rights.)