Encounter killings: The new normal in Kerala

Faheem Muhammed M.P

The Kerala Police has once again tangled in controversy when an alleged  Maoist Velmurugan,32,  was killed in an encounter at a reserve forest in Wayanad on Tuesday morning by Thunderbolt, the elite commando force of the Kerala police. Hailed from Periyakulam in Tamil Nadu’s Theni district, Velmurugan was an alleged member of Kabanidalam -2 of the Western Ghats Special Zone Committee of the proscribed Communist Party of India (Maoist). The Police has stated that they shot the Maoists in return when the alleged Maoists opened fire during a routine Police patrol. Around five other suspects are believed to be escaped, two suffering injuries from the Police firing. However, the human rights activists, journalists and the opposition have condemned the Police action and has called it a ‘fake encounter’,further demanding a judicial probe into the killing. It is the 4th Police encounter in the last 4 years and the 8thsuspected Maoist killed since the professedCommunist Party of India (Marxist) (CPI(M) led LDF government came into power in Kerala in 2016. 

The police identified Velmurugan as a wanted Maoist in Tamil Nadu and accused him of cases in regards to spotting in tribal settlements and villages. He was allegedly wanted by the Q branch of Tamil Nadu police and the Kerala Police. A Bolt action rifle was found near the body of the victim, according to the Police.  Human rights forum president, advocate Thushar Nirmal Sarathy, sought a comprehensive and transparent probe into the encounter. 4 bullets and around 40 wounds have been found in the body, according to the post-mortem report. He maintained that the police’s version – that a person was killed when they returned fire in self-defence – is “suspicious”. In another account, Padinjarethara panchayat (where the encounter took place) president P.G Sajesh confirmed the visit of Maoists in the tribal settlements and villages, looking for food and provisions from the locals. He also stated that they have not hurt any villagers so far.

The police have not permitted the journalists to the premises of the encounter, they were blocked 2 km away from the location. The forest officials and local people were also restricted to the encounter premises. These incidents have caused to raise questions about the authenticity of the encounter and the Police accounts. Not even a single Police official has suffered to injury in any of the last four encounters, which points towards the encounters as a one-dimensional tactic. There have not been any probes into the ‘extra-judicial encounters’ though various doubts and irregularities including scientific evidence were obvious in most of the incidents.With the last incident, the government has explicitly accredited its bigotry towards the human rights and values guaranteed by the constitution.CPI(M)’s key ally Communist Party of India (CPI) leader Kanam Rajendran himself has condemned the encounter killings and the state government’s approach towards the Maoists.

The Police encounters against Maoists in Kerala has begun in 2016 when the Pinarayi Vijayan’s LDF government came into power. Maoists including leaders Kuppuswamy Devraj and Ajitha a woman who was a mother to a six-month-old baby was killed in an encounter at Karulayi, Nilambur, on November 24, 2016. There were19 bullets found inside of the body of Ajitha, signifying the legitimacy of the “extrajudicial killings’. The CPI has raised questions over the authenticity of the encounter with its state secretary warning Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan “not to ape the Narendra Modi regime” at the Centre. OnOctober 28, the Thunderbolts had gunned down three Maoists – Manivasakam, Karthik, Arvind, and Rama – in the Agali forests of Attapadi Hills in Palakkad.Again, a CPI report states thatthe arbitrary police action caught the Maoists off guard.

It was only recently several human rights activists demanded a probe into the killing of suspected Maoist C.P Jaleel, 40, hailed from Malappuram. He was killed at a resort in Wayanad where he and his associates had allegedly gone to extort money and collect food. The Police account regarding the encounter of Jaleel has proven wrong when a ballistic report affirmed that no shots were fired from Jaleel’s gun. Along with this occurred the arrests of Alan Shuhaib and Thaha Fasal, students of journalism and law, both the members of the CPI(M) for allegedly having Maoist links with Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA) charges.The arrest of the students has reshaped a public debate in Kerala on the misuse of the harsh provisions of the UAPA and the blatant abuse of state power. These accounts are pointing towards a fundamental question of whetherthe government is Left or Right?

Left extremism has reached Kerala with the Naxalite movement in the Naxalbari, West Bengal in the 1960s. From then there have beenserious and lethal conflicts between the state and the Maoists. The former Inspector-General of Police in Kerala, K. Lakshmana, was sentenced to life imprisonment by a CBI Special Court in the case relating to the killing of Naxalite leader A. Varghese in a fake encounter. Over the last decade or so, Kerala has seen overt and covert Maoist activities in the northern districts of Kannur, Kozhikode, Wayanad, Palakkad, and Malappuram. The nature of Maoistoperations in Kerala is far different from that in other Left Wing Extremism (LWE)-affected states. They have never targeted civilians or caused human casualties. The statements of the local tribal inhabitants have made it clear that they never had any troubles fromthe Maoists. Still, Kerala Police and Governmentare busy chasing down the Maoists hiding in the deep forests to massacre them.

It is shocking to acknowledge that Kerala is going through a massive violation of human rights and values since the emergency.  These narratives are undoubtedly pointing towards the state’s violent and intolerant approach towards the Maoists, which requires questioning. The Kerala High Court has ruled in an order that “being a Maoist is no crime and that the police cannot detain a person merely because he/she is a Maoist unless they form a reasonable opinion that his/her activities are unlawful.”. Yet, the Police measures to crackdown the dissent through ‘undemocratic’, ‘unconstitutional’ and ‘extra-judicial’ methods are quite worrying and demands proper attention. The blatant abuse of state power and apparatuses need to be investigated and perpetrators accountable for the offences must be brought into justice regardless of the political patronage they enjoy.

Faheem Muhammed M.P is associated with the Department of Electronic Media and Mass Communication, Pondicherry University