What started as a neighbourhood dispute in Attappady, became intense with interference of police and NGO cum land mafia. Weeks later legislative assembly brought up the issue, only to give a clean chit to police.
On the dawn of 8th August, 37-year-old Rajamani was standing outside her olappura in Vattalakki tribal hamlet near Agali in the Attappady region in Kerala’s Palakkad district. While her husband, Murukan, and their children, Rajeev and Rangasamy were sleeping peacefully at home.
Her father-in-law and the Irular tribal chieftain of 100 plus families, Choriya Moopan was busy collecting cow dung from the cowshed. His wife, Rami was sleeping peacefully at her home. Suddenly, two jeeps of Police officers barged into their home at the crack of dawn. Another jeep got parked on the main road. At least 15 police officers surrounded their home.
Rajamani’s mother-in-law opened the main door of the house in which an election poster of Murukan was pasted. VS Murukan had earlier contested as an independent candidate in the local body elections. A police officer called Choriya Moopan and asked him about Murukan. Moopan asked his grandson Rajeevan to wake his father up. Meanwhile, a police officer started filming using his smartphone.
Police brutality, Disrobing an elderly and thrashing a minor
When Rajamani asked police what the matter was, she was told that her husband attempted to murder another villager, Kurunthachalam. Kurunthachalam had serious injuries and was admitted to the tribal specialty hospital at Kottathara. “They had come to arrest my husband. I asked them for the warrant. ‘Just shut up’, they told me,” Rajamani told Maktoob.
A police officer asked Murukan to get into the jeep. To which he said that the case is fabricated and the arrest in the morning is a violation of legal procedures. “They dragged me by the collar. I resisted and pushed them away. Suddenly, four to five police officers surrounded me. They grabbed my neck and hand and started beating,” 39-year-old Murukan said.
The police forcefully took Murukan and his father to the jeep. They intentionally stepped on Murukan’s dhoti and it slipped off. Enraged Rajeevan ran towards his father and requested the police not to arrest them. The police pushed him to a corner and started beating his father and grandfather.
Rajeevan tried to defend it by pulling a police officer’s hand. “The officer slapped me on my face. I felt dizzy. It was such a strong hit. My ears were aching,” 17- year-old Rajeeevan said.
In a video that has gone viral, a police officer can be seen slapping Rajeevan on his face. “They didn’t even spare my mother and grandmother. They pushed them away and caned them. Finally, they went away with my father and grandfather,” Rajeevan said.
Rajeevan was admitted to the Kottathara tribal hospital at around 1 pm. The doctor scanned him and advised him to have bed rest. He got discharged four days later. The state human rights commission and child rights commission voluntarily registered a case against Kerala Police for harassing a minor boy. The whole fiasco, witnessed by many villagers, was related to an incident that happened a few days ago.
How it all began?
On 3rd August, Rajamani went to the barren land near her house for cattle grazing. Around 1: 30 pm, her neighbour Kurunthachalam came in his Bolero car and tried to hit the cattle. Rajamani ran towards the cattle and moved them to a corner. “He seemed drunk and started abusing me. He told me that it is his land and he will kill me if I go there again,” Rajamani said.
Kurunthachalam lifted a stone from the ground and tried hitting her. “Even if I kill you, nothing will happen to me. There are people to protect me,” Kurunthachalam told Rajamani. Kurunthachalam’s neighbour, a Tamil labourer, advised Rajamani to run away from the field.
“I asked him why should I run away. I came here to graze my cattle and I haven’t done anything wrong. He called my brother and told him everything,” Rajamani recollected, sitting at the courtyard of her home. She got injured on her leg and hand by the stone. A few minutes later, her sister-in-law, father-in-law, and other villagers reached the spot.
As Murukan reached the spot at around 2 30 pm, Kurunthachalam started shouting at him. Murukan tried calling the Sholayur police and asked them to register a case against Kurunthachalam for harassing his wife. “They told me that the Circle Inspector was not there and they were facing a shortage of vehicles,” said Murukan.
Although the police promised him that they will come later, they didn’t show up. Murukan mailed a complaint to the Assistant Superintendent of Police Attappadi, via email, on 4th August and met the ASP on 5th evening. The officer registered the case and took his wife’s statement the next day. Police officers from Sholayur station visited the spot on 7th August. Meanwhile, a video of Kurunthachalam, body covered with blood, shot from the Kottathara hospital had gone viral. Kurunthachalam alleged that Murukan attacked him brutally and he got injured on his head, face, and all over the body.
Ironically, the police arrested the complainant. Murugan alleged that the arrest was an act of vengeance by the High range Rural Development Society (HRDS), an Attappady based NGO, and land mafia in Attappady. Murukan, vice president of the Adivasi Action Council, has been active in the struggle against the encroachment of Adivasi land by NGOs and private players.
HRDS: NGO on paper, land mafia on ground
According to Murukan, HRDS India came to Attappady promising to construct houses for the Adivasis. They have constructed 300 houses in the region so far. Recently, the NGO organised meetings in Adivasi villages asking to hand over their land on lease for 33 years to the NGO for agricultural needs. “We strongly opposed the plan. The new problem arose when HRDS came to clear the 55-acre land in Vattalakki, used by Adivasis for cattle grazing, using a bulldozer. The action council resisted the move as it was our ancestral land,” Murukan said. HRDS claimed that the Vidyadhiraja Vidya Samajam trust handed over the land to them for medicinal plant cultivation. Former chief secretary R Ramachandran Nair is the trustee of Vidyadhiraja. The trust argued that they have owned the land since 1982.
“We complained to the Sholayur police station and erected a temporary tent at the spot as part of our land struggle. The police harassed Adivasis who participated in the struggle. A few days later, The NGO staff set the tent on fire using petrol. We erected another tent. The police asked us to remove the tent. But we replied that we will only do it if the police take action against those who set the tent on fire. The case falls under SC-ST Atrocities act,” Murukan added.
Following the incident, the trust secretary Dr. Jayakumar filed a petition in the Mannarkkad Court. The interim court order, issued on July 30 in favour of the trust, asked Murukan and three others not to encroach the land and not to stop the workers. Murukan alleged that the government turned a blind eye towards the encroachment of the land of 22 Adivasi families.
“Since then, the trust has been looking for ways to silence me. The 55-acre land is situated near Kurunthachalam’s home. Kurunthachalam’s brother is an employee at HRDS. HRDS made Kurunthachalam as a pawn to fabricate a case against me,” Murukan said.
To curb dissent use section 353; deterring the police officers from the discharge of their duty
Choriya Moopan termed the police action as an attack on his sovereignty. “If a police officer wants to enter the tribal hamlet, he must take permission from the tribal chieftain. The boundary till the main road is Moopan’s area. No police officer can enter without Moopan’s permission,” he said. Moopan said that the police officers took them to the station and made them sign many papers. “They didn’t even dare to read the FIR to us. If a tribal chief was humiliated in such a manner, imagine how they would treat an ordinary Adivasi,” Moopan enraged.
Murukan and his father were lodged at the Alathur sub jail on 8th August evening. On 11th August, they got released on bail on the condition that they will not enter Sholayur police station limit for the next two months. Murukan and Choriya Moopan is currently staying at their relative’s home in Omappadi tribal hamlet in Kottathara.
“Two cases were charged against Murukan and Moopan, Cr No 55/2021 and Cr No 57/2021 respectively. A Non Bailable offense Section 326, Section 341,326, and Section 34 of the IPC were included in one case. Section 353 was included in the other case for attacking the police and deterring the police officers from the discharge of their duty,” Advocate Preetha, Murukan’s lawyer, told Maktoob. Many activists and legal experts had recently criticised the Kerala Police for the misuse of Section 353 in many pandemic-related cases. The act was seen by many as a tool to curb dissent.
“My client never tried to abscond. He had gone to the police station on 5th August to file the complaint and got the receipt. The police created a terror atmosphere and treated them as terrorists. The bail order says that they can only be arrested after issuing 41A notice priorly,” she added.
When Attapadi police attack was brought in Legislative Assembly
On 10th August, the opposition Congress-led UDF raised the issue in the state legislative assembly. While opening the debate on the adjournment motion, Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan said that the police were attacked and five got injured when they went to arrest the tribals in Vattalaky. He also said that Murukan and his father had refused to appear before the police even after they were summoned.
Opposition leader V D Satheeshan contested the chief minister’s claim. “Murukan had informed the police about the incident on August 3 itself. They said they do not have fuel and a vehicle. On 5th August, he went to the station directly and filed a complaint. When even that didn’t work, he met the Agaly ASP directly on August 7. It was after all this that the police dragged him out of his house,” the Opposition leader said in the assembly. Mannarkkad MLA N Shamsudheen, said in the assembly, that the arrests could be traced to the increasing instances of land grabs in the area. He added that the police had arrived at the tribal hamlet in the wee hours as if they were to catch terrorists.
However, Pinarayi Vijayan came out in support of the officers and said that it had been a trend nowadays to propagate false and cooked up stories against the police force. He read out from a written text the good deeds of the police during the Kerala floods and the pandemic. The UDF later staged a walkout after the speaker MB Rajesh rejected leave for the motion.
The State Human Rights Commission and Child Rights Commission have taken a suo moto case against the atrocities.
“Land mafias are implementing a divide and rule policy in Attappadi. They are dividing Adivasis. They are foiling all efforts to unify Adivasis and luring Adivasis with money and other goodies. They are sowing the seeds of enmity among Adivasis. They want us to fight amongst ourselves,” Murukan concluded, expressing his commitment to carry the struggle forward.