Wednesday, April 17, 2024

Kerala: Dalit man jailed for three days for protesting against Panchayat for motorable road

A Dalit man belonging to the Kuruva community was arrested and imprisoned in Kerala’s Thiruvananthapuram for staging a protest in front of his Grama Panchayat, demanding a motorable road.

46-year-old Sethu residing in Thoppil Colony, Kilimanoor area of Thiruvananthapuram, was arrested by Kilimanoor police on March 22 from Kilimanoor Grama Panchayat. He was jailed at Attingal Sub Jail and Special Sub Jail, Thiruvananthapuram, until March 25 when he was bailed out.

The arrest occurred as Sethu, accompanied by 11 other Dalits, including 57-year-old Chandran, who reportedly sustained severe spinal cord injuries and spastic quadriplegia following an alleged casteist attack in 2005, were protesting under the banner of Janakeeya Munneta Samithi, a Dalit organization based in Thoppil Colony. Their protest aimed to pressure the panchayat authorities to concrete the path from Chandran’s house to the main road, thus making it accessible for motor vehicles. Their demand sought to facilitate Chandran’s transportation to the hospital by ambulance without the need to be physically carried to the main road.

When Chandran sat on a chair in front of the panchayat door and other members were chanting slogans against the authorities, the Panchayat Secretary informed the Kilimanoor police. Sethu, also the convenor of the organization, was arrested under sections 342 (Wrongful confinement), 353 (Assaulting a public servant to deter them from duty), and 334 (Causing hurt upon provocation) of the Indian Penal Code.

The First Investigation Report, accessed by Maktoob, has accused six individuals, including Sethu, Chandran, and four other identifiable individuals. According to the FIR, the protest held in front of the Panchayat office was orchestrated due to the accused’s failure to achieve their demands through a strike, with the clear intention of disrupting the office’s functioning. Furthermore, the FIR specifies that Chandran was positioned at the sole entrance of the Panchayat office in a manner obstructing passage.

It further alleges that the accused shouted loud slogans, disrupting the official duties of the complainant, the election nodal officer, and other employees, including those at the front office who were engaged in urgent tasks related to the upcoming Lok Sabha elections.

Sethu told Maktoob, “Since 2023, we have been demanding to make the road accessible for Chandran. Whenever he requires hospitalization, it takes more than two people to carry him over a distance of more than 40 meters to reach the main road. Ambulances cannot enter the area, and auto-rickshaw drivers refuse to come due to the poor road conditions. We lodged complaints with the Chief Minister’s office, District Collector, Chirayinkeezhu Tahsildar, Scheduled Caste Office, and the Grama Panchayat. Chandran, being both Dalit and impoverished, has faced neglect despite the Scheduled Caste development officer’s letter urging the panchayat to address our needs. They have turned their backs on us.”

Sethu added, “The bureaucratic apparatus and the panchayat leaders have casteist bias against us. The panchayat member belongs to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the panchayat is governed by the Congress-led United Democratic Front (UDF), and the state government falls under the Communist Party of India (Marxist) -led Left Democratic Front (LDF). The discrimination towards us by all three major parties of Kerala is pure casteism. This negligence compelled us to commence a peaceful democratic protest on March 15, a day and night sit-in protest in front of the panchayat. On day 7 of the protest, March 22, with Chandran’s consent, we positioned him in front of the panchayat’s door as the next step of protest”.

Rejecting the accusations made in the FIR, Sethu added, “We didn’t even enter inside the office. Then how can we disrupt their official duties? This is a fabricated case against us; all accusations the panchayat made are false. I was taken into custody in the afternoon but my arrest was only recorded by night. At the jail, the officers asked whether I was not a Hindu by seeing my caste on the records. I replied, I am not Hindu. I was also subjected to verbal abuse by them”.

Speaking to Maktoob, Chandran said, “I used to work as a daily wage labourer. In 2005, I was brutally assaulted by upper-caste assailants when I intervened to protect a 3-year-old Dalit toddler from their attack. The attack destroyed my life. Doctors said that all four limbs were paralyzed. Without assistance, I am unable to reposition myself in bed. I used to urinate and defecate on the bed itself. Now I have a catheter tube inserted for urinating. It is challenging for me to access the bathroom without the aid of a walker. Additionally, when I require transportation to the hospital, auto-rickshaw drivers refuse to come to my house due to the poor condition of the road. If the road gets concreted, I could easily access medical care. Furthermore, apart from my aged and ailing mother, I have no other support at home. My wife left me because of my health issues caused by the attack, which arose shortly after our marriage. I believe that if I get timely treatment from the hospital, my health condition can be improved. The panchayat should immediately concrete the road for me to easily visit the hospital”.

The reporter has obtained a copy of the Standing Disability Assessment Board Certificate issued to Chandran by the Physiatrist, Orthopaedician, Ophthalmologist, ENT Surgeon, and Psychiatrist of Thiruvananthapuram District General Hospital.

In a letter obtained by the reporter, dated September 13, 2023, the Block Panchayat Development Officer addressed the Panchayat Secretary, highlighting the urgent need to make the road motorable for Chandran, a bedridden and palliative care patient.

Kilimanoor Block Panchayat Scheduled Caste Development Officer, Murali, told Maktoob, “The health condition of Chandran is bad, and upon assessing the condition of the existing road, we have concluded that there is a legitimate demand for a motorable road presented by Janakeeya Munneta Samithi for Chandran. The road currently poses difficulties for vehicles to travel smoothly, and concreting it is the only viable solution. Based on our investigation, we have sent a letter to the Panchayat urging them to take the necessary steps to concrete the road. It is the responsibility of the Panchayat to allocate funds for this purpose, even from the General fund. The governing body of the Panchayat should approach this matter with compassion. While we can request action through a letter, we cannot exert pressure or force them.”

Panchayat President and Congress leader, Manoj, dismissed allegations of casteist discrimination, stating to Maktoob, “Our panchayat is small, and we lack sufficient funds. We widened the path in front of Chandran’s house using a mini JCB from our wallet. The reason for not concreting the road requested by Chandran is solely due to the lack of financial resources.”

Panchayat member of Chandran’s ward and BJP leader, Suma Sujith allegedly told Maktoob, “Sethu has been raising baseless allegations against my politics and panchayat for a considerable time in public. None of the protesters, except Chandran, reside in my ward. Chandran was brought here by others solely to cause disruption. They have nefarious agendas and they might be profiting from it. We can only concrete the road when we get funds”.

Refuting the accusations of Suma and countering Manoj, Sethu said, “When the government is shelling out lakhs of public money unnecessarily, why can’t they meet our needs? Where are funds allocated for scheduled caste? Why should we bear these technical excuses? They have been trying for a long time to depict us as terrorists in front of society. These attempts are to divert public attention from our sufferings and protests. On the other side, the Special Branch of Kerala police keeps on visiting us. The arrest, imprisonment, and defamations by panchayat authorities won’t deter us from our protests. We won’t stop until we achieve our demands.”

“The BJP’s panchayat member, Suma, has only visited my house seeking votes. Many years ago, CPI(M) activists escorted me to the polling booth during elections. However, after voting, I was left to fend for myself. I express my plight to every party who comes to my house asking for a vote. But none helped, so I have decided not to vote in the upcoming Lok Sabha elections or any other elections until the road is concreted. Why should I vote if this system does no good for me? Supporters of my attackers and the privileged caste individuals are widespread, including within the panchayat.”, Chandran recounted.

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