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Déjà vu Marries Amnesia In Kerala

By Urmila Pullat

18 May, 2016

Polling has concluded in Kerala but political parties and commentators alike have missed out on a crucial need in the state. In spite of the rape and murder of the poor Dalit law student that shook the nation and deeply disturbed a state that prides itself on its relatively successful development indicators, there has been very little focus on an issue that plagues the state and indeed, the country. This election in arguably one of the most socially conscious states in India saw very little association made between democratic governance and justice reform. The issue of poor, unjust policing and an almost non-existent right of access to justice, especially for vulnerable communities in Kerala, cannot be ignored anymore. Politicians cannot hide behind the state’s good performance on key development indicators and we cannot allow the familiar routine of déjà vu and amnesia to settle on the dust kicked up after the brutal rape and murder.

In July 2015, Kerala DGP TP Senkumar published an open call inviting suggestions on how to modernize the police institution in Kerala. Citing concerns about the need to increase professionalism within the force, he called on experts from fields as varied as communication, engineering, and language studies to pool ideas. He had envisioned the establishment of research & development teams to enable the police to take up duties that require expertise in various fields, and in order to adopt progressive protocols within the force.

This need has never been as apparent given the way the Kerala Police are investigating the present rape and murder case. Having catapulted the situation of safety of women in Kerala into the media maelstrom, the shocking manner in which the police have conducted the investigation has also come to the fore. Why did the police reach the crime scene a reported two hours after being informed? Why was the crime scene not cordoned off so that the evidence remained uncorrupted, to better aid the investigation? Why did a student conduct the post-mortem investigation and why was the body cremated in a hurry, thereby precluding the possibility of collecting more evidence? Most importantly, why didn’t the Kuruppampady police investigate the repeated complaints made by Rajeshwari, the victim’s mother, of danger and threats to their person?

The investigation is quickly turning farcical with the police first looking to collect everybody’s fingerprints, and then trying to compare the dental structure of all men in the neighbourhood to the bite marks of the murderer, who apparently has a gap in his teeth. It is more than apparent that cases of this nature cannot be solved without the help of modern and scientific forensic and investigation techniques.

We are in a modern society that turns to a medieval policing system, built on the Irish Constabulary Model, to suppress rebellions, to solve our crimes and to maintain public order. There is a very real danger of torture and coercion and the risk of the police pinning the crime on a hapless innocent or a blameless migrant labourer. It is crucial for the Kerala state to begin immediate, large scale training of police officers on scientific and modern investigation techniques. It is also imperative to train police officers on gender and caste sensitivity, providing them with an action plan on how best to deal with complaints of threats and crimes against women and vulnerable communities.

The assembly elections, instead of bringing the focus on to the need for police reform and the state of criminal justice and investigation in the state, have resulted in the familiar game of pretence and glory-hunting, jarring and embarrassing in its opportunism. A look at the election promises of the contesting parties makes it clear that police reform and fixing the ills of our criminal justice system is not top priority, never taking centre stage in the way it should.

The ADGP of the Kerala Police R. Sreelekha recently published a blog post about the failure of the initiative ‘Nirbhaya Keralam, Surakshita Keralam’ in the aftermath of the infamous December 2012 gang-rape and murder in New Delhi. She writes about the effort and money she put into the initiative only to have the door slammed shut in her face when she tried to push for its implementation. The state Home Minister, Ramesh Chennithala had claimed the initiative would be implemented within a month of its inauguration but, to date, it has only remained on paper.

In the flurry of election news that has now taken over, the media seems to have already forgotten the plight of the law student and her family. We must not allow the new Kerala government to forget and must push for making police reform and fighting gender-based crimes a priority. The fact that DGP Senkumar is aware of and understands the quagmire his force finds itself in is heartening. The commitment of the ADGP to the ‘Nirbhaya Keralam, Surakshita Keralam’ initiative and the enthusiastic response she got from volunteers for the program is truly inspiring.

Funds need to be allocated to set up the Research & Development groups and the Kerala Police and the new government must actively engage with experts to chart out creative ways to deal with the acute trust deficit between the people and the police. Police reform is one of the most difficult areas for success but has the maximum ramification on the wellbeing of all within the jurisdiction. True development can only take place if rule of law and due process are a de facto part of society. Rule of law and due process are inseparable from access to justice and security. The UNDP believes that,

“In the absence of access to justice, people are unable to have their voice heard, exercise their rights, challenge discrimination or hold decision-makers accountable. Rule of law is the foundation for both justice and security”

Police, criminal justice process and security sector reform form the bedrock of a democratic and just society, one that Kerala should aspire to. The people of Kerala deserve a police force that people feel safe approaching, one that responds to its needs.

With the internal realization of the DGP and the ADGP at the fore and some political will, it could soon become a reality for Kerala.

Urmila Pullat is a lawyer and works at the India desk of the Hong Kong based Asian Human Rights Commission, 2014 Laureate of the Right Livelihood Award. She can be contacted at urmila.pullat@ahrc.asia



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