On Wednesday afternoon, a couple of pieces of wood, used in the cremation of 28-year-old Sreejith the previous night, still lay burning next to his single-storey house on the banks of the Periyar. His mother, Shyamala and his father, Ramakrishnan, sat on the verandah, their faces impassive, still in shock about their son’s unforeseen demise. As Sreejith’s wife Athira sat on a bed in one of the rooms inside, their three-and-a-half-year-old daughter waltzed around the house, moving from one room to the other.
“Tuesday would have been their fifth wedding anniversary. They were looking forward to celebrating it. Instead, we had to cremate him the same day,” sighed Sreejith’s father-in-law, Pradeep, an auto rickshaw driver. Barely 500 metres away, 27-year-old Vineesh, a good friend of Sreejith, is mourning the death of his father Vasudevan who committed suicide by hanging himself on a beam by the side of his house. The two unexpected deaths in the two families, linked by a common thread, have unleashed over the past week violent protests in this tiny town and once again raised the ugly spectre of allegations of the use of third-degree torture by the local police.
Things first took an ugly turn in Varapuzha on April 6 when a mob of 10-15 men barged into the house of Vineesh when he was out at work in the afternoon. “I was returning from work when my friends told me that there was a mob outside my house. I rushed immediately,” he said.
“There were some people I could recognise as they were locals but some I couldn’t recognise. They had knives and other weapons. I saw them pushing and shoving my father. So I got involved and I got hit. My hand got cut when it crashed against the glass pane of the window,” he added.
He said within a few minutes after his arrival, the mob, which also broke a few chairs inside the house, retreated and slipped away. He noticed that his aunt, whose one arm was paralysed, got injured in the scuffle and had to be taken to the hospital. “My father was pushed and shoved a bit but he seemed fine at the moment. So we took my aunt to the hospital. When we were returning from the hospital, on the way, I saw my father being taken in an auto rickshaw by our neighbours. One of them shouted out, ‘Vasu is gone’. I was in disbelief so we followed them. At the hospital, doctors said he was dead,” said Vineesh, his words, choked by grief.
“I later came to know that after we left for the hospital, my father had hung himself by the side of the house. I don’t know why he would take his own life. He was always strong-hearted. I can’t believe he is no more,” said the 27-year-old, a tile worker.
Vineesh still cannot affix a reason for the mob attack though he said that he has had small altercations with the gang members in the past, some of whom are affiliated to the local BJP unit. “There have been some instances, but they were minor. I never thought it could blow up into something so big. I never wanted any problems with them,” he said.
Among the names of the gang members that Vineesh gave to the police in the case, one was that of Sreejith, who’s commonly called Thulasidas in the neighbourhood. But the ‘Sreejith’ that police eventually picked up later that night along with a bunch of others was his friend ‘Sreejith’ instead of Thulasidas. “Sreejith was a good friend and I am sad for him. But the police have still not arrested the main accused. I fear for my life very much,” he added. Back at Sreejith’s house, his mother, Shyamala, narrated how her son was arrested by the police, dressed in T-shirts and saffron mundu (dhoti), late on the night of April 6, the day Vineesh’s home was attacked.
“It was around 10:30 pm when three policemen in mufti came to take away Sreejith, who was sleeping inside. When he asked why he was being arrested, the police didn’t answer. I pleaded with the police that he is innocent but they dragged him away without an explanation. When he protested outside, I saw them hitting him in the stomach. They also took away Sajith, my younger son as well,” said Shyamala, who has three sons.
The next day, Shyamala, her husband Ramakrishnan and Sreejith’s father-in-law Pradeep went to the Varapuzha police station to inquire but they claimed they weren’t allowed inside or to talk to Sreejith. “I saw him writhing in pain, holding his stomach. I wanted to give him some water, but the Sub-Inspector Deepak shouted at us. He told us to go away. I could see my son calling out to me for some water, but the police treated us so badly,” the mother said.
Sreejith’s brother Sajith, who was also taken into police custody, alleged that they were brutally beaten. “They hit me many times on the back. They kicked Sreejith and punched him repeatedly in the stomach,” he said. Later that afternoon, Sreejith was taken by the police for a medical examination after he complained of stomach ache first to a private clinic, then to a taluk hospital and finally on the morning of April 8 to Aster Medicity. “We saw him there for the first time. There were injuries around his eyes and his nose appeared swollen. The skin on his chest had peeled away and there were shoe marks. He told us that he wanted to meet his daughter,” Ranjith, Sreejith’s elder brother, told The Indian Express.
As hours went by, doctors informed Sreejith’s family that things were not looking good as he was not responding to treatment. On the evening of April 9 around 6:30 pm, less than three days after he was arrested by police, Sreejith passed away. A medical report from the hospital and the autopsy examination confirmed that there was ‘blunt trauma to abdomen’, ‘perforation in the small intestine’ and ‘multiple mesenteric contusions’ indicating custodial torture.
While the police have so far rejected allegations of custodial torture and maintained that Sreejith was an accused in the case, due to political pressure, state DGP Loknath Behera has appointed a special investigation team to look into the matter. Three officers, who took Sreejith into custody, have been suspended.
But Sreejith’s father-in-law Pradeep remained unsatisfied. “How can we expect justice from the police when police are the culprits here? They have no right to torture anybody,” he said. “We are poor and we don’t have much knowledge of the law, but we will fight for justice,” he added.