“All of you killed my father, sir… All of you killed my parents. Now you say I can’t even bury them?” cries the distressed young man in the maroon shirt, as he ferociously slams a garden hoe into the ground. A police officer tries to reason with him, telling him to stop digging. A few people stand around watching silently.
The viral video has shaken the conscience of the public and triggered widespread protests in Kerala. It shows 23-year-old Rahul Raj trying to dig a grave for his father, a Dalit man who died on Monday after a week of battling serious burn injuries. Rahul’s mother, who was alive at the time, died hours afterward. Like her husband, she too had suffered grievous burns.
Rahul’s father, Pongil Rajan, 45, and his mentally-challenged wife Ambili, 36, of Athiyannnor panchayat in Thiruvananthapuram district, accidentally set themselves on fire on December 22 while resisting attempts by the police to evict them from the three cents of disputed land on which they had built their small home.
In his dying declaration to a local magistrate, Rajan said that he had doused his wife and himself with petrol to bluff the police into backing off. “I had lit the lighter only to keep the police away. I had no plans to end my life. But a police officer swatted at the burning lighter, which fell on us and engulfed us both in flames,” he said.
In his statement, Rajan said that “he was shattered by the thought that his family would be deprived of a roof over their head. Deeply upset over that thought, I took my wife out and held her close, and then put petrol on both of us. I had thought the police would retreat from their attempt to evict us.”
The couple had erected an asbestos-roof shed at a Dalit colony where they lived with their two sons, Rahul and Ranjith. A woman named Vasantha had objected to the shed, claiming that she owned the land, which she had purchased 16 years ago. After a legal battle at a local civil court, Vasantha got a favourable verdict.
Two months ago, the court ordered Rajan to vacate the land, but he refused. Subsequently, the court designated an advocate’s commission to look into the issue. Based on the commission’s report, the court again passed an order to evict the family.
On December 22, the police came to the family’s home. By then, however, the couple had obtained a stay on the eviction order from the local munsiff court. This had happened on the same day — however, according to the family, they had not until then got a copy of the order to show the police.
“When the police came with the court authorities to evict us, my father told them about the stay obtained from the court on that very day. It was only a matter of getting the copy of the order,” Rahul, the couple’s elder son, said.
“We were about to have lunch. Rice had been served. Father pleaded for half an hour with the police to allow us to have our meal,” Rahul said. “But, the police would not allow us to eat. An officer shouted at my father, telling him to get out of our home with all our belongings. Subsequently, father brought mother outside.”
After Rajan succumbed to his injuries on Monday, the sons insisted that he should be buried on the three cents of land for which he had fought and died. However, with the ownership of the land in court, local people did not want to dig the burial pit. So Rahul started to dig himself, but the police intervened. Subsequently, however, Rajan was buried on the premises as per his wish.
As the police action and the Dalit couple’s death triggered an uproar and protests, Chief Minister Pinarayi VIjayan on Tuesday said the government would step in to help the orphaned sons. “The government will take up their protection and meet their educational expenses. They will be provided with a house,” he announced.
The state Human Rights Commission directed the district police chief to look into the lapses on the part of police officials. Commission chairman Justice Antony Dominic said the police had failed to act in the proper manner. “While court orders should be implemented, the police should not have hurt a person’s pride and pushed him to suicide. Two lives have been lost in the presence of police officials,” he said.
DGP Loknath Behera asked Thiruvananthapuram Rural SP B Ashokan to look into the incident, including police lapses in handling the eviction.
However, the woman who initiated the legal battle against the Dalit couple said she would not relent. Vasantha, who was moved out by police fearing the wrath of the local people, told reporters that she would not give up the land. “I bought the land 16 years ago. The people of the colony were against me. I have been fighting alone. I won’t leave the land. I want to prove that it belongs to me,’’ she said.
📣 The Indian Express is now on Telegram. Click here to join our channel (@indianexpress) and stay updated with the latest headlines