Investigation into student's death

Struggle for justice

Print edition : May 12, 2017

SFI activists at St. Albert's College in Kochi holding a demonstration following the death of Jishnu Pranoy, in January. Photo: Thulasi Kakkat

A policewoman removes Jishnu's mother Mahija when she was protesting outside the police headquarters in Thiruvananthapuram on April 5.

Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan. Photo: M. Prabhu

The death of a college student leads to widespread criticism in Kerala, but the clumsy handling of the issue by the police and the government leaves much to be desired.

On January 6, Jishnu Pranoy, a 17-year-old engineering student, died under mysterious circumstances at the Nehru College of Engineering and Research Centre, Pampadi, in Kerala’s Thrissur district.

The authorities of the self-financing engineering college said that he had committed suicide after being caught cheating at the university semester examinations. However, the circumstances of his death and statements of fellow students and family members suggested that it could well have been a case of death owing to harassment and torture by some college authorities who were peeved at Jishnu’s activist role on campus. In one instance, he had reportedly protested against the rescheduling of examination dates and had sought the intervention of the leaders of the Students’ Federation of India (SFI) although student union activities were banned in the college, apart from writing Facebook posts and complaining to the university authorities. One of his posts that went viral after his death was about his admiration for Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan. Fellow students said that Jishnu had told them the day he was summoned to the vice-principal’s room that the authorities had, among other things, told him that he was going to be debarred from writing examinations.

Students of the college, irrespective of political affiliation, began an agitation on January 10 claiming that Jishnu had died because of harassment and torture by the college authorities. Soon the government announced a compensation of Rs.10 lakh to Jishnu’s family, whose members were known Communist Party of India (Marxist) sympathisers from a small village near Vadakara in Kozhikode district. When complaints of haphazard police inquiry became shrill, the local officer who was in charge of the inquiry was removed. The government even appointed a well-known lawyer as special prosecutor on a request from Jishnu’s family. Then the inquiry went cold. The first accused was the college chairman, P. Krishnadas, a politically influential businessman who runs the Nehru group of institutions, which includes 19 colleges offering engineering, medical, nursing, pharmacy and law degrees. The majority of the institutions run by the group are in Tamil Nadu and the rest in Kerala. The other four accused included the college’s public relations officer and former Congress Minister K.P. Viswanathan’s son Sanjith Viswanathan, vice-principal N.K. Sakthivel, teacher C.P. Praveen and college employee Dipin.

The police showed much reluctance in arresting the accused, claiming that their whereabouts could not be traced. But after a prolonged student agitation, campaigns in social media and the media’s focus on the issue, cases were registered against members of the college management and teachers.

The first information report (FIR) in the case was filed only over a month after Jishnu’s death. Despite mounting protests, Krishnadas and Sanjith were arrested only on April 3 and 4 respectively, significantly, after they had obtained anticipatory bail. Jishnu’s mother Mahija, father Asokan and uncle Sreejith (an employee at Deshabhimani, the CPI(M)’s organ) had been alleging that the police knew very well where they had been hiding until then and had been seeking the Chief Minister’s intervention to speed up the case.

April 5 became a crucial day with regard to the case. The Left Democratic Front (LDF) government was getting ready for the inauguration of the 60th anniversary celebrations of Kerala’s first Communist government, led by E.M.S. Namboodiripad. Newspapers that day carried articles by LDF leaders of the many measures taken by the first communist government that led to the creation of a new Kerala. One of them was to ensure human rights and build a humane police force that was no longer the hand of oppression and torture that it was during British rule.

But it was also the day Jishnu’s parents and relatives and some of his neighbours and friends from Vadakara chose to travel to Thiruvananthapuram to launch an agitation before the office of the Director General of Police (DGP) demanding the arrest of all those who were responsible for his death. Before launching the agitation, they had sought an appointment with the DGP, Loknath Behra, who had reportedly told them at a meeting at the Kerala House in New Delhi on March 26 that they should give the police some more time, at least until April 4, before starting an agitation. But the meeting did not take place, with the police insisting that only six members of the group would be allowed to meet the DGP, and Mahija and others reportedly demanding that more people be allowed.

The entire State watched in stunned silence as television channels aired visuals of the police trying to prevent Jishnu’s mother, relatives and the small group that came with them from entering the DGP’s office, and later, as they began to protest and a scuffle ensued, being subjected to vicious police action. Jishnu’s mother, Mahija, fell down, allegedly after being targeted by an officer from the local station. Many were dragged and hauled into police vans. Mahija and a few others were taken to hospital, and the entire group from Kozhikode was soon released without any charges.

It became clear later that though the police had let off Mahija and her group, they had taken into custody five others from the scene of protest. Among them were activists from the Socialist Unity Centre of India (Communist), or SUCI, M. Shajir Khan, his wife Mini, their friend Sreekumar, the public activist and former Chief Minister V.S. Achuthanandan’s additional private secretary K.M. Shahjahan, and the self-proclaimed godman Himaval Bhadrananda (also known as “Thokku (gun) Swami” after an incident in 2008 when a gun he was waving around while threatening to shoot himself at a police station in Aluva went off accidentally). According to media reports, all five were taken around the city in a police vehicle for hours; their arrest was registered much later; and they were finally jailed early morning the next day.

Shajir Khan is a known SUCI activist and State secretary of the Save Education Forum, which has a history of campaigns against self-financing colleges and other issues in the State’s education sector. SUCI members had been in touch with the student agitators in Jishnu’s college and with Mahija and her relatives from the day of his death and, according to the family members, “were close to them as individuals, not as representatives of any organisation”. They were there to help Mahija and her relatives; they had booked hotel rooms for them in Thiruvananthapuram and had accompanied them as they marched to the DGP’s office. Mahija and Sreejith repeatedly told the media that Shajir Khan, Mini and Sreekumar played no role in the agitation and were there merely to offer support. They also said that they did not know Shahjahan or Himaval Bhadrananda earlier.

As additional private secretary to the then Opposition Leader, Shahjahan was for a long time Achuthanandan’s close confidant and had played a key role in managing many of the leader’s popular political campaigns. He became a victim of rivalry within the State CPI(M) and at one point was expelled from the party on charges of leaking news to the media relating to the party’s Malappuram party conference in 2006. Since then he has kept his distance from Achuthanandan but actively involved himself in public and political causes and as a political commentator. He is also an employee of the State-run Centre for Imaging Technology (C-DiT). He is currently on leave and is studying law at the Law College in Thiruvananthapuram.

Nobody knew why Himaval Bhadrananda was at the scene of the protest until he disclosed that he had fixed an appointment to meet the DGP around the same time. But he too was arrested, allegedly as an afterthought.

No doubt the police action in Thiruvananthapuram turned out to be a public relations disaster for the State government. Political Kerala did not take kindly to the clumsy and baffling handling of the issue by the government. On the one hand, there was widespread public opinion against the use of force against Mahija and her group and the way the grieving protesters were treated during the police action; on the other, Kerala also began debating the serious implications of the arrest of the four activists and the imposition of non-bailable offences on them merely for their public support to a mother who was demanding the arrest of the people responsible for the death of her only son.

Soon after the police action, as Mahija, her brother Sreejith and some other relatives announced they were beginning an indefinite fast at the hospital until all the accused were arrested, and Mahija’s daughter too began a similar fast at their home in Kozhikode, the opposition United Democratic Front (UDF) and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) called for a State-wide hartal. The response to the hartal call was near total. Among the people who criticised the police action were leaders of the CPI(M) and the LDF coalition too, prominent among them CPI(M) Polit Bureau member M.A. Baby, Achuthanandan and CPI State secretary Kanam Rajendran.

The government took the unprecedented step of issuing an advertisement in all major newspapers titled “Jishnu Case: What is the campaign? What is the truth?”, which comprised a 14-point statement explaining in general the government’s diligence and seriousness in the handling of the case from the beginning; justifying the police action; denying the use of force against Mahija; and alleging that some elements were trying to create trouble in society utilising the pain of a family grieving for their son. As protests mounted, on the eve of a crucial parliamentary byelection in Malappuram, the CPI(M) State secretariat too issued a statement that the police had acted in accordance with the LDF government’s policy.

But Jishnu’s family rejected the government’s claims and continued their fast for five days, until hectic parleys by government emissaries resulted in a 10-point agreement being prepared and the Chief Minister calling Mahija over phone and assuring her that all those responsible for Jishnu’s death would be arrested soon. The same day, N.K. Sakthivel was arrested near Coimbatore.

As per the agreement, the government would review whether the police inquiry into Jishnu’s death was flawed as was being alleged and whether there were errors in the post-mortem report. It would also review reports for the Chief Minister to take a final decision on erring police officers involved in the incidents in front of the DGP’s office. The team inquiring into Jishnu’s death would be strengthened.

Since the third accused had also been arrested, it was also agreed that the agitation would be suspended. Jishnu’s family also reiterated in the agreement that only their family members and friends had participated in the protest before the DGP’s office; that Shajir Khan, Mini, and Sreekumar had no role in it and were there merely to help them; and that they did not know Shahjahan or Himaval Bhadrananda earlier or how they happened to be near the DGP’s office on that day.

Meanwhile, Shahjahan’s mother, L. Thankamma, started a “fast unto death” at her residence demanding the release of her son. She alleged that Pinarayi Vijayan was trying to wreak vengeance on her son for his efforts to bring out the truth in the Lavalin corruption case and expose the Chief Minister’s role in it. She said there was a conspiracy behind the arrest of her son, a public activist, who had merely offered his support and empathy to Mahija’s struggle, and an attempt to insult him by bracketing him along with a person like Himaval Bhadrananda.

Although Jishnu’s family ended its struggle, the travails of Shahjahan, Shajir Khan, Mini, Sreekumar and Himaval Bhadrananda continued for seven days. All of them had been taken into custody on charges of criminal conspiracy. A Judicial First Class Magistrate’s court eventually let them off on bail on April 11, rejecting the government’s plea against it.

Other charges against them included unlawful assembly and obstruction of duty of the police. The police had also earlier sought them under their custody for a day, but the court had merely allowed them to be questioned only for a few hours. Shahjahan, who is studying law, had to appear for his semester examination from jail; he was also suspended from government service as he had remained in custody for over 48 hours.

The issue has now snowballed into a major political controversy, with people from all walks of life coming out with statements against the police action on Jishnu’s family, the arrest of the activists and the imposition of charges of criminal conspiracy against them.

It has also intensified the war of words between the leaders of the CPI(M) and the CPI, key partners in the LDF government, over several such policy and governance issues. These include the death of four Maoists in police action in the Nilambur forests; the imposition of Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, or UAPA, on public activists and their arrest on the basis of the law; the government’s stand before the High Court on whether the provisions of the Right to Information Act are applicable to Cabinet decisions as soon as they are made; and the government’s response in the case filed by the relatives of the well-known naxalite, Varghese, seeking compensation for his death in a fake police encounter that took place in the 1970s.

In all such issues, an unusually assertive CPI leadership has been claiming that the State government was deviating from the well-established positions of the Left movement and that the CPI(M) leadership had, in turn, been warning them not to act like they are in the opposition or give a handle to the opposition to attack the government.

In the end, Kerala seemed as surprised by the moral and political strength that the unusual struggle by Jishnu’s mother and her relatives gained in such a short time and the goodwill and empathy they got from across the State as it was by the jarring and puzzling response of the police and the failure of the government to uphold democratic principles in its treatment of a handful of activists who took part in the struggle of a grieving family.

The State is now compelled to look closely at the progress of the investigation into Jishnu’s death and the fate of the activists who tried to offer support to Mahija’s struggle. It has already become a bumpy ride for the 11-month-old LDF government in the State.

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