Suspicious end

Print edition : October 14, 2016

P. Ramkumar. Photo: HANDOUT

S. Swathi, who was murdered on June 24. Photo: BY SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

The alleged suicide of Ramkumar, the accused in the Swathi murder case, at the Central Prison in Chennai, fuels doubts about the investigating authorities’ claims.

THE alleged suicide of the Dalit youth Paramasivan Ramkumar at Puzhal Central Prison near Chennai on September 18 came as a bizarre twist in the sensational Swathi murder case. Twenty-four-year-old S. Swathi was hacked to death at a suburban train station in Chennai on the morning of June 24 when she was waiting to board a train to go to work at an information technology firm.

While the search for the accused kept the police on tenterhooks for more than a week, the subsequent arrest and imprisonment of Ramkumar, who was accused of committing the crime apparently to avenge unrequited love, and the strange manner of his suicide, by “biting a live wire”, threw up a number of questions for which the police were hard-pressed to find answers.

The murder committed in broad daylight in front of an indifferent public in the busy Nungambakkam railway station jolted civil society’s collective conscience and raised questions about women’s safety in the city. The lack of transparency in the Swathi murder investigation added to the mystery behind the murder, which soon became mired in controversies.

Ramkumar was a native of Meenakshipuram near Senkottah in Tirunelveli district. Meenakshipuram caught national attention in the 1980s after the majority of its residents, all Dalits, embraced Islam to protest against caste-based discrimination. His father, R. Paramasivan, is a daily-wage earner, while his mother, Pushpam, is an agricultural worker. Ramkumar has two younger sisters. The youth, according to his neighbours, was “shy and reclusive” by nature. As he could not pass his engineering college examinations, he went to Chennai to attend coaching classes to clear arrears and also to find a job.

In Chennai, he stayed in a private mansion in Choolaimedu. Swathi was a resident of the same locality. The first break in the investigation came a week after the murder when the police obtained CCTV footage from around the area of the crime in which a youth reportedly resembling Ramkumar was seen. After a couple of days, the police arrested Ramkumar from his house in his native village but not before he had slit his throat. He survived that attempt, but only to die another day.

The murder whipped up frenzied reactions from many caste and fundamentalist forces in Tamil Nadu. Was it because the boy was a Dalit and the girl a Brahmin?

Dalit leaders denied the charges and said that their party did not support Ramkumar because he was a Dalit. Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi (VCK) leader Thol Thirumavalavan said there had been no transparency in the investigation from the beginning. In an interview to The Hindu, he said he was not commenting on whether Ramkumar was guilty or not. An advocate, who is a counsel for the Central government and is close to the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS), filed a bail application for Ramkumar without his consent. “In the application, he claimed that Ramkumar did not commit the murder. What is his motive? I cannot believe that a man linked to the RSS will come to the rescue of a Dalit in a case where a Brahmin girl has been murdered,” said Thirumavalavan. (However, the lawyer withdrew from the case as mysteriously as he had got involved in it in the first phase.)

On social media sites, the Swathi murder case gave rise to posts and counter-posts filled with venom and hatred against Dalits. Even before the police could identify the accused, Hindu right-wing elements made a blatant attempt to skew the investigations by floating the theory of the involvement of a Muslim youth in the murder and citing a case of “love jehad”. Surprisingly, two well-known film comedians were in the forefront of the campaign. The investigation team seemed to follow the lead of social media when the right-wing elements, following Ramkumar’s arrest, directed their ire at Dalits and accused them of “enticing forward caste girls”, prompting a strong retaliation from activists.

Condemning the social media posts as “irresponsible”, a Muslim outfit stuck wall posters at some places in the city demanding the arrest of those who, they alleged, were trying to disturb communal harmony. They urged the State government to register cases against the hatemongers.

The Muslim youth who was targeted by the divisive forces was a friend of Swathi’s. The information he provided about Swathi (“as a strong and confident girl”) and Ramkumar, the police said, had immensely helped their investigation. But the police were under tremendous pressure in this case. “Our boys worked under an extreme environment,” a senior police officer said.

‘Flawed investigation’

Ramkumar’s lawyer, S.P. Ramaraj, told Frontline that the whole investigation was flawed from the start. “They fixed him as the accused and constructed their case. It was not evidence that led to the arrest of the accused. It was vice versa. Barring an eyewitness, a shopkeeper in the railway station, and the blurred image of a youth in the CCTV footage, no other concrete material evidence was available with them to prove Ramkumar’s guilt. And that is why they could not file the charge sheet even after the mandated time frame of 90 days. Hence, it was a completely haphazard investigation, with gaping holes that opened up a can of unanswered questions,” he argued.

Indeed, the way in which the investigating agency handled Ramkumar’s arrest and later his death in prison raised serious doubts in the minds of people about the veracity of its claims. The special teams reportedly spotted him in his native village after a week-long manhunt. The then City Police Commissioner, T.K. Rajendran, now Director General of Police, told the media that policemen in mufti entered Meenakshipuram, which is located off the Tirunelveli-Senkottah Highway, in the foothills of the Western Ghats near the Kerala border.

He said his men watched Ramkumar’s movements all through the day since he was grazing goats, and at about 11:30 p.m. stormed his one-room tiled house on Ambedkar Street in the village to arrest him. But the youth had slit his throat with a sharp weapon, which was later identified as a piece of blade. The police rushed him to the Tirunelveli Government Hospital where a dozen stitches were needed to close the wound. It was a close call for him, the doctors said, and he was shifted to a Chennai hospital, and he recovered. After a series of counselling sessions to investigate his suicidal tendencies, he seemed to be normal until he died in what the prison authorities insisted was a case of suicide.

Ramkumar’s claim in the bail petition moved before the Egmore Metropolitan Court, Chennai, that he had not attempted suicide at the time of his arrest aroused suspicions about the suicide theory. He said “some plainclothesmen”, who accompanied the police, attempted to murder him. His lawyer vouched for the statement. “How a posse of policemen could, though in plain clothes, stay put in a village from early morning?” he asked. Any villager would have grown suspicious at the sight of a stranger in his locality.

Besides, nabbing a poor and unarmed village youth who was said to have been grazing goats would not have warranted an operation of this scale. “The power was cut off in the village before the police barged into his house. He was not an armed terrorist,” Ramaraj said. But answers for these questions could have been found in the charge sheet that was to be filed.

Ramaraj said: “When I met him in prison a day before his death, he told me that ‘some others’ were also involved in the case. When I asked him specifically, he said he would reveal some sensitive information about the girl’s murder in the court since he feared for his life. He said that he was made a scapegoat. In fact, we were very confident that the case would never stand the test of trial. He looked relaxed since he was confident that he could secure bail. We were waiting for the police to file the charge sheet.” The bail petition was to be filed on September 20 while the police were preparing to file the charge sheet.

However, the police’s claims were contrary to what the lawyers said. They said they had enough evidence to prove that it was Ramkumar who killed Swathi. “His intention was not to murder her but only to hurt her. On the day of the murder, he came to the railway station at 6:30 a.m. with the weapon and attacked her. But she died. Ramkumar told the police that he came to know of her death in the evening. He packed and bolted for his village,” a senior investigation officer attached to one of the special teams said.

Intriguing second attempt

But his alleged suicide in prison proved even more intriguing. Many people refused to buy the claim that Ramkumar had committed suicide by “biting a live wire” in the dispensary ward of Prison Block II, a high-security zone in what the police and prison officials claimed was “a modern prison”, built in 2006. He was administered first aid and rushed to the Royapettah Government Hospital in the city, where he was declared “brought dead”. There was no eyewitness to the incident, although it was claimed that four prisoners, two warders and two prison officials were “somewhere around” at that time.

The hospital’s Accident Register pointed out that he was brought by a team consisting of Assistant Jailor M. Pitchandi, First Grade Warden–II Petchimuthu and Dr Naveen Kumar. The Chief Medical Officer, Dr Seyed Abdul Cader, declared that Ramkumar was “brought dead” following an alleged “electric shock” around 4:35 p.m. on September 18. The death was confirmed after the ECG reading. He sustained laceration on the right side of his neck, above and below the chest, and left upper arm, the details recorded in the Register noted.

Suicide theory

A few pertinent questions about the suicide theory have emerged. How did the prisoner reach the switchboard and pull out a live wire without getting noticed in a high-security prison? When was the power switched off and how long was he kept in the prison dispensary for first-aid treatment? Why should he be taken to the Royapettah hospital, which was located in the heart of the city, far away from the prison, instead of a nearby hospital?

A high-profile remand prisoner like Ramkumar with “reported suicidal tendencies” should have been put under round-the-clock watch. Where were the security personnel at the time of his alleged suicide? Above all, the most serious doubt was raised about the non-existence of CCTV cameras in the dispensary ward. Does the prison have a suicide resistance cell, as urged by the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) in its guidelines on suicide prevention in prisons across the country?

Former Madras High Court judge Justice K. Chandru told Frontline that Ramkumar’s death in the prison had given rise to several questions. “Ramkumar was a high-risk remand prisoner. He was not even taken out of the prison to the court for the purpose of remand for this reason. The magistrate had given remand extension by having videoconference with the prisoner. Besides this, at the time when he was lodged in the prison the police had alleged that he had attempted to commit suicide while he was apprehended in his native place. If that statement was true, then the remand prisoner should have been kept under constant surveillance,” he said.

When he was a judge, Chandru had ordered that electrical fans be provided in each cell in Tamil Nadu’s prisons. The State objected to it on the grounds that it might increase the risk factor. However, they were told that concealed wiring and moulded fans could be provided. That order was implemented. “Even while constructing a jail, things like installing circuit breakers, which would automatically disconnect power in case of emergencies, should have been taken note of,” he said.

Justice Chandru said that ever since the Puzhal prison started functioning, there had been innumerable complaints, including deaths of prisoners. “Besides, the prison bazaar, which started with a bang, was closed down owing to corruption among prison officials. Unaccounted money has been found, and smuggling in of mobile phones and drugs has become rampant. Therefore, a full-fledged inquiry about the working of the Puzhal prison, at least for the last five years, is required,” he said.

As per the NHRC manual, those with self-destructive tendencies should be monitored closely. High-risk inmates such as Ramkumar should have been under direct visual observation round the clock. A senior lawyer, who files petitions on prisoners’ welfare, said that it was a strange incident in the high-security prison, though a couple of deaths by electrocution had occurred earlier in prisons in the State. He pointed out that had the prison administration followed the NHRC’s guidelines on the prevention of suicides in prisons, Ramkumar’s death could have been averted.

(The Tamil Nadu Prison administration, in response to a public interest litigation petition, recently told the Madras High Court that one inmate died in every four days in prisons across the State, and that 1,155 persons had died in jails between 2000 and 2013.)

Ramkumar’s father alleged that it was a carefully planned murder. “Ramkumar was healthy when I met him last in the prison on August 11,” he said.

The senior officer handling the case said that once the forensic reports on the blood samples from the crime scene, weapon and the shirt, sent to the Tamil Nadu Forensic Science Laboratory, were available, the link would be established between the killer and the victim. “We are hounded by the media and all and sundry,” the officer said. In fact, the only solace the police got during the course of the investigation was from the High Court, which, while dismissing the plea for a CBI inquiry, reposed faith in the State police.

Judicial inquiry

Justice Chandru pointed out that on the question of Ramkumar’s death one could not go by the statement of the Prison Department. “The inquest by the local magistrate is not an inquiry which can bring out the truth. What is required is a judicial inquiry by a judge of the High Court [sitting or retired], which can unravel the truth behind the death. At the same time, until such time the truth is revealed citizens should not spread all kinds of rumours through social media, which can do considerable damage to the case on hand,” he said.

A judicial commission is what Dalit leaders, including Dr K. Krishnaswamy of the Puthiya Thamizhagam, are seeking. Political parties and groups have demanded a CBI inquiry. “Whether it is suicide or homicide, the death of Ramkumar in the prison is an indictment on the prison administration in Tamil Nadu,” said the activist A. Marx. The State Human Rights Commission has ordered an inquiry by a senior officer, who is to submit a “comprehensive report” within two weeks. A magisterial inquiry has also been ordered into Ramkumar’s death.

But with both the victim of the attack and the accused dead, the sensational case may die a quiet death, at least for now.