21/12/2016 5:59 PM IST | Updated 21/12/2016 6:21 PM IST

Police Excesses in Kerala: When Pinarayi Vijayan's Morale Booster Backfired On Him

The killing of the Maoists was indeed a blot to the state's conscience.

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CPI(M) leader Pinarayi Vijayan arrives to attend the CPI(M) Politburo meeting.

When two alleged "Maoists" were shot dead under mysterious circumstances in a forest in the Western Ghats of Kerala last month, chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan made a mistake. Instead of instantly decrying what seemed like a fake encounter, he kept quiet for a few days and went on to say that his government wouldn't do anything that would affect the morale of the police.

What Vijayan probably didn't realise was that police morale was a double edged sword which could hurt him too. Vijayan's famous words were followed by a series of incidents in which the police went on an overdrive bringing heaps of disrepute to the government. Finally, the CPM central leadership had to intervene and say that the police had to be reined in. Now, both the state government and the CPM are smarting under the blowback.

Vijayan's encouraging words to the police had shocked the state because what people expected from him was something that would be rights-sensitive. For three days after the "Maoist encounter" he wouldn't open his mouth, even when the police couldn't come up with anything to establish that it was a genuine encounter; but when he finally spoke, he seemed to have not only endorsed what they did, but also gave them a free hand.

What followed across the state afterwards was a demonstration of how a political free hand to the police operates in reality. Within a few days, six delegates to the International Film Festival of Kerala, an ever-swelling annual cinema jamboreee in Thiruvananthapuram, were arrested for not standing up when the national anthem was played. Reportedly, plainclothesmen were deployed in the theatre to pick up those who wouldn't stand up for the anthem. What made the situation worse was that the police action followed complaints by BJP's Yuva Morcha to the DGP, particularly when a minister in Vijayan's camp had clarified earlier that only those willing alone needed to stand up.

The arrest led to a deluge of protests both at the festival, which was attended by about 15,000 people, and across the state. Even the supporters of the CPM and other left parties were outraged. Many took to social media to slam Vijayan's police.

The response to the outcry made things even worse because the police still had the free hand. The CPM, which acted on Yuva Morcha's complaints, was in a fix, but without realising it, the party spoke in multiple voices. The party secretary was unequivocal in supporting the police action when he said those who didn't want to stand up during the national anthem need not go to the movie theatres while its politburo member MA Baby mildly criticised the police action, but tried deflect it against the RSS. None of the CPM ministers, let alone Vijayan, who also handles the home department, were openly critical of the police.

Probably, still encouraged by Vijayan's morale booster, the police continued its overzealousness. Without stopping with the arrests in the film festival theatres, it picked up a writer, Kamal C Chavara, on charges that he insulted the national anthem on a Facebook post, and slapped sedition charges against him. Nadir, an activist, who visited Kamal at the hospital, where he was admitted during custody, was also picked up by the police and was booked under UAPA. Even by the worst police standards, this was an overkill. Sedition charges for not standing up for the anthem, and the draconican UAPA on somebody who visited him.

Vijayan's Kerala now looked like a police state. The police chief looked unfazed even as protests from civil society organisations, rights activists and media swelled. Some Marxist leaders even justified Vijayan in a peculiar way by saying that by being part of the "State" the party had no other option. This is a convenient argument the CPM uses whenever it's accused of conformism to rights abuses by the State.

The lone dissident voice within the CPM came from veteran leader VS Achuthanandan. He countered Vijayan's support to police morale and said that the ongoing police action would "only strengthen people's belief that the state is moving to fascism." Listing all the recent incidents of police excesses, he said the morale of some of the officers needs to be broken. Even the party state secretary Kodiyeri Balakrishnan, who earlier appeared to be soft on the police, said that some officers were working against the state government's policy.

The killing of the Maoists was indeed a blot to the state's conscience. However, people's resistance to the subsequent police behaviour showed the government that in a democracy, it's their voice that finally matters.

The police finally backed out and the Director General of Police even issued a statement that both Ajayan and Nadir had not been arrested, but were only interrogated, and that the UAPA wouldn't stick on the latter. However, the media had an entirely different story that played out over the last few days.

Vijayan's police, particularly the top brass, that was on a sudden high have now realised that as long as the people of the state are vigilant, they will be accountable. Although short lived, this phase of unusual police high-handedness must serve as a learning exercise for Vijayan and his party.

A political free hand to the police in Kerala has a connotation and history - it means a license for excesses that the state had witnessed only during the emergency. The killing of the Maoists was indeed a blot to the state's conscience. However, people's resistance to the subsequent police behaviour showed the government that in a democracy, it's their voice that finally matters. Vijayan may give a free hand to the police, but not the people.

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