India: The Elephant in the Room: The brutal rape and murder case in Kerala and the need for police reform

Asia Human Rights
May 18, 2016
Reproduced with Permission
Asian Human Rights Commission

The press has reported on three rapes in Kerala in the last month. The one that everyone is talking about is the brutal rape and murder on April 28 of the Dalit law student, whose dismembered body was found by her mother in their home. The ones not discussed as much are the gangrape of the 15 year old girl in Attingal and that of the 19-year-old student in Varkala .

It is heartbreaking to listen to Rajeshwari , the victim's mother, wailing about the way the police repeatedly ignored complaints about danger and threats to their person. She talks desperately about their helplessness, the fear with which they lived all these years, and the frantic entreaties and complaints to the police about the danger that fell on deaf ears.

And now, she is dead, with 38 wounds, deep injuries in her vagina and blood clots in her internal organs, bite and scratch marks all over her body, her death the " combined effects of smothering, strangulation and multiple injuries in the neck, abdomen and external genitalia". The case is witnessing the familiar cycle of shock, denial, anger, protest, public angst, and media pressure, some sloganeering and lots of vote bank drama, and finally, the urge to move on, to forget, i.e. until the next one, and the next, and the one after that.

Unprecedented public call for police reform

Kerala is unique in India in that it has had a recent public call for police reform, initiated by one of its own, from within the policing institution. The Director General of Police (DGP), Mr. T.P. Senkumar put out a public call in July last year to invite proposals on ways to modernize the institution. The Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) answered this call and the translated version of the circular is available on the AHRC's website.

The DGP's public call focuses on the need for Research & Development and assistance from specialists and experts from fields as varied as IT, construction, health, language studies, and communication, in order to aid police performance and provide suggestions and advice for modernization of the force. It suggests setting up new "police reform" teams to help implement progressive ideas within the force, and bridge the gap between the knowledge and expertise of retired and serving police officers and others within the force. DGP Senkumar even has his own Facebook page to gather suggestions from the public on how to improve police functioning.

The need for comprehensive police reform is urgent, and it could not be more apparent than now, given the manner in which the Kerala police have been conducting the present investigation. The state police are under exceptional political and media pressure to solve this case.

Ill-equipped police that bypass due process

Often in underdeveloped jurisdictions, when a crime is reported, police performance is assessed on how quickly the police arrest the accused. In India this is the yardstick with which police performance is measured. The complexity of the crime, the absence of any leads to the accused, and the possibilities of an accused being able to abscond to far and remote regions of the country are never matters that get consideration when the police are blamed for not arresting the accused.

Unfortunately, the Indian police are ill-equipped with the appropriate technology and resources, and lack the professionalism to solve crimes. This is why, when the pressure mounts, or to avoid pressure, the police resort to arresting persons they suspect or arresting those unable to legally resist arrest, and torture them to confess to the crime. In short, investigation in India begins and ends with a confession. These confessions, when examined in courts, often after decades, do not stand the test of proof, and hence those arrested are acquitted in trial.

The present case is once again a public display of police unprofessionalism and lack of skill. Reports and sources say that the police arrived two hours after being informed about the murder, a large lapse. Police response time is key to crime investigation and prevention. In advanced jurisdictions, where the people expect their police to be the protector and guarantor of all rights, this response time can be limited to as little as three minutes.

Even after the police arrived, the crime scene was not cordoned off; now it is confirmed that the scene was corrupted, leading to loss of vital evidence. Delayed response time allowed stray public access to the crime scene. This shows the absence of professional training and knowledge of the police in investigating crimes.

Even if the crime scene was preserved, the police capacity to gather and pursue scientific evidence is appallingly low. The facilities that exist in India are far inferior to the technology that is available today, and whatever is available is difficult for police officers to access. The autopsy was conducted in a hurry and the body was released to the family and hastily cremated. The quality of the autopsy is already disputed since it has been revealed that it was not the police surgeon, but a subordinate medical student, who conducted the autopsy.

The police have tried everything to make a breakthrough. First, they claimed they detained two suspects, within two days of the crime. The police brought in the suspects, their faces covered, to the crime scene. Later, it was alleged that the persons the police brought to the scene were police officers dressed in civilian clothes, in an attempt to show their progress in the investigation.

Then the police claimed that migrant laborers committed the crime. Without an iota of proof, this irresponsible allegation has placed all migrant laborers under suspicion. It also shows the prejudice that runs deep within the police - if one is poor and a migrant, chances are the person is at risk of being accused of crime. But, there is no data in Kerala to show that migrant laborers commit more crime than residents.

Next, the police came up with a series of sketches of the suspect. One after another, the sketches changed, almost daily, exposing that the sketches were not prepared after proper investigation and examination of reasonable leads. A couple of days ago, the police started gathering fingerprints of the entire community. It even requested the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI) for assistance to compare fingerprints that it claims to have gathered from the crime scene. This has been denied, since providing such information is against the law .

Meanwhile, the police made public statements alleging that those who refuse to volunteer to provide fingerprints will be forced to do so or will be considered suspects. This statement is in violation of the right to privacy; the police have no authority to force people to provide fingerprints. Indeed, many volunteered, likely not because they were willing and respect the police, but fearing adverse police action. This is an example of how police abuse their power and exploit the fear psychosis that exists in the community against the police. In the first few days after the crime was reported, many neighbors were unwilling to assist police investigation, even refusing to give statements, which shows public contempt for the institution, as well as betrays fears about the processes they might have to face if they speak to the police.

In the past two days, the police have come up with another theory, based on the dental structure of the suspect. It is reported that the police are now gathering dental imprints of migrant laborers in the locality to find out whether their dental structure matches that of the imprint they have from the body of the deceased. This is an abysmal waste of time and makes a mockery of the institution.

Daily investigation reports and procedures regarding this case are widely reported and commented upon in the media, showing that the police are unable to undertake the investigation ensuring the secrecy it warrants. In fact, the sustained interest of political parties in the case, two weeks later, has prompted the National Commission for Women (NCW) to declare that "electoral considerations" were affecting the police investigation. The NCW beseeched the Election Commission to order a "fair probe" into the crime, as the administration in poll-bound Kerala was investigating the crime in an apathetic and lackadaisical manner, more interested in finding a "scapegoat" than the real culprits.

Urgent need for police reform

In the aftermath of the rape and murder of the law student, the people have been reminded over and over that the assembly elections are around the corner. But the main contesting coalitions and parties in Kerala, the Left Democratic Front, United Democratic Front, and the Bharatiya Janata Party have not made police reform or criminal justice reform a priority, in spite of the brutal rape and murder that has exposed the inefficiency of the police.

The police are the link between the citizen and the State. However, usually, the first point of call operates as the worst enemies of Indian citizens. The AHRC has received numerous complaints ( many from Kerala ) over the years of police abuse and brutality, especially against the most vulnerable. The police refuse to file complaints; deride persons for their behavior and clothing when they have been assaulted; torture, rape and force confessions; trample all over investigation scenes; and bribe and get bribed. The state of policing in India is revolting, monstrous in its capacity for crime. Rather than focusing on individual cases, people need to demand the reform of the institution that is meant to protect them.

And yet, police and criminal justice institutional reform is never a talking point, never an election promise, or top priority on a manifesto. The rape and murder of the Dalit law student and the two other rapes that were reported have catapulted the safety of women in Kerala into the public eye. But what has the central or state administration done so far, even in terms of adequate resource reallocation, to prevent these incidents from recurring, i.e. to help reform the police?

Given that the DGP is open to new ideas and is keen on the professionalization of the police force, the state administration and the new government that will be elected has an excellent opportunity to harness this possibility and make a substantive change for the benefit of all. Most importantly, it is the people that need to step up and demand a transformation of the police into the institution that they need and deserve.