May 31, 2020
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Injustice Embalmed

A mummified body is evidence in a search for legal retribution

Injustice Embalmed

IT is a real-life story that could be straight out of Dostoevsky or Kafka. Interned in a mud chamber built in front of his house, rests the mummified body of Gopi, the son of K. Thankappan The preserved body, immersed in in a huge polythene bag, is evidence Thankappan's eight-year-long legal to establish the cause of his son's death battle that seems to have paid off with Kerala High Court's order last directing the state DGP to reopen the and file his report to the court in 90 days

Twenty-four-year-old Gopi had died police custody under suspicious circumstances, on October 6, 1988, at Shertallai, the hometown of Kerala Chief A.K. Antony. The police had sent a to the victim's family, directing them claim the body from the mortuary. The son given for the death was suicide. Thankappan, who found that his body bore marks of torture and physical assault, was not convinced. He sought a legal directive for a formal inquiry into the death, and preserved the body, at a cost of Rs 800 a month, through the relentless legal battle.

Thankappan, the man who took on the police and the state government, hardly fits the profile of a giant-killer. He supplies fish curry to a few toddy shops in Shertallai and has no friends or relatives in high places. He was a sympathiser of the CPM. But even the Left Front government, which had been in power when his son died, failed to help him get justice done.

 On October 5, 1988, the ill-fated Gopi had been asked to report to the local police station for questioning in a petty theft case concerning a tape recorder. He didn't return home alive.

 Why was Gopi killed? In Shertallai, about 35 km from Kochi, where a one-day bandh had been observed protesting Gopi's death, the common perception is that it was due to personal rivalry.

Gopi and a constable Surendaran (who still works in the police station) were players in a much-touted kabbadi match. Gopi was instrumental in the defeat of the team led by Surendaran. Unable to stomach the humiliation in front of a huge home crowd, the constable arrested and tortured Gopi's friend Mobi to force a confessional statement that the two were involved in the theft.

Even assuming that his son had stolen the tape recorder, did the police have the right to torture him, asks Thankappan. He also questions why the police did not follow the mandatory rule of informing the parents on the day of the 'suicide'. Besides, how could Gopi have got hold of a broken tube light in police custody and killed himself in broad daylight when the station was bustling with policemen? The police did not even pretend to have any answers for these questions. Apparently, it was left to the Left Front government to bail them out. Recalls Thankappan: "They told me I should not create embarrassment for the government. They wanted to defend the police. So much for their commitment to the poor."

Incensed, the father turned to the Congress which took up the matter as an election issue. When the Congress-led UDF government came to power, the district court ordered a second post-mortem of Gopi's body. Dr George Paul, police surgeon at Kot-tayam Medical College, exhumed the body and conducted an autopsy. His conclusion was that there was no evidence to disprove the earlier police version. Says Thankappan: "The second post-mortem was a farce and an additional injury to our wounds. Gopi's palms, which distinctly bore torture marks, were cut and taken away by the police doctor." The police had promised to preserve the amputated palms at the Kottayam Government Hospital, but Thankappan believes that the evidence has been destroyed.

Once Thankappan realised that the politicians would not help him, he turned to the courts for justice. In 1990, Justice Chettor Shankaran Nair of the Kerala High Court directed the then DGP to probe the case. The order was initially ignored and after much prodding the Home Department repeated the suicide theory. At this stage, Jananeethi (Justice for People), a Thrissoor-based civil rights group, took over the case and filed a fresh writ at the high court.

 And this time around, the court order to the state DGP seems to have fulfilled Thankappan's hopes. The judge has even pulled up the police and ordered the present DGP to "conduct the investigation personally".

As the long battle for justice shows signs of drawing to a close, Thankappan remains a determined man: "I will prove the innocence of my son this time. Otherwise his mutilated body will remain a metaphor of mutilated justice." 

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