The slaying of four activists allegedly belonging to the Communist Party of India (Maoist) in the forests of Attapadi in Palakkad district has come as a major political embarrassment to the Left Front government in Kerala. This is the third such encounter since the communists came to power in 2016, taking the total toll to seven. The earlier incidents had happened in November 2016 and March this year.

What is more important is that the encounter has happened at a time when the government is facing public anger over the failure of the Kerala police and the prosecution leading to the acquittal of three men accused of brutally raping and causing the deaths of two 13- and nine-year-old Dalit sisters in Walayar, also in Palakkad district, in 2017. A POCSO (Prevention of Children from Sexual Offences) court set the three men free as “the prosecution miserably failed to prove the alleged offences against the accused beyond reasonable doubt”. Activists and critics of the Left government see the latest encounter as a deliberate one to divert the attention of the people from the failure of the government in bringing the child-rapists to book.

Human rights activists and the CPI, a partner in the Left Front, have termed the killings as “fake encounters” stage managed by the Thunderbolts, the elite command force under the Kerala Police. The government has been forced to order an inquiry into the latest killings by the Crime Branch just hours after Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan had justified the police action in the state Assembly. According to the Kerala Police, the Maoists first opened fire at a Thunderbolt patrolling party in the tribal areas of Attapadi Hills early Monday morning. In retaliation, the Thunderbolt forces fired back, killing four Maoists, including a woman, said to belong to the Tamil Nadu unit of the party.

The tribal population living in the area close to the encounter spot have, however, questioned the police version. Members of the Adivasi Action Council in the area say they were in touch with the slain Maoists who had in fact wanted to surrender and they were “killed in cold-blood”. According to two of the Council members, Shivani and Murugan, one of the Maoists was so sick that he could not even stand up. Both Shivani and Murugan point out that had there been a fierce encounter as was claimed by the police, there would have been considerable destruction in the forest area; with bullets piercing the trees and animals and birds killed. Nothing of that sort happened. Moreover, not a single member of the Thunderbolt force was found injured. All these point to a fake encounter, they say.

The same sentiments were expressed by the state secretary of the CPI Kanam Rajendran. He too had no doubt in terming it a fake encounter. “According to the information given by our local workers, the Maoists were having food inside the forest when they were shot at close range,” Kanam said, adding the incident occurred within half-a-kilometre of tribal settlements. The CPI had in the past raised its voice against such encounters. The state council of the party has demanded a judicial probe into the incident. “The CPI does not agree with the politics of Maoists. But the issues they raise should have political remedies… Instead Thunderbolt shooting them down cannot be accepted,” a resolution of the party said.

It was on 13 January 2017 that the older Dalit girl was found hanging in the family’s one room house in Attappallam, near Walayar, in Palakkad. Exactly 52 days later, on 4 March 2017, the younger one was also found hanging in the same house. The nine-year-old had told the police that she saw two men with their faces covered leaving the house the day her sister died. The local police had initially done nothing more than file a case of “unnatural death” of both children. The police later launched an investigation after the post-mortem reports said that both the sisters had been raped.

There were five accused in the case. One of them was set free earlier by the court. The fifth accused is a minor, whose trial will come up before a Juvenile Court next month. The acquittals have rocked the conscience of the state. What was appalling was the appointment of advocate N. Rajesh, a CPM functionary, as the chairman of the Child Welfare Committee, Palakkad, during the pendency of the trial. Rajesh had appeared for the very accused in the very same case for a long time. He had ceased to do so only after taking over the chairman’s post, but had apparently continued to appear for the accused in other child abuse cases. Now it has come to light that in almost all districts, it is the CPM functionaries who man the CWC posts. The government has for now removed Rajesh from the post, but is silent in taking action against him for his utter failure, some say deliberate, in bringing the culprits to book. The children’s mother has said that the accused are connected to the “ariwal party”, a reference to CPM’s sickle symbol.

The UDF and the BJP have launched agitations across the state. However, if this is the result of two years of investigation by the police of this Left Front government, then there cannot be much hope of justice for those two little souls. Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan had repeated what he had said in 2017: Justice will be done! When, is the question Kerala is asking.

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