“All of you killed my father, sir… All of you killed my parents. Now you say I can’t even bury them?” cries the distressed young man in the maroon shirt, as he ferociously slams a garden hoe into the ground. A police officer tries to reason with him, telling him to stop digging. A few people stand around watching silently.
This video of their two teenaged children, Rahul and Renjith, crying and pleading to cremate their father at the disputed land as per his last wish went viral on social media, and has shaken the conscience of the public and triggered widespread protests in Kerala. The 23-year-old Rahul Raj was trying to dig a grave for his father, a Dalit man who died on Monday after a week of battling serious burn injuries. Rahul’s mother, who was alive at the time, died hours afterward. Like her husband, she too had suffered grievous burns.
Rahul’s father, Pongil Rajan, 45, and his wife Ambili, 36, of Athiyannnor panchayat in Thiruvananthapuram district, a place mostly occupied by families from Scheduled Caste communities, accidentally set themselves on fire on December 22 while resisting attempts by the police to evict them from the three cents of disputed land on which they had built their small home. The children have alleged that it was the police who caused their death. “My pappa (father) is someone who would never attempt suicide. Suicide is not the solution for anything he would say,” Rahul reportedly said to TheWire.
In his dying declaration to a local magistrate, Rajan said that he had doused his wife and himself with petrol to bluff the police into backing off. “I had lit the lighter only to keep the police away. I had no plans to end my life. But a police officer swatted at the burning lighter, which fell on us and engulfed us both in flames,” he said. In his statement, Rajan said that “he was shattered by the thought that his family would be deprived of a roof over their head. Deeply upset over that thought, I took my wife out and held her close, and then put petrol on both of us. I had thought the police would retreat from their attempt to evict us.”
The couple had erected an asbestos-roof shed at a Dalit colony where they lived with their two sons, Rahul and Ranjith. A woman named Vasantha had objected to the shed, claiming that she owned the land, which she had purchased 16 years ago. After a legal battle at a local civil court, Vasantha got a favourable verdict. Two months ago, the court ordered Rajan to vacate the land, but he refused. Subsequently, the court designated an advocate’s commission to look into the issue. Based on the commission’s report, the court again passed an order to evict the family.
On December 22, the police came to the family’s home. By then, however, the couple had obtained a stay on the eviction order from the local munsiff court. The couple’s elder son Rahul said that his father had mentioned that they had received the stay order and it would just take a bit of time to obtain the copy of the order as proof.
This is the stay order than Rajan secured from court, on the same day as eviction- December 22. Why did the police not wait for the court's decision? pic.twitter.com/195Bvw94d5
— Saritha S Balan (@Sarithasbalan) December 29, 2020
“We were about to have lunch. Rice had been served. Father pleaded for half an hour with the police to allow us to have our meal,” Rahul said as per The Indian Express. “But, the police would not allow us to eat. An officer shouted at my father, telling him to get out of our home with all our belongings. Subsequently, he brought mother outside threatening to set themselves on fire.”
After Rajan succumbed to his injuries on Monday, the sons insisted that he should be buried on the little bit of land which he died defending. However, with the ownership of the land in court, local people did not want to dig the burial pit. So Rahul started to dig himself, but the police intervened. Subsequently, however, Rajan was buried on the premises as per his wish.
However, the woman who initiated the legal battle against the Dalit couple said she would not relent. Vasantha, who was moved out by police fearing the wrath of the local people, told reporters that she would not give up the land. “I bought the land 16 years ago. The people of the colony were against me. I have been fighting alone. I won’t leave the land. I want to prove that it belongs to me,’’ she said.
However, a neighbor Hari, tells a different story. He says that six months ago, Vasantha’s youngest son had come with petrol to set the family on fire. “Vasantha’s intention was to torture the family and to make them leave the house so that she can buy the land for a meagre amount of money. She has done this with others too,” Hari alleged.
Vasanta who had initially filed a land dispute case kept adding complaints so much that Rajan was not even able to go to work as complaints filed by Vasantha kept on piling up. Following Vasantha’s numerous complaints, officials would visit Rajan’s house several times, which led to a deterioration in Ambili’s mental health. Thulasi, Rajan’s mother, alleged that she once had an argument with Vasantha about Dalits living in the locality. “She [Vasantha] claimed that she would not let Dalits live in the area. I told her that everyone, all humans have the same rights. This might have made her angry with me and my son,” Thulasi had alleged as reported by The News Minute.
As the police action and the Dalit couple’s death triggered an uproar and protests, Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan on Tuesday said the government would step in to help the orphaned sons. “The government will take up their protection and meet their educational expenses. They will be provided with a house,” he announced.
The state Human Rights Commission directed the district police chief to look into the lapses on the part of police officials. Commission chairman Justice Antony Dominic said the police had failed to act in the proper manner. “While court orders should be implemented, the police should not have hurt a person’s pride and pushed him to suicide. Two lives have been lost in the presence of police officials,” he said.
This incident can’t be called a case of suicide. It was a case of the death of two innocent people due to insensitivity shown by the police. The burning question remains, would the world have turned upside down if the police had given the family half an hour to finish lunch, and show the proof of the stay order as proof? Why was the police so predetermined in evicting the family that they could not spare a minute to listen to logic or reason or pleading? Strict action needs to be taken against the officers who were present to exemplify that humanity can never take a backseat in the drive to implement justice.