KK Surendran’s 17-year battle for legal recognition of illegal custody, torture in Muthanga case

A member of the Dalit community, KK Surendran was supporting an Adivasis-led land-rights movement in Wayanad’s Muthanga forest in early 2003. In February that year, the police began a brutal crackdown to quell the movement. As a part of this, officials of the Sulthan Bathery police station arrested him and beat him in custody on 22 February, leaving him with partial loss in hearing. SIBI PULPALLY
31 March, 2021

KK Surendran’s 17-year-long battle demanding compensation for illegal detention and custodial torture came to a successful end on 12 January. That day, a sub court in Kerala’s Wayanad district ordered the state government to pay the retired lecturer Rs 5 lakh. A member of the Dalit community, Surendran was supporting an Adivasis-led land-rights movement in Wayanad’s Muthanga village in early 2003. In February that year, the police began a brutal crackdown to quell the movement. As a part of this, officials of the Sulthan Bathery police station arrested him and beat him in custody on 22 February, leaving him with partial loss in hearing.

The January 2021 judgment acknowledged Surendran’s suffering and stated that his arrest “without reasonable and probable cause was humiliating.” The court noted that P Viswambaran and V Devaraj—the then sub-inspector and circle inspector of the Sulthan Bathery Police Station—“physically and mentally tortured” him in custody. While Surendran had asked for a compensation of Rs 15 lakh, the court only granted him Rs 5 lakh—the state government could decide whether it would pay this amount on its own or get it reimbursed from the guilty officials. But Surendran was satisfied with the judgment. “Its importance lies in the legal recognition of the fact that the police used brute force against me,” he told me.  

Surendran’s torture was among the many cases that showed the heavy costs of Adivasi assertion during the Muthanga land-rights movement. That February, the police was accused of firing at protesters, conducting arbitrary arrests, brutal manhandling and even molestation of women. More than 15 years later, Adivasis in the district continued to struggle for land. But with the January 2021 order, Surendran’s case has seen some sort of closure. “I am not judging it by its economic value,” he told me while recounting his legal battle. “Even if the amount was one rupee, it would not have mattered to me.” 

The Muthanga struggle—as it came to be called—was among the most prominent Adivasis-led land-rights movements in Kerala. An Economic and Political Weekly paper on the struggle, published in May 2003, charted the history of landlessness among Adivasis in Kerala. “Around 30 per cent of the tribal households in the state are landless,” the paper mentioned. “The proportion of landless tribal households is highest in the Malabar area, with the districts of Wayanad and Palakkad taking the lead,” the paper noted.

According to several scholars and activists, the much-admired land reforms introduced by the Communist Party of India (Marxist) government in the 1950s and the Kerala Private Forests (Vesting and Assignment) Act, 1971 failed to benefit the state’s landless Adivasi population. Communities from other regions displaced the Adivasis in Wayanad, leading to a series of movements demanding land rights. “They began to settle in the periphery of Wayanad’s forests, by the rivers and poramboke land,” MK Ramadas, a journalist who had covered the Muthanga protest extensively for the Malayalam news channel Asianet, said. Poramboke land refers to land which is not assessed to revenue records. Ramadas said, “That is how the tribes became landless.” The Kerala Scheduled Tribes (Regulation of Transfer of Land and Restoration of Alienated Land) Act of 1975 provided for the restoration of land to Schedule Tribes and prohibited the transfer of land which belonged to them. However, successive governments failed to implement this. 

The seeds for the Muthanga struggle were sown in 2001, when the Adivasi Gothra Maha Sabha, a group seeking land rights for Adivasis, protested outside the state secretariat in Thiruvananthapuram for 48 days. The AGMS’s president, CK Janu, and its coordinator at the time, M Geethanandan, spearheaded the protests. Ramadas opined that the rising awareness among Adivasis about their rights was a cause of nervousness for political parties. “That is why CK Janu was an opponent to all of them. They feared that they would lose their hold on the people of the lowest strata, who were so far used to draw water and cut wood for them,” he told me. The protest forced AK Antony, the chief minister at the time, to commit to the distribution of cultivable land among the state’s landless Adivasis between 1 January 2002 and 31 December 2002. 

When the Antony government failed to honour his commitment, landless Adivasis of Wayanad, led by AGMS, set up hutments in the forests of Muthanga to assert their right to land ownership. The AGMS said that the forest was the homeland of different Adivasi communities in Wayanad. Moreover, the AGMS held that several Adivasi families had been forcibly evicted from Muthanga during the 1970s and 1980s. 

After the forestland was occupied on 4 January 2003, Ramadas regularly reported on it from the ground. “No one thought that the protest would reach a point of violence,” he told me. “They believed that the issue would be resolved and that they would be invited for talks again. But the then minister of forest, K Sudhakaran, opposed this movement. Political parties created false narratives about it,” he told me. Ramadas added that the movement had been labelled as a parallel government in the state.

A fire developed in the area on 17 February. The protestors blamed forest officials for the arson and held them hostage. “A photographer and a group of forest officials who went to the protest site were held hostage. They were released on the 18th after discussions with the collector,” Ramadas told me. He added that this eventually “deteriorated the equation between the tribal protesters and the general public.” 

The situation came to a head on 19 February when the police fired at the protest site. “There was a posse of 1,000 people including police and forest officials which entered the forests,” Ramadas said. “The tribals exerted their full force to retaliate, using their agricultural tools.” An Adivasi man, Jogi, and a police constable, Vinod KV, died in the violence that day. 

Ramadas told me that the following four or five days saw brutal violence against Wayanad’s Adivasis. “Even old people of the Paniyar community who had ventured out to buy medicines were tortured and thrown into police vehicles,” he recalled. “It was a declaration of war against them by the public in tandem with the police.” He added that there was a sympathy wave in favour of the police. Surendran also said that the police used cruel measures against the protesters, most of whom were members of landless tribes in Wayanad, including the Paniyar, Madiyar, Kattunayakar and Oorali communities. “The police went on terrorising raids to their colonies to catch all those who were present at the protest besides Janu and Geethanandan,” he told me. Along with mass arrests and police excesses, reports of missing children and even deportation of 37 children to the central jail in Kannur district also surfaced. 

The police also appeared to be on the hunt for those who had expressed solidarity with the movement—Surendran was a lecturer at the central government-run District Institute of Education and Training in Sulthan Bathery at the time. “I was not there in Wayanad on the day of the Muthanga incident. I had gone to Thiruvananthapuram to attend a programme of our service union,” he told me. “But I supported the cause, the protest and those who organised the protest.” His support for the Muthanga struggle was no secret. “I had helped with a press release in favour of the protest,” he said. Surendran had visited the protest site a couple of times—as any local had at that time—and also contributed to a signature campaign backing the movement. However, he said, his participation was limited as he was also a staff of a government institute.

Surendran explained why he supported the movement. “I was brought up in a village”—in Wayanad—“surrounded by various tribal communities,” he said. “I am well aware of the social inequalities suffered by the Dalit people. The Adivasi people’s experience a far more severe form of such inequalities. So, I have always felt a sense of fraternity with them.” Surendran added that when he was a lecturer, he helped children from the Adivasi community with their education. 

The police arrested Surendran from the staff room at DIET where he had arrived as usual for the day’s work on 22 February. “There was no interrogation at all,” he said, before adding that he was not told why he was being arrested. “They began torturing me straight away. It continued from morning till night.” He said that apart from Vishwambaran and Devaraj, four police officials—CM Mathai, E Vasanth Kumar, KR Raghunathan and Varghese—also participated in the violence. (But the January 2021 judgment did not attribute any liability to the latter four saying that they came under the hierarchical control of Vishwambaran and Devaraj.) “They kicked me on my back. They also hit me on my ears,” Surendran told me. “They stomped on my backside with boots. I bore eight–ten kicks on various parts of my body simultaneously,” he recalled. 

VC Raveendran, the doctor who later examined Surendran, observed perforation and conductive hearing loss in his left ear. Surendran said that despite undergoing various kinds of treatment, including Ayurveda and allopathy, the pain persisted till date. “Often, when people speak to me in a low voice on my left-hand side, I cannot hear them properly,” he told me in January. 

Sometime during the day-long torture, Surendran realised that the police was associating him with the 19 February incident. “When the police officers were beating me, I pled that I had nothing to do with the protest, that I did not participate in it,” he said. He told me one of the officials addressed him with a slur and said, “Then how come, you son of a dash, your name was found in Geethanandan’s diary?” Surendran told me that he had once met Geethanandan to discuss the issue of Adivasi children dropping out of schools and offered to make enquiries about the possibility of arranging for some marginalised students to appear for exams. After this, Surendran said, Geethanandan had noted his number using a pen with green ink—he believed that his name may have stood out in the diary because it was written in a different colour. 

Geethanandan and Janu had surrendered to the police the same day Surendran was arrested. While Surendran had previously known Geethanandan, he said he had not met Janu until they were both in custody. Surendran said that Janu had also been tortured. “Janu was in a terrible state after she was tortured,” he told me. “A police official pointed at me and asked Janu if she knows me. Janu looked at me. She really did not know me at that time. When she replied that she does not recognise me, the male police officers started hitting her on her face while they accused her of lying.”

Despite being grievously injured, Surendran said he only received medical treatment after spending 13 days in custody. On 23 February, Surendran was produced before the magistrate. The January 2021 order mentioned that the magistrate noted that Surendran “complained of pain over his body” and directed the jail superintendent to give him necessary medical aid. But Surendran said even then he did not receive any treatment. “I was sent to the central jail in Kannur district,” he told me. His wife, Baby Usha, then filed a petition before the Kerala High Court stating that he required immediate medical attention. Upon the court’s directions, he was shifted to the Pariyaram Medical College in Kannur district on 7 March. He was released on bail on 30 March that year.

Meanwhile, accusations of police excesses propped the National Human Rights Commission to seek reports from the chief secretary of the government of Kerala and from the director general of Kerala police on 24 February 2003. In their responses, the government and the DGP justified the police action by alleging that the protesters had violated the law and were responsible for the killing of a police official. A press release published on the NHRC website stated, “The Commission was at a loss to understand as to how the chief secretary and the DGP could conclude without holding any independent inquiry, that not only was the police action justified but that no departmental proceedings against any police/forest official had been called for. The Commission thus held that, prima-facie, it was not satisfied with the reports.”

The NHRC recommended that an independent agency take over the investigation. Within a few months, the Central Bureau of Investigation took over the investigation and dropped Surendran’s name from the list of accused. According to Surendran, the CBI also gave the government permission to reinstate him at DIET. However, he was denied his previous posting in Wayanad and was transferred to Kottayam instead. Surendran said he had to move the high court to reverse the transfer. 

While Surendran got his job back, getting justice was a longer and more arduous task. In his legal journey to bring the police officials to account, a huge role was played by KC Eldho, an Ernakulam-based advocate who practises in the Kerala High Court. Surendran told me, “I have not paid him even the clerical expenses till date. I will never be able to forget him. He was the real force behind my successful legal battle.”

After Surendran’s arrest, multiple people approached Eldho to represent him. Eldho fought the case that Baby Usha had filed regarding his medical treatment. “According to right to life guaranteed under Article 21 of the Constitution, he is entitled to certain benefits and amenities even as a prisoner,” he told me. “So, I filed a writ petition before the high court from this angle of right to life.” 

Eldho said when he apprised the judge about Surendran’s condition, the court directed an ENT specialist to examine him in jail and submit a report. “The ENT reported that his condition is very bad and that if he is not treated immediately, he will lose his hearing permanently,” Eldho said. “The doctor’s report was faxed to me through the fax number of the court’s bar association. As soon as I received it, I went straight to the court even though the case was not listed that day. Since the judge, CN Ramachandran Nair, was a good man and since this was a do or die game, I submitted this in the middle of other cases.” According to Eldho, the judge immediately ordered that he should be admitted to Pariyaram Medical College, but it took another week of procedural formalities to shift Surendran from the central jail to the hospital. “It was because of the court intervention that we could admit him to a hospital and prevent a situation where he would have lost his hearing,” Eldho said.

After Surendran got bail and rejoined DIET, he met Eldho to discuss filing a case against the Sulthan Bathery police officials. “He first filed a criminal petition. He also parallelly filed a civil appeal. I had helped with drafting both,” Eldho said. He could not appear as Surendran’s advocate in either of the petitions in the Sulthan Bathery sub-court due to his commitments at the high court. But Eldho regularly offered legal advice to Surendran. 

The January 2021 order was the outcome of the civil petition that Surendran had filed before the Sulthan Bathery sub-court in March 2004. He demanded compensation of Rs 15 lakh from the accused officials and the government of Kerala for a list of reasons, including lowering his reputation and medical expenses. “Plaintiff has lost amenities in life, which he was enjoying earlier, which has to be compensated by the defendants,” the petition stated. As an example, it mentioned, “The plaintiff used to read various types of books. But due to the injuries sustained in police harassment, he is suffering constant headache especially while reading.” 

Eldho had recommended that Surendran file an indigent original petition—a form of lawsuit for those who do not have the means to pay for case proceedings. “I had to pay a court fee of around Rs 1,40,000. At that time, I earned barely Rs 10,000 per month,” Surendran said. Eldho explained that permitting a petitioner to apply as an indigent involves a lengthy process of evaluation to establish financial incapacity. Surendran told me that these procedures alone took several years, only for the indigent petition to be rejected by the Sulthan Bathery sub-court around 2011 or 2012. “The court asked me to pay the court fees or to withdraw the case,” he said. According to Eldho, the police strongly opposed the indigent petition and got it dismissed. “I challenged this order in the high court which allowed the petition to proceed further,” he said. 

While the cases were ongoing, Eldho said a fortunate piece of evidence surfaced. “When this incident was happening”—Surendran’s arrest—“a man stood on top of a building and captured the scenes at the police station on his video camera. He had just recorded some visuals after seeing the huge gathering there,” Eldho told me. He said that after reports of the arrest appeared in the papers, the man who shot the video gave the recording to Surendran. “You can clearly see the circle inspector punch Surendran in the stomach,” Eldho said. “He was following a method where he aimed to hit him with his right hand while punching him on the stomach with his left hand. The impact of the punch threw him off by three–four metres. It was inhuman.” 

According to Eldho, the criminal case appeared to be going against the accused policemen when the Kerala High Court quashed it on 10 November 2010. Viswambharan had filed an appeal in the Kerala High Court citing a violation of section 197 (2) of the Code of Criminal Procedure in the case against him. The section states, “No Court shall take cognizance of any offence alleged to have been committed by any member of the Armed Forces of the Union while acting or purporting to act in the discharge of his official duty, except with the previous sanction of the Central Government.”

The civil case, however, continued and finally closed with the January 2021 judgment. Eldho told me, “It is a good judgement. It suggests that the judiciary still offers a sense of justice, even if delayed.” 

Surendran told me his memories of police excesses date back to his childhood in Wayanad in the thick of the Emergency years. “Karunakaran, one of my teachers was arrested by the police on the allegation that he had Naxalite connections,” he said. “Other teachers like Civic Chandran and Poulose Master were also arrested. Supporting any political ideology is a democratic right. But all those who were arrested then were accused of extremist links, tortured in custody and were kept in prison for years. They came out of jail as living corpses.” Surendran said that what happened during the police action after the Muthanga struggle was no different. “The police and the government perceived the Muthanga protest as a Naxalite rebellion. That is the way they handled it,” he told me.

Ramadas’s account of the police’s handling of the protest supported this assertion. “The police were trying to create an impression that the movement was not led by Adivasis on their own,” he said. “There are limits to clamping down on an Adivasi movement. So, it had to be linked to extremism, foreign funding, Christian backing and so on.” 

He told me that the police, and even sections of the media, saw him as a supporter of the Adivasi cause. “There was a narrative that I was a mastermind,” he said. After news of Surendran’s arrest surfaced, Ramadas said he intended to go to the Sulthan Bathery police station, but his friends dissuaded him. “I was named as an accused in several cases filed against CK Janu including in connection to the killing of the police officer,” Ramadas said. He told me he went into hiding for around three months until he secured anticipatory bail. “After securing anticipatory bail, I came out of hiding and was interrogated for several days by the investigating agencies,” Ramadas told me. 

Just like in Surendran’s case, Ramadas said his name was removed from the list of accused after the CBI took over the investigation. However, he said his name still appears in the case files related to the Muthanga incident. The Kerala Union of Working Journalists had demanded withdrawal of the cases against media persons in light of the Muthanga incident in 2003 itself, but Ramadas said that the management at Asianet, where he worked at the time, did not support him. “I was completely isolated,” he said. 

Surendran told me he felt that Ramadas was named as an accused only because Asianet covered the protests well. Towards the end of my conversation with him, he remarked that harassment and wrongful arrests of politically vocal individuals continue in Kerala. The judgment in his case also commented on such arrests. “Unnecessary arrest by police would cause irreparable hardship to the arrestee,” the court noted. “Such arrests are highly oppressive, humiliating and intolerable in all manner. An unnecessary arrest would create great impact. If arrest made by a police officer cannot be lawfully justified, he has no right to say that what he has done was part of his official duty.”