Photo: Vivek R. Nair/Mint
Photo: Vivek R. Nair/Mint

Padmavathi Amma: More than a verdict

For 13 years, against all odds, a mother has waged a battle for justice for her dead son. This is her story

Thiruvananthapuram: In contrast to her cocoon-like 67-years of existence so far, there is almost always a small commotion these days outside the house of Padmavathi Amma in a corner of Kerala’s Thiruvananthapuram.

Everybody who is somebody in the city wants to be seen to have helped her in the past. Journalists come by day in and day out, trying to know more about her. She was taken to the office of Kerala chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan in a swell of politicking by ruling party supporters last month so that he could congratulate her. On her way back, she was taken to meet the chief of the second biggest partner in the ruling coalition for another photo-op.

A host of people, including politicians and social workers, whom she had not known when she was almost on a hand-to-mouth existence until some years ago are flooding her with promises of help in cash or kind to get a photo op where they hail her as a hero of the times.

However, Padmavathi Amma, a school dropout, remains largely silent. “Bhagavathi (goddess) helped me. I’m incredibly happy," she says in Malayalam, with folded hands. “Yet I’m unbearably sad," she continues, “nothing can return my son."

Her son, 25-year-old Udayakumar, who collected scrap to make a living in the suburbs, was killed in cold blood in 2005 by those who were paid to protect him—the city’s police officers. Padmavathi Amma decided to fight the high and mighty to get justice.

A long battle

On a rainy day last month, the frail old woman along with her brother P. Mohanan, her only close relative, walked into a small courtroom in Thiruvananthapuram, ending that 13-year-long battle. The moment was characterised by news channels stationing themselves outside the courtroom as the society’s poorest of the poor fought for justice, overcoming what many thought were insurmountable odds, like witnesses turning hostile and the police trying their best to save the officers and the men.

In a historic verdict, a Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) court in Kerala awarded two serving police officers assistant sub-inspector K Jithakumar and civil police officer SV Sreekumar death penalty on that day, believed to be the first time in India, and sent three other convicted police officers for three years rigorous imprisonment.

At a time when news pages in India are filled with reports of mob lynchings and violence, the latest in Rajasthan’s Alwar last month where a man died in police custody, the story of Padmavathi Amma stands testimony to how crushing the journey can be for the victims when they try to get justice by following the due process.

“She has sent a shocker to the system, especially to the police," says Kerala-based political commentator Jacob George. “It has become mainstream to think that anyone with the right amount of wealth and power can commit a crime and get away with it. Here is an old woman proving all of it wrong."

However, the intervening period has seen more custodial deaths, even in Kerala, which is considered to be more progressive than the northern states when it comes to mob lynchings and police killings. The latest was in April when the police erroneously picked up 26-year old Sreejith and allegedly tortured him to death. An RTI reply obtained by activist D.B. Binu reveals that about 1,229 police officers in Kerala face criminal charges, including that of custodial killing.

In all those cases, an uphill task probably awaits the victim’s relatives. Padmavathi Amma herself looks gaunt and haggard now. She is stick-thin, her cheeks sunken out of severe stress, says her brother. “Many told me I wouldn’t win. Some were not even sure I’d live until the verdict day. On the day before the verdict, even my brother said they will not get the death sentence. I told all of them that I’ll continue fighting until I get justice. After all, what do I have to lose? All I had was my son," she says.

“I was someone who had not been to a movie theater, let alone a police station or court, until the day my son was killed," she says.

“My husband was a drunkard. He died when my son was one year old. From then on, I lived for my son. I worked as a maid in a public school to bring him up," she said.

Murder at the police station

The last day she saw Udayakumar alive was on 27 September 2005. It was about the time of Onam and he was to get some extra money from his boss, with which he wanted to buy his mother some fresh clothes, as is customary during the festival.

Udayakumar woke up earlier than usual that day. He had black tea, took a shower and got dressed in a red shirt, and asked her, as he often did, if the shirt looked good on him. He then walked out of the door with his cycle.

Later that day, Udayakumar got a festival bonus of 4,020 from his scrap shop employer (the mother corrected me every time I said about 4,000). According to the prosecution, he came to the nearest town to buy a new pair of clothes for his mother and waited for the traffic on the road (election results were being announced that day) to thin before heading home. He was accompanied by an acquaintance who faced theft charges previously.

Unexpectedly, two police officers who were on patrol duty took both them into custody on suspicion of being thieves. Back at the station, the officers questioned Udayakumar about the money in his purse. They kept the duo in the station for some time. The officers finally allowed Udayakumar to go home as they lacked evidence to file a case, but kept the money with themselves. Udayakumar wasn’t willing to let go. He insisted that the money be returned.

The premises, Fort Police Station in Thiruvananthapuram, was as bustling then as it is now with rich merchants who frequently complained of unauthorised cash seizures by the officers. Udayakumar’s insistence on getting the money back, and the resulting stand-off, irked the officers. They took him back to the cell and started thrashing him, something that continued through the night.

The young man was forced to lie down on a bench, with his hand and legs tied to the corners. One policeman sat over him and rolled an iron rod up and down over his thighs, an old torture technique Kerala’s police force inherited from the British Raj and became infamous for use during the Emergency era.

The hours-long torture crushed Udayakumar’s legs. At one point, he cried out in pain and requested some water, only to get teased by the officers with a waterless bottle, according to the prosecution. He later died.

All the while, Padmavathi Amma was impatiently waiting for her son to get home. “I was anxious. When he did not return at night, I alerted my neighbours. They said he would have gone out with friends. I did not quite believe it as he was not that type. But I couldn’t do anything. Next day, when I was in the school, some people came to see me. They said there is a body in a hospital mortuary and they wanted me to confirm it is him."

Helping hand

Years later, far away from the media limelight, communist politician P.K. Raju, recollects that day. Raju claims to be one of the first politicians to have reached the hospital and Padmavathi Amma says he has been a helping hand throughout. He is furious, seeing his rival politicians, who he says considered the mother untouchable until now, hopping on to television channels and claiming credit for the verdict. Raju’s work has not gone completely unnoticed. After a meeting he had to attend in a school, where he is a governing body member, the people of the locality, mostly teachers and parents, flooded him with congratulatory messages for helping out the mother.

Back in 2005, Raju was a leader of Communist Party of India’s (CPI) youth outfit, the All India Youth Federation (AIYF) and a member of the advisory board in the hospital where the police took Udayakumar’s body.

“I got a call from a friend in the hospital saying there is something suspicious about a body moved in by the police. So I checked with a police source who confirmed it is a matter of custodial torture. When we rushed to the hospital, the police did not allow us to see the body. We alerted journalists and picketed the hospital until they relented," he says.

The incident led to a major hue and cry. Mohan Kumar, whose presence in the hospital was mandatory as revenue divisional officer when a person dies in police custody, insisted on conducting a postmortem. “The police said he died of chest pain. But there were dark patches on his thighs. First, the police said those are due to psoriasis. I did not believe them. By then I was under a lot of pressure to not do the postmortem," Kumar says.

The postmortem report revealed signs of brutal torture, with 22 injuries on the thighs. Public protests and outrage erupted in Kerala against the police officers, forcing the government’s hand to not only suspend two officers involved, but also order a crime branch investigation for impartial inquiry and promise the mother an ex-gratia amount and a new house.

However, on the ground, little happened. A year later, she was convinced the case is not going anywhere, nor would any help be forthcoming from the police-political nexus.

The officers fabricated a case of theft against Udayakumar to shield themselves against the charge of killing. The crime branch case turned into a farce as out of 34 witnesses, except for one woman typist who sympathised with Padmavathi Amma, everyone turned hostile.

The mother’s personal life turned upside down. She claims to have been attacked on the court steps, in one of her first court visits, by one of the accused officers. On two other occasions, she claims unknown vehicles tried to knock her down on the road. Fearing attacks, she shut down the windows and doors of her rented house even during the day. The fear of threats also took a toll on the owner of the house where she was living on rent, who asked her to vacate. If not for the timely intervention of then revenue minister K.P. Rajendran and chief minister V.S. Achuthanandan, she says she would have had to live on the streets.

Meanwhile, she says, people who identified themselves as close to the accused police officers persisted with offers. “They offered me 5 lakh. I told them money won’t bring back my son."

No one spared

Raju says he was not also spared. He was beaten up by cops during a political protest march soon after the case was lodged, resulting in serious damage to his left eye. He believes the attackers were friends of the accused officers. During an election campaign, he found police officers in civilian dress campaigning against him. “I didn’t quite imagine I would face this kind of backlash. People started alienating me, even my politician friends," he says. “Politicians did not want to risk being seen as anti-police. They need the officers to get their men in and out of jail, as much as the officers want political cover."

After reading of the mother’s perils in newspapers, Siraj Karoly, son of a Muslim priest and advocate at Kerala high court, filed a writ petition in September 2007 to hand over the case to CBI. It did.

“Normally, it is unusual for a court to order further investigation in a case that has reached the trial stage. But here the trial had turned into a farce, like the 2002 Best Bakery case (where court invoked special powers to ask for further probe after witnesses turned hostile in a case of a mob targeting Muslims during the communal riots in Gujarat)," says Karoly.

Karoly did not want to be paid by the mother. However, she coughed up 3,000 and gave it to him. He took 2,000 and returned the rest.

Padmavathi Amma thanks not only the gods but also such benefactors who emerged out of the blue to help her. They joined her relentless struggle, mostly after reading about her in the papers. People like Raju and Karoly, she says, often paid for the case without hesitation, something which she tried to settle after Kerala high court in 2016 ordered the government to pay 10 lakh to her as a further ex-gratia sum.

By the time the trial ended in July, the fates of the mother and the convicted police officers had reversed. Mint traced the families of the five officers who were the prime accused but none of them wanted to be interviewed. One of them, requesting not to be named, however, says he had to sell his house to pay for the fee of the high-profile advocate who appeared for them. The family has moved to a rented house. One officer’s wife has even taken up work in a tailoring shop to pay bills.

Meanwhile, Padmavathi Amma has found a new life in spending time with a toddler of her friendly neighbour. “The child calls me by name. He is like my son."

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