As the trial in the Madhu lynching case progresses at a special court in Mannarkkad, a municipal town in Palakkad, the accused are building up their defence by pointing fingers at the police.
Madhu, a mentally unstable tribal youth, was captured and allegedly assaulted by local people at Mukkali in Attappady on charges of petty thefts on February 22, 2018. He died the same day while being taken to the Agali police station in a police vehicle.
He was declared brought-dead at a government hospital in Agali. The prosecution's case is that he died due to the assault by the local people. The defence, however, says it was the police who tortured Madhu. According to them, it’s a custodial death.
The postmortem report asserted that internal injuries caused by assault as the reason for Madhu’s death. Well, who is responsible for the fatal blow? The fate of the case is likely to be depended on the answer to this crucial question. Apprehensions have already been cast on the trajectory of the trial with prosecution witnesses turning hostile almost every day. The prosecution blames it on the money power and influence of the accused, while the defence, as expected, claims the witnesses are saying the truth finally. Around 25 witnesses, including tribespeople and Madhu's relatives, have turned hostile so far. The court has treied over 60 people in the case.
While people in Mukkali, where Madhu was last seen alive four years ago, might be divided over the case, the defence claims Madhu died in police custody.
“It’s a clear case of custodial death because the victim died while he was in the custody of the police. The cops, however, framed a group of innocent local people and suppressed their role in the crime,” senior lawyer Babu Karthikeyan, who is among those appearing for the 16 accused, told Onmanorama. He did not go into the details of their arguments.
The defence denies the charges, but the prosecution says there is clear evidence that the accused had committed the assault.
What happened during that one hour?
The defence has found several reasons to blame the police, including lapses in procedures and the alleged delay in taking Madhu to the hospital. “Police have to follow certain procedural formalities while taking a person into custody. They should prepare an arrest memo and inform the arrested person’s immediate relative. They should also conduct a complete body search to find out if he is carrying any weapon or things like that. They should also check if there is any injury on that person’s body. If there are any, those details should be noted in the body mahazar. There is a lack of these documents in this case,” a source from the defence camp said.
The defence says that the police took more than one hour to reach Agali from Mukkali while it would take only half an hour to cover the distance usually. According to the police investigation report, Madhu died during the journey from Mukkali to Agali between 3.30 pm and 4.15 pm.
The police claimed that procedural formalities were not followed as Madhu’s health condition was not good and he needed to be rushed to hospital. A top police officer reiterated the same version to Onmanorama.
The accused are not ready to buy this argument, though. “If Madhu was in such a serious condition, why did the police take him to Agali and not the nearest medical facility?” a defence source asked. They allege that the police skipped four or five hospitals including St Peter’s Hospital at Kookampalayam which has an in-patient facility. Kookampalayam is close to Thavalam where Madhu is reported to have vomited while being taken to Agali.
But the police source said that the quality of the nearby hospitals was not good and that was why they took Madhu to the government hospital in Agali.
Onmanorama could not verify this claim but an independent source at Attappady said St Peter’s Hospital had all the facilities that the Agali government hospital had in 2018.
Team Onmanorama, during its recent revisit to Attappady, met a woman who was at the Agali hospital when Madhu was declared brought-dead by doctors. “The policemen were all tensed and nervous,” she said.
Police on the dock?
The defence lawyers’ other major argument is that the case should have been investigated by the crime branch as local policemen were involved in it. The police source rubbished the claim saying there was no allegation against the police at any point of the investigation.
Madhu’s family also used to demand a probe into the alleged role of the police, but not anymore. “We have full faith in the outcome of the investigation. It is not the police who trespassed into the forest and caught Madhu from his cave. Madhu was beaten up and dragged like a dog. I have seen the full video of the incident. Some people used to tell us Madhu was beaten up by the police while being taken to the station. Then I asked them to bring some witnesses to us. We believe their intention was not to help us,” Madhu’s sister Sarasu told Onmanorama.
The Attappady Adivasi Action Council, a collective of tribal activists, is also not happy with the police investigation. They suspect the role of the police and some forest officials in the incident.
“Police should have been arraigned as accused in this case. That has not happened. So we have been demanding a high-level inquiry by the CBI,” Murugan, a leader of the action council, told Onmanorama.
Special public prosecutor Rajesh Menon, however, exuded confidence that the accused will be punished. Asked about the allegations against the police, he said the defence side will continue to raise such charges till the trial ends.
The defence camp, on the other hand, believes the case will take new turns as cross-examination of police personnel, who have been listed as witnesses, starts.