Nobody wants to talk about Madhu at Mukkali, a discreet junction in Kerala's Palakkad district spoken only as the entry point to the Silent Valley National Park. That's natural because it was at this unobtrusive junction that the tribal youth was last seen alive, over four years ago.
Madhu was captured from a cave in the forest and allegedly beaten up by a group of local people and paraded to Mukkali with his arms tied up. Then he was handed over to the police. The young man, who had mental health issues, died on the way and was declared brought dead by the government hospital at Agali. That was on February 22, 2018.
As we approach the end of September 2022, the trial in the lynching case is progressing. The special court at Mannarkkad, a municipal town some 20 km down Mukkali, has been witnessing what one can only term a hostile spree. Of the 60-odd prosecution witnesses tried, nearly 25 have turned hostile so far, casting doubts over the fate of the case. The prosecution claims the witnesses have been influenced and lured with money while the defence says they are finally saying the truth. No wonder, Mukkali, home to the 16 accused, reverberates with this defence argument.
Team Onmanorama had visited Attappady (Mukkali and Agali are part of this largest tribal belt in Palakkad district) soon after the lynching incident. The recent revisit gave us a ‘Churuli’ experience. Unlike in the film, the people there did not use foul language uncontrollably. However, the story changes upside down the moment you step into Mukkali and move forward to Agali. Or rather, Attappady has, in its cold air and calm tenor, two versions of the lynching story. An outsider can either take sides, seek the truth, or get lost in the vortex of the differing narratives.
Reaching Chindakki, the tribal hamlet where Madhu lived with his family until he left home for the forests nearby, was a difficult task during the days after his tragic death. One had to endure an off-road experience and walk a little bit to reach Madhu’s home. Four years later, the road along the Bhavani river has been fixed with tiles paved neatly. But at Chindakki, Madhu’s mother Malli and sister Sarasu live in the same home. A government noting on the wall reads, “House maintenance (2015-16), ITDP, Agali, Malli w/o Mallan”. ITDP is the abbreviation of the Integrated Tribal Development Project.
Madhu’s other sister Chandrika and her husband, both in the state police force, live separately from the family in another place. Both Malli and Sarasu are anganwadi workers.
Frequent interactions with the media and the government system have taught Sarasu to speak in, what is considered, a formal language. “It has been more than four years since Madhu died. The trial started four years after the incident. The accused are much more powerful and rich compared to us. They made use of the delay in beginning the trial to influence the witnesses, including our own people. For example, Chandran is our relative who used to be with us. Even he changed his statement in court. Now, we feel that he had been with the accused from the beginning,” Sarasu told Onmanorama.
She said some of the witnesses who turned hostile had demanded Rs 50,000 from them to stand by their statement. “I think they asked for money from us because they might have been offered more money by the accused. We can’t even afford to buy tea for those who stand by us. Then how can we pay such hefty amounts,” she asked.
Did police kill Madhu?
The defence argues that Madhu was killed not by the accused but by the police who took him to the station. They also cite their own reasonings to support their claim. They say Madhu was all smiles and waving hands while the local people handed over him to the police. “Normally, it takes half an hour to reach Agali from Mukkali. But the police took more than an hour to cover the same distance. What happened in between the extra one hour? That’s why we believe the police have something to cover up in the case,” a local politician, in his 60s, at Mukkali told Onmanorama on condition of anonymity.
Team Onmanorama heard this version of the story multiple times from local people as well as defence lawyers. “This is a clear case of the perpetrators of a crime investigating a case against themselves. The police will have to answer some crucial questions as the trial progresses,” a senior defence lawyer told Onmanorama.
Asked why did the accused not file any counter-petition seeking a probe into the police’s role in the crime as they allege, the lawyer said, “We won’t do that. It’s up to the prosecution to prove the charges they have made. Let them do it.”
Madhu’s kin don’t buy the argument
Asked about the local people’s allegation against the police, Sarasu said they didn’t believe it. They 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 was not the police who trespassed into the forest and caught Madhu from his cave. Madhu was beaten up and dragged like a dog. I had 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,” Sarasu said.
Sitting next to Sarasu, Malli said their relationship with the local people has been not good since her son’s death. “We don’t stay at Mukkali for long. Every time we pass by, we see a change in people’s faces. We go to Kakkupadi and Kalkandi to even buy groceries,” she said.
Another supporting claim made by the local people is that the police had instructed them to catch hold of Madhu if they get a chance. There were many complaints of theft against him. He was also believed to be a tool in the hands of some Maoists who used to camp inside the forests. Onmanorama reported all these allegations in 2018.
A government official, whose name and department are withheld for protecting his identity, told Onmanorama that police wanted the local people to catch Madhu if they get a chance.
Action council demand CBI probe
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 behind the whole incident. “The 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 as we met him at his house in Vattulukki, another tribal hamlet some 30 km from Chindakki. He said Madhu’s family may have been saying they are happy with the probe because they don’t want to invite more trouble. Murugan said they have some apprehensions about the fate of the case in its current trajectory.
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 end of the case.
Malli and Sarasu are also hopeful that Madhu would get justice. The world around them, meanwhile, is divided.