Kerala Police has still not fully exorcised the ghost of superstition from its lexicon.
On November 15, the home department ordered that the term 'pretha parishodhana', a colonial usage that denotes the process of examining a dead body, be replaced by its proper scientifically-sounding English word, inquest.
However, the order has not said that the word 'pretham' (ghost) itself will be done away with; 'pretham' is Kerala Police's official term for a dead body.
"Perhaps the circular that would soon be issued by the state police chief on the basis of this order will specifically state that the habitual use of 'pretham' should be dumped in favour of the respectful 'mritha shareeram' or 'bhouthika shareeram' (loosely, dead body)," said Boban Mattumantha, a Palakkad-based social activist who is on a mission to cleanse bureaucratic language of its master-slave dynamics, like the insistence on addressing top officers as 'sir'.
Right from colonial times, the police in Kerala have documented a dead body as 'pretham', and the examination of a dead body as 'pretha vicharana'.
Boban had written to the home department and the state police chief in November 2021 explaining why it was important to do away with the 'pretham' terminology in police records.
Boban argued that the very term was born out of superstitious beliefs. "There was a medieval belief that people who died of unnatural causes, like suicide or drowning, would wander around like lost disturbed souls. The very word 'pretham' was born out of this irrational belief," he said.
He reasoned that it was a police term that stood in stark contrast to the modern scientific thinking that the force was trying to inculcate. "Ours is a police force that has excelled in scientific investigation. Even then to persist in using such primitive bizarre jargon will only help in pulling the force backward," Boban said.
He also felt that the term 'pretham' was disrespectful to the dead body. "When this word is used, the deceased suddenly shape-shifts into something monstrous," he said.
The department had found some merit in his reasoning, prompting the state police chief Anil Kant to refer Boban's complaint to the home department last November itself. When nothing came of it, Boban petitioned Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan in August this year, seeking his intervention.
Eventually, when a decision was made this month, it did not seem potent enough to purge Kerala Police literature of all references to ghosts in future. It speaks only of removing 'pretha vicharana'. It looks as if 'pretham' would still be the Malayalam word for dead body, until it is specified otherwise.
Boban has a problem with the word 'inquest', too. "I had suggested that 'pretha vicharana' should be reworded as 'mritha deha parishodhana'. Instead, an English word (inquest) has been recommended. That too at a time when the government is particular that Malayalam should be used for official communications," Boban said.