Mystery shrouds the unnatural death of five persons in Kakkanchery Paniyar Tribal Colony in Balussery police station limits

Did Santha, Sarojini, Onan, Krishnan, and Sami of Kakkanchery Paniyar Tribal Colony ever live and meet violent ends? Panchayat officials and locals claim the five had indeed lived and perished, while the police deny knowledge of the deaths.

The colony residents rely on the only weapon they have – silence. This silence pervades the settlement situated up the steep Cheedikuzhi hills bordering Thalayad village along the Western Ghats.

The story of the 29-member colony, and those who live and die there, is one of invisibility brought in by acute marginalisation. Here, relations with each other and the many truths of their existence and survival are so entangled that it is hard to sift one solitary truth from it.

For a brief while on January 24, 2013, the colony was the centre of attention when the decomposed body of Sajeevan, a colony resident, was found hanging deep inside the nearby Kodanchery forests.

He had been missing since October 24, 2012.

“Our report is that he quarrelled with his wife and left home. Our investigation points to suicide, but there is the suspicion that he was poisoned. We are awaiting forensic results,” said P. Bijuraj, Circle Inspector, Thamarassery, who is investigating the case.

T.K. Raj Mohan, Kozhikode Rural Police Chief, says the entire Kakkoor-Balussery region is suicide-prone. He says he is unaware of the other five cases of unnatural deaths in the colony.

The Balussery Police, under whose jurisdiction the colony falls, remain vague about the deaths.

A month ago the Balussery Police told The Hindu that they would make inquiries about the five deaths. When contacted again on March 13, the police said they were yet to visit the colony.

But even if they do visit, it may hardly help. They may be met with silence from the tribal people, for whom the sense of distrust for the outside world seems to be deeply ingrained.

This may be because the little done for them is at best cosmetic.

Take for example the case of Babu, aged 7. Red sores cover his mouth. To smile, for him, is a painful effort. All he has for relief is cough syrup prescribed by the local health nurse.

Anu, his elder brother, keeps him company. He has been admitted to Thalayad Government School, but rarely attends the classes. It is too far for him to go everyday. A multi-grade learning centre near the colony is a rickety, tarpaulin-covered shed. A rusty lock adorns the door.

Till 1976, they lived in mud houses in an inaccessible place on the Cheedikuzhi hills.

They came down to work for Unni Elanchery as manual labourers when he bought his estate there.

Three years ago, the tribes people were shifted from their natural habitat to a row of eight houses the panchayat built them for Rs.1 lakh each. Now, the houses are found stripped to the bare essentials with no markers of time like calendars or clocks. Cracks are visible on the mud flooring and walls.

Electricity is yet to arrive. Water supply is sporadic and comes through a temporary pipe from a faraway waterfall.

Chirutha, the tribe’s matriarch, personifies the wall of protective silence the tribe has built around itself.

“We don’t have any problems here,” is Chirutha’s constant refrain. Naturally, enquiries about the alleged deaths are met with silence. Chandu, the eldest male member, too gave similar reactions.

Premji James, president of the local Kattippara grama panchayat, echoes the locals’ claims about the five deaths.

“Nobody complains to the police. The colony residents keep mum about the deaths and spurn outside help. As the case is sensitive and involves members of a tribal community, everybody freezes up,” Mr. James said.

Unni Elanchery, their employer, claims to be an eyewitness to two of the deaths.

“I saw Santha dead in the estate with strangulation marks on her neck and Sarojini hanging on the windowsill of one of the houses in the colony. I have heard that Onan’s body was found in a rock crevice, Krishnan was found hanging in the forests and Sami was found dead with head injuries,” he said.

Tribal Promoter Jisha K.C. says her predecessor quit after Sarojini’s unnatural death.

K. Babu, the colony’s Oorumooppan, points to a rising trend of alcoholism within the colony as the source of trouble.

Asked about the contradiction between the versions of the locals and that of the police, Minister for Welfare of Scheduled Tribes P.K. Jayalakshmi expressed shock. “I will make immediate enquiries into the matter,” she said.