Gangs of Thiruvananthapuram

The ghastly murder of a youth by men in broad daylight in Kerala’s capital city has city residents furious and thrown up questions about law enforcement, intoxicants, and gangs. Sarath Babu George travels to the victim’s house, talks to his kin and the police about the killing that showed commonalities with one committed allegedly by the same gang five years ago

Updated - May 31, 2024 10:16 am IST

Published - May 30, 2024 08:07 pm IST

Relatives huddled in at Akhil’s house at Edagramam in Thiruvananthapuram a day after his brutal killing.

Relatives huddled in at Akhil’s house at Edagramam in Thiruvananthapuram a day after his brutal killing. | Photo Credit: S. MAHINSHA

Trigger warning: The following contains references to violence, which may be disturbing for some.

Edagramam, a village about 2 km off National Highway 66 in Thiruvananthapuram, bears no visible scars of the horrors that unfolded a fortnight ago. In Planjiplavila House, though, despair hangs heavy as the family mourns the tragic loss of a beloved member. Around them, save for a handful of bystanders and a vigilant police presence, life flows as usual. Vehicles whizz by the nondescript compound walls, outside which chilling events transpired two days ago. 

A few days ago at least 250 people, including journalists, law enforcement officers, activists, and concerned locals descended upon the modest brick-and-mortar home, drawn by the news of a heinous crime — the slaying of 26-year-old Akhil Kumar. The events of May 7 seized public attention with the emergence of CCTV footage, laying bare the savagery that led to Akhil’s untimely demise.

Akhil’s father Kumar and brother Arun at their house at Edagramam in Thiruvananthapuram.

Akhil’s father Kumar and brother Arun at their house at Edagramam in Thiruvananthapuram. | Photo Credit: SARATH BABU GEORGE

At around 5.30 p.m. that day, Akhil, the youngest of Kumar and Sunitha’s four children, was tending to his pet pigeons outside, as his parents sat inside the house seeking refuge from the relentless heat. CCTV footage shows three men springing an attack on him and chasing him on a dusty road flanking his house. They beat him with an iron rod and dropped a concrete block on his head several times. A passing autorickshaw driver alerted them to what had happened.  Tragically, he was pronounced dead upon arrival at Thiruvananthapuram Government Medical College Hospital.

Haunted by remorse for being unable to shield his son from harm, the grief-stricken father fondly recalls Akhil as “a dutiful son who had never engaged in any nefarious deeds. Chikku (as Akhil was fondly called) used to work hard to help the family meet its ends. Nowhere will you hear anyone speak ill of Kumar’s children”, he says. His inconsolable wife has refused to eat anything since the incident.

A sheet is all that remains at the crime scene after the collection of evidence by the police in the Akhil murder case.

A sheet is all that remains at the crime scene after the collection of evidence by the police in the Akhil murder case. | Photo Credit: S. MAHINSHA

Arun, 29, the second of the siblings, speaks fondly of Akhil: “He would sell fish at Nettayam [on the outskirts of Thiruvananthapuram city], after getting the daily catch from Perumathura [nearly 30 km away], early in the morning. Akhil would also take up daily wage jobs such as painting,” he says. 

Police catch up

Dinesh Kumar, the Station House Officer (SHO) of Karamana under whose jurisdiction Edagramam falls, reveals that the killing stemmed from a clash between two groups at a bar in Pappanamcode nearby on April 26, the day Kerala held its elections. “The deceased along with his friend Vyshakh and around five others had gathered at the bar shortly after the sale of alcohol resumed after the elections. A dispute erupted when a group objected to Vyshakh’s loud singing, leading to a scuffle,” he says.

As news of the homicide reverberated throughout the city, law enforcement sprang into action, apprehending eight people, including the three allegedly directly responsible for the murder, within two days. 

While one of the key accused was nabbed from near Nagercoil in Tamil Nadu, the others were apprehended from various parts of Thiruvananthapuram city. The police recorded the statements of Akhil’s friends to confirm the involvement of the perpetrators at the bar skirmish around two weeks ago.

Murders most foul

As the investigation unfolded, it didn’t take the city police long to discover that all the accused individuals were implicated in another gruesome murder that had shaken the region five years prior, much like the current case that made the headlines. 

The eerie resemblance between the two incidents sent shivers down the spines of both law enforcement and the public alike, as they grappled with the unsettling realisation that history seemed to be repeating itself. 

On March 12, 2019 Ananthu Girish, a 21-year-old from Konchiravila, less than 3 km away, met a similar death at the hands of the same group. His murder unfolded against the backdrop of festivity at a nearby temple, where a clash occurred just four days prior. Snatched by the group, he was whisked away to an abandoned building amidst dense foliage along the National Highway at Kaimanam. This vacant, neglected area, owned by the BSNL, was frequented by those suffering from substance abuse. There, Ananthu was brutalised, his killing, and the manner it was done, allegedly recorded by the perpetrators.

Akhil Kumar

Akhil Kumar | Photo Credit: SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

The Karamana Police swiftly apprehended 14 individuals, most in their early 20s, and promptly filed the chargesheet within 70 days of the crime. Presently, the case is under trial at a special court in Nedumangad, which adjudicates offences under the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989.

Expressing frustration over the perceived delay in completing the trial proceedings, Ananthu’s mother, Mini, condemned the systemic failure that led to another mother losing her son. “My son’s murderers were released after serving less than four months in jail. Despite the High Court’s directive to expedite the trial within a year, there has been no justice,” she laments.

Official sources corroborate that the hearing has been adjourned thrice in the past three months. The last hearing date coincided with April 26, the day of the bar brawl, only to be adjourned again and posted for July.

Law and order in capital

General Education Minister and local MLA V. Sivankutty also alluded to a resurgence in criminal activities, rather inadvertently, during an interaction with mediapersons while visiting Akhil’s family to offer condolences. “This is a horrendous murder. While such incidents are typically rare in our city, there have been concerning instances of recurrences. The government is taking this matter seriously,” he said. 

Konchiravila Vinod, general secretary of the Thiruvananthapuram District Congress Committee and Ananthu’s uncle, says both the incidents coincided with the temporary reshuffle of police officials across neighbouring districts on account of the general elections. “This may have led to a gap in the surveillance mechanism, with transferred officials unaware of the hideouts of criminal gangs within their new jurisdictions,” notes Vinod. 

The unpaved road flanking Akhil’s house at Edagramam in Thiruvananthapuram where he was brutally murdered. 

The unpaved road flanking Akhil’s house at Edagramam in Thiruvananthapuram where he was brutally murdered.  | Photo Credit: SARATH BABU GEORGE

Sources say while the police force has a well-established network of informants in areas susceptible to unruly behaviour, such as bars and pubs, there exists an unethical alliance between police officers, politicians, gangsters, and industrialists.

In the past year, the State government, led by the Communist Party of India (Marxist), took decisive action against corrupt officers, including dismissal from service, upon uncovering their connections with gangsters who operated protection rackets. 

In a response in the State Assembly in February 2023, Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan stated that the government dismissed 21 police officers and suspended 14 others as part of the crackdown. These criminal syndicates profited from overseeing large parties, hotel bars, and real estate transactions. The proceeds from these illicit activities were funnelled to their patrons within the police force.

The Kerala Police faced yet another embarrassment when police officers found M.G. Sabu, a Deputy Superintendent of Police with the Alappuzha Crime Branch, along with three other police personnel partaking in a feast hosted by Thammanam Faizal, a known criminal, at his residence near Angamaly in Ernakulam during a raid on May 26. 

District Police Chief (Thiruvananthapuram City) C.H. Nagaraju acknowledges that the failure to anticipate a backlash after the bar clash could be seen as an oversight in intelligence gathering. However, he refuted claims suggesting an increase in criminal activities, aided by diminishing police surveillance. 

“Somehow, a false perception has been created regarding the prevalence of criminal activities in the city. We have diligently addressed the issue by implementing robust preventive measures,” he says suggesting gangland clashes are a thing of the past. 

According to him, the capital city reported eight murders in 2023, of which only one involved goondas from the organised crime world. There were also two attempted murders involving such individuals. In contrast, Thiruvananthapuram city saw 23 murders in 2022 and 14 in 2021. In 2019, prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, when criminal activities were lower nationwide, the region had witnessed 15 murders.

Detentions under the Kerala Anti-Social Activities (Prevention) Act, 2007, have been increasing. In 2023, up to 51 history-sheeters were detained, while 23 had their movements restricted, and one was “externed” from the district. This year, 20 known habitual offenders have been detained and four banished from the district, while 13 have faced restrictions in movement so far. This contrasts with previous years when the law was imposed on only nine individuals each in 2020 and 2021. 

Additionally, the City Police arrested 776 individuals for trafficking narcotic drugs and psychotropic substances in 2023.

Some progress, but more needed

Former Kerala High Court Judge B. Kemal Pasha expressed deep concern over numerous glaring lapses in various cases. “The failure to act promptly, especially in cases involving serious crimes, has often allowed criminals to evade justice and find sanctuary. The police must remain vigilant in incidents like the bar scuffle in Pappanamcode. Unfortunately, recent cases have indicated otherwise,” he says.

He also urged the judiciary to expedite trials in murder and other serious cases to reduce pendency. Pasha cautioned that prolonged delays could exacerbate crime rates and disrupt peace in society. He emphasised the importance of promptly filling vacant positions to ensure the smooth functioning of the justice system.

Feeling the sting of widespread criticism, the Kerala Police have heightened their efforts with Operation AAG (Action Against Goonda) to quell gang violence and dismantle criminal networks, alongside D-Hunt (D stands for drugs), aimed at apprehending drug offenders. Overseen by State Police Chief Shaik Darvesh Saheb and Additional Director General of Police (Law and Order) M.R. Ajith Kumar, this initiative resulted in the arrest of 243 individuals, with an additional 53 placed under preventive detention, within the first day itself on its launch on May 16.

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