Wires, belts, and the death of a Kerala veterinary student

On February 18, J.S. Sidharthan, a second-year undergraduate student at the Kerala Veterinary and Animal Sciences University, was found dead in his hostel room in Pookode in Wayanad district. The post-mortem findings and the police’s remand report tell a tale of brutal assault. Mithosh Joseph reports on the investigation that has blown the tragedy into a political firestorm

March 09, 2024 04:15 am | Updated March 27, 2024 05:04 pm IST

Students protest over the death of a student, J.S. Sidharthan, in front of the Kerala Veterinary and Animal Sciences University campus at Pookode in Wayanad district.

Students protest over the death of a student, J.S. Sidharthan, in front of the Kerala Veterinary and Animal Sciences University campus at Pookode in Wayanad district. | Photo Credit: K. Ragesh

Trigger warning: the following article has references to bullying and suicide. Please avoid reading if you feel distressed by the subject.

On February 15, J.S. Sidharthan, 21, a second-year undergraduate student at the Kerala Veterinary and Animal Sciences University at Pookode village in Wayanad district of northern Kerala, abruptly left campus. He informed his classmates that he was feeling unwell and wanted to go home to Nedumangad, a town located about 430 kilometres away in Thiruvananthapuram district in the south. But he told his parents that he was coming home to attend two temple festivals. No one knows which of these stories was true.

Sidharthan’s father, T. Jayaprakash, 47, a supervisor at a construction company in Dubai, recalls the conversations that his wife Sheeba had with their son. “When Sheeba called him, Sidharthan had reached Ernakulam (in central Kerala). But then he suddenly told her that he was returning to Pookode as he had to submit a certificate. He went back to university the next day,” he says.

When Sheeba tried to contact her son later, he didn’t pick up the phone, says Jayaprakash. “When he finally did, he spoke to her briefly. He told her that he was lying down and would call later.”

Two days later, Jayaprakash received a call from a postgraduate student of the university. He recalls how he froze when he was informed that Sidharthan had been in an accident and was seriously injured. The next day, Jayaprakash flew home from Dubai. But Sidharthan was no more.

Also read | 31 students of veterinary college in Wayanad debarred after student’s death

Jayaprakash was shocked to learn that his son had not been in an accident; instead, he had been found dead in the washroom of the men’s hostel in a case of suspected death by suicide. He says he and Sheeba had no idea that their son had any problems.

Siddharthan’s body was brought to Nedumangad on the morning of February 20. His uncle, M. Shibu, says the cremation was held a couple of hours later at their ancestral home nearby.

A KSU worker who sustained serious injuries during the clash of protesters with the police is shifted to an ambulance at the Kerala Veterinary and Animal Sciences University campus at Pookkode, in Wayanad district.

A KSU worker who sustained serious injuries during the clash of protesters with the police is shifted to an ambulance at the Kerala Veterinary and Animal Sciences University campus at Pookkode, in Wayanad district. | Photo Credit: K. Ragesh

The death of Sidharthan, who the police say had been bullied and tortured mercilessly, led to an uproar. Angry students staged a protest, which turned violent. The police, who were called in, dispelled the protesters with water cannons and tear gas. The fact that some of the accused in the case are members of the Students’ Federation of India (SFI), the students’ wing of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), which leads the ruling Left Front government in Kerala, has created a political firestorm and led to many conspiracy theories.

Affectionately called Sidhan

The 100-acre Kerala Veterinary and Animal Sciences University, which was established in 2004, has a scenic campus. Its low-rise red and white buildings are surrounded by lawns. Every structure has a roof of terracotta, which is typical of this region. The centre of the campus provides panoramic views of the surrounding hillocks. But since the tragic incident and its aftermath, police personnel stand everywhere, keeping vigil. After the students’ agitation turned violent, the authorities decided to close the campus from March 4 to March 14.

The walls of the back alleys of the two-storey men’s hostel are covered with graffiti in bright, popping colours. In Sidharthan’s four-bed dormitory, colourful sketches, scrawls, and Malayalam verses cover the walls. Four metal beds and old storage shelves occupy the room. The windows are covered by glass and offer a partial view of a hillock. Portraits of Vladimir Lenin and Karl Marx hang above the window. On occasion, the eerie silence is broken by the echo of police boots stomping through the corridors.

The rooms in the men’s hostel on campus where Sidharthan was allegedly tortured by the accused.

The rooms in the men’s hostel on campus where Sidharthan was allegedly tortured by the accused. | Photo Credit: K. Ragesh

There were 105 students in Sidharthan’s batch. M. Archana, his classmate from Wayanad, says the issue leading to his death occurred near the Department of Livestock Production Management on February 12.

“He came to the spot at night with a few others to make some final arrangements for Valentine’s Day celebrations. The situation turned tense when one of the women told a few of her male friends about Sidharthan’s suspected sexual misbehaviour,” she says.

Archana recalls her last conversation with Sidharthan. “On February 15, he told us that he was going home since he was unwell and wanted to meet his mother. We had a sports meet on February 16 and 17 and we did not see him anywhere on campus. I got the shocking news on February 18 when I was at home,” she says, shuddering as she remembers that precise moment.

“We called him Sidhan,” she continues. “He was lively and had a passion for wildlife photography. We don’t know what really happened to him. The media, the police, and the local people have all given us contradictory narratives.”

The gravity of assault

The police found in their preliminary investigation that Sidharthan was bullied for about three days and even paraded around naked for allegedly misbehaving with a classmate. But they are awaiting the results of scientific examinations to ascertain the cause of death.

The protesters allege that Sidharthan was murdered. He was found in a seven foot-high dingy washroom, but the premises have not been sealed off yet.

The anti-ragging cell claims it was clueless about the public trial and torture and maintains that there was no written complaint. But the composition of the cell itself is under scrutiny: a few college union leaders, suspected of being involved in the incident, are part of the cell.

The police use water cannons to disperse the protesters who took out a march to the Kerala Veterinary and Animal Sciences University campus.

The police use water cannons to disperse the protesters who took out a march to the Kerala Veterinary and Animal Sciences University campus. | Photo Credit: K. Ragesh

The post-mortem findings of February 19 have brought to light evidence of assault. The post-mortem report, signed by Dr. Ajith Palekkara, Assistant Surgeon (Forensic Medicine), concludes that this was a case of “death due to hanging”. It states that there were multiple blunt injuries on Sidharthan’s body. These included two-three-day-old tramline contusions, which are caused by objects such as canes, wires, and batons.

The report lists out 18 specific findings indicating the gravity of assault: bluish, red, and brown aberrations and contusions of varying size all over the body, including the chest, neck, and abdomen; ante-mortem injuries including a scalp contusion on the back of the head; and even signs of starvation. His stomach contained only a thin film of brownish watery fluid along with a few black particles, says the report. The samples have been preserved, labelled, and sealed for chemical analysis and histopathological examination.

The police remand report, which came out about five days ago, states that Sidharthan, who left campus to go home on February 15, was called back by the accused to settle scores as per “hostel law”. The report mentions the role of Sinjo Johnson, one of the 18 arrested, who took him to rooms 18, 21, and 36 to repeatedly assault him on February 16 and 17, and says that “the torture abetted the suicide”. As per the remand report, the suspects possessed cable wires and belts.

Sources in the police say that Johnson has been identified as the ‘gang leader’ who reportedly oversaw the public trial and assault. Along with him, SFI leaders and a few college union functionaries have been nabbed on charges of abetting “suicide, assault, and ragging” under various sections of the Indian Penal Code (IPC). The suspects have reportedly confessed to the crime and have divulged the methods that they used for torture at various locations on campus.

KSU versus SFI

“This is a clear case of campus murder by people who are closely associated with the SFI,” says M.J. Yadhukrishnan, State vice president of the Kerala Students’ Union (KSU). “Four of the 18 people who were arrested in connection with the incident are SFI functionaries. They tortured Sidharthan in the name of an alleged sexual assault and caused his death after a primitive campus trial.”

Following the incident, the KSU organised protests that turned violent. It has also demanded an investigation by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI). It alleges that the dean, M.K. Narayanan, who was also the hostel warden, and the assistant hostel warden, R. Kanthanadhan, were lax in preventing Sidharthan’s ordeal. After the death became a political issue, Kerala Governor Arif Mohammed Khan suspended the vice chancellor of the university, M.R. Saseendranath, on March 2. The officiating vice chancellor, P.C. Saseendran, suspended Narayanan and Kanthanadhan.

Narayanan refused to comment on the issue. Kanthanadhan states that he is depressed and unable to speak. Saseendran says he is not authorised to speak to the media.

The vice president of the KSU, Ann Sebastian, and KSU State general secretaries Priyanka Philip and Gowja Vijayakumar, who kept the issue alive, are unhappy. They believe that the sections of the IPC invoked against the accused are inadequate and trivial.

“We want a judicial or CBI inquiry and a ban on the SFI on campus. How could the authorities of the university conduct interviews to decide internal promotions when a student’s body was lying in the hospital with grave signs of torture,” asks a furious Sebastian, who, along with several others, staged a hunger strike in front of the university after the protest march on March 4.

The SFI and the CPI(M) say that an “untoward, non-political incident” has been politicised by their rivals in view of the general elections. The members of the Wayanad district committees of the CPI(M) and the SFI who held a meeting in front of the university on March 4 argue that right-wing organisations have been selectively targeting the four SFI workers while keeping mum on the political allegiance of the other 14.

“We are on the defensive with all this false propaganda and these politically motivated allegations. No one is probing the root cause of the incident. The police stated in their remand report that this is a case of suicide. Despite this, we decided to suspend the membership of the four SFI workers suspected in the case,” says SFI’s Wayanad district secretary, Jishnu Shaji. He alleges that the first accused in the case is the son of an influential right-wing leader in Wayanad and that the son of a Congress leader was also involved.

Meanwhile, students on campus are upset. After the sudden closure of the university for 10 days, some 100 of the 130 students occupying the 47 rooms of the hostel have gone home. The rest who are from other regions of Kerala or other States are clueless about what to do next.

Sanjeet Singh, a final year student from Uttar Pradesh, is anxious. “Sidharthan was a good guy. We are now in a strange mental state. Going home for 10 days is not practical, so we are forced to stay back in this facility, which is in the centre of a big storm,” he laments.

The progress of the probe

Seated at their home in Vinod Nagar in Nedumangad, Jayaprakash says he is concerned about the “contradictory references in the post-mortem and remand reports”. He believes that there are efforts to portray the incident as a case of suicide and slap only trivial sections of the IPC on the accused, to aid their release. He also worries that conspiracy theories remain unchecked. This is despite the police admitting that Sidharthan had undergone torture many times on campus.

The family is not satisfied with the progress of the investigation. “During the first two days, we were satisfied, but after the remand report came out, we are not so sure. We fear that there are attempts to protect the accused,” Jayaprakash says.

Referring to the sexual assault charges filed by the woman who was allegedly assaulted by Sidharthan, Jayaprakash says the complaint was filed only after his son’s death. “If my son was involved in any wrongdoing, I would be the first person to demand action. How was a complaint of this nature registered only after his death? The members of the Internal Complaints Committee are answerable,” he adds.

Angry that the dean chose to visit them with a police escort only a week after Sidharthan’s death, Jayaprakash says, “It was February 25, I think. A special branch officer came and told me that the dean wanted to visit us and asked us whether we had any problem. I said no, I don’t have a problem. About an hour later, the dean came with the sub-inspector of Nedumangad station.” He is also furious with the university for failing to properly communicate to him the news about Sidharthan’s death.

Jayaprakash urges the vice chancellor to encourage students to give their statements in complete confidentiality. “We don’t know whether he will do this. We can only hope,” he says.

The grief-stricken father says his son was studious. “When he cleared NEET (National Eligibility-Cum-Entrance Test), we wanted him to try again and improve his ranking. But he decided to pursue veterinary science. I used to tell him, ‘Get a job fast, so I can return home,’” he says, sobbing. “He would tell me not to press him. He wanted to study more.”

With inputs from Tiki Rajwi

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