by J. Reghu and Saratchandran
December 02, 2006
The period end-June 1975 to mid-March 1977 marks a critical period in India's democratic polity. The ‘state of internal emergency’ declared by the Government of India did away with individual and collective rights of freedom of expression as guaranteed under the Constitution. Those twenty months saw the gagging of free press, forced family planning among minority communities, ban on several political organisations, raid on party offices, setting up of torture camps, unrecorded arrests, increased number of custodial deaths, fake encounters, and ‘missing’. One among the many who were brutally tortured and killed in custody was 24-year-old Varkala Vijayan, political activist and theatre person of Kerala. Very little, however, was known about his death then. His body was never recovered. Given the adverse conditions, the press failed to report the incident. Unlike in certain others, in the case of Vijayan, no substantive inquiry has been conducted even to this date.
Varkala Vijayan was beaten to death at the Sasthamangalam torture camp in the Capital City of Kerala, India, in the first week of March 1976. The camp was organized by the Crime Branch Wing of Kerala Police during the 20 months long internal emergency imposed by the then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, that smothered all human rights and democratic rights including right to speech and expression, in effect even right to life.
The immediate provocation for the declaration of internal emergency was Indira Gandhi’s dire need to bypass the Allahabad High Court’s judgment which declared her election to parliament null and void. The veteran freedom fighter and socialist leader Jayaprakash Narayan’s call for ‘Total Revolution’ or ‘total transformation’ against the authoritarian and corrupt practices of Indira Gandhi was also a reason for clamping emergency. It was a panic reaction prompted by her instinct for self preservation, power and glory, as a result of which she assumed unauthorized power for 20 months more, after the expiry of her parliamentary tenure. It was officially interpreted as an attempt to rescue the country from disintegration at the hands of the right wing reactionary forces. She declared that the nation was more important than democracy. Her coteries and the state sponsored media filled the vacuum by logically extending the principle through the slogan “Indira is India and India is Indira”.
The resounding state rhetoric under the regime was, “hold your tongue and do your work”. The police were given a carte blanche to annihilate all existing and possible opposition as per their perceptions. Police officers with brutal mindsets and allured by politicians and assured of power and pelf, indulged in torture and resorted to third degree measure as “required by the situation” in order to extort confessions from the victims. Detention in those camps was never called in question before courts and required no reason at all. Vijayan was one among the many. During that period there were camps in all district head quarters in the state. Hundreds of political opponents were detained in each custodial camp. It was in such a camp in Calicut District that P.Rajan, a student of Regional Engineering College, Calicut, was brutally murdered by the police in the same week. Both these gruesome killings patronized by state terrorism resulted from days’ long interrogation using third degree measures.
While being a student of N.S.S. College in Varkala, Vijayan had run a book shop in his home town there. He had an artistic and literary bent of mind and his creative instinct was for dramatic presentation of life and realities; he was a playwright and actor of great promise. By that time he had scripted a play titled “Liberation”. Although he had fondled the political ideology of liberation of human mind from the cobwebs of dogmas and shibboleths, his creative mind expressed it by means of theatre activism. One could hardly find any reason to believe the police version for his arrest – “his becoming an extremist and waging war against the state in order to sabotage it”.
Having smothered all dissent and political opposition, and gagging the press, through the emergency regime, Indira Gandhi ruled like a monarch of all who survived in India; she expected every one and every institution in India to genuflect before her. Besides Communist Party of India (Marxist – Leninist) 26 organizations were subjected to ban and their offices were sealed. The Communist Party of India (CPI) led the coalition government along with Congress party in Kerala at the time. Achutha Menon of CPI was chief Minister and Karunakaran of Congress was Home Minister. Dissent and protests of whatsoever kind were made illegal and interpreted to be against the national interests.
At such a juncture, being the Trivandrum District Organizer of CPI(ML), Vijayan found himself not in thin air and relaxed ambience, as he had been in a minority who cherished freedom and democratic values.
Last Days of Comrade Varkala Vijayan
The declaration of internal emergency forced Vijayan to leave home and go underground. Till 1976 March 5 on which day he was arrested, he had been working underground on a mission to re-organize the disarrayed set up of the party, as most of the workers had been either put in jails or stranded apart following some insurgency moves which took place between 1969-72. He was caught by the police in mufti on March 5, 1976 declaring him a pickpocket from city bus stand and taken to the camp immediately, throwing all cannons of justice to the winds. The only provocation for his arrest was his sticking a poster decrying the emergency. He breathed his last on the second day of his arrest in the prime of youth; he was only 24 then.
There came a halt to 20 months long repressive fascist regime of Indira Gandhi following her electoral debacle in the 1977 General Election to Parliament. The election witnessed a massive victory for the Janata Party, formed by the right wing liberals of the erstwhile “Socialist Block” in the Indian National Congress. The newly elected Janata Ministry restored the democratic order. This helped the CPIML prisoners to seek justice in the law courts and it was they who brought the horrors of the torture camps and macabre killings into public notice. This galvanized the entire political scenario across the whole state of Kerala.
There started a new era of trials that brought the police officers to courtrooms. The police filed charge sheet against the police criminals on charge of culpable homicide and murder. Although the trial courts rendered convictions under public pressure the criminal police men were allowed to go scot-free by the appellate courts on flimsy technical grounds, giving them benefit of doubt. The judiciary proved itself to be highly vulnerable to powerful string pulling from behind. The police criminals could be back to their positions of power with added vigour. Most of the prime culprits were promoted to higher ranks than they earlier had.
The unrepeatable logic of history has its own strange trajectories, as it does not have predetermined configurations that always create ever modern wonders. The confession revealing the theatrics of a gruesome killing that took place three decades ago, by a conscience-stricken police constable, Ramachandran Nair, in the year 1998, stirres the psyche and conscience of the entire nation. He revealed that com
rade Varghese, who is being adored as the ‘Che Guevara of Kerala’ by radical youth, did not have an encounter death with the police, as it was given out then, but was calculatedly murdered in cold blood at point blank range in captivity. Ramachandran Nair himself admitted that it was he who shot Varghese at Point Blank. He revealed that he was not bold enough to face the consequences of disobeying the orders of the police hierarchy. That forced him to act against his own conscience. Decades after, Ramachandran Nair unveiled the mystery of Varghese’s death. The revelation suddenly transformed the so-called killer ‘Varghese’ into a great martyr. The hushed up case of comrade Varghese has been brought up afresh for re-inquiry and trial and it is pending now. In the case, Ramachandran Nair is the first accused as he had wished.
The same type of revelations have generated momentum in the case of Vijayan also. In 1998 three policemen who were on duty in the camp made revelations before the print and visual media (S.Chandra Mohan -1998 – Malayalam Weekly – in Malayalam, Kannadi (Mirror) a weekly programme on Asianet Cable T.V). The three police constables revealed the intensity of the brutality and names of the police officials who masterminded it and how Vijayan’s dead body was disposed of.
A large section of Kerala’s workers, artists, activists, journalists, academics, intellectuals, and others have demanded a fresh inquiry, in the light of new evidence, into Vijayan’s death. The demand is based on the premise that such an inquiry has crucial implications, not only for recovering the even now little known history of those days and reaffirming the ideals of democracy, but for preventing deaths in custody that continue to occur in Kerala and India. The issue has now received widespread media attention.
The petition to the Government of Kerala has already been signed by Noam Chomsky and Arundhati Roy.
The petition, called Inquiry into Custodial Death of Varkala Vijayan During the State of Emergency in India, 1975-77, can be accessed at
"Memories of a Father" By Prof. T.V. Eachara Varrier. The book is about the arrest, torture, murder and disappearance of his son, Mr. Rajan at the hands of the police force in Kerala, India, during a period of state of Emergency.