The Lede
www.thelede.in
Representative image
Representative image|Kozhikode District police website
2019 Polls

Bogus Postal Voting By Kerala Cops A Fallout Of Politicisation Of The Force

The Lede finds out how police associations and successive state governments have colluded to ensure that the rank and file of the police toes the ruling party’s line  

Naveen Nair

Naveen Nair

Bogus voting was caught on camera on 23 March at polling booths across a few northern constituencies of Kerala. But these seemingly isolated attempts to scuttle the democratic process is only the tip of the iceberg as the system itself conspires to aid such illegalities.

It is now certain that in Kerala it is a case of ‘who will police the police’, because in the dock for bogus postal voting, is the state’s very own police force and a section of its uniforms with clear political allegiance.

As per an Intelligence report submitted by the ADGP of state Intelligence TK Vinod Kumar to the Director General of Police Loknath Behera, functionaries of the Kerala Police Association had been engaged in collecting postal ballot papers of an as yet unknown number of policemen and had marked the votes collectively to favour one political front.

It has also emerged that such malicious interventions were made by these men in a well planned effort to carry out bogus voting and scuttle free and fair elections.

On Wednesday last, the Chief Electoral Officer (CEO) of the state agreed that prima facie there was enough evidence against the Kerala Police Association to show that purposeful bogus voting had been committed. The CEO has also sought a detailed report from the DGP by 15 May directing him to take stringent legal as well as departmental action against the culprit cops.

“The role of the police association in bogus voting of postal votes is quite clear. It is a very serious issue and we have given directions to the state police chief to take further action on this. What is required is a thorough investigation by a special team which the DGP has been asked to decide upon,” CEO Teeka Ram Meena told media persons on Wednesday.

That the top brass of the Congress party in the state had made a representation to the CEO perhaps suggests which way the votes had allegedly gone on a major scale.

The state has around 55,000 postal votes from policemen out of which allegedly close to 90% would have voted, which is just under 50,000 votes. That translates to roughly 2400 votes in every constituency, a number that could tip the scales in a closely fought election. It is unclear as to how many of these votes were "rigged".

The trickery came to light when an audio message and a post, both on WhatsApp, got leaked, embarrassing the state police force.

The preliminary probe points to an audio message posted by one Vysakh, a police commando serving at the Sree Padmanabha Swamy Temple in Thiruvananthapuram on a WhatsApp group of policemen.

The audio message, that The Lede has in its possession, is a call to all policemen to collect and deposit their postal vote ballot papers with the police association members who would then cast votes on their behalf.

Vysakh had been posted as a commando in Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan’s security detail in the first two weeks when the government came to power in 2016 and later transferred to the security detail of former minister Thomas Chandy, who had resigned over charges of corruption.

This is one of the reasons pointed to by the Congress party to allege that the ruling Left front could be behind the rigging.

"The postal ballots of the policemen should be taken back and re-polling should be done. It is shocking that ballots have been taken in custody of certain cops owing allegiance to Left parties. What is the meaning of free and fair elections then? All this is because Pinarayi Vijayan government has rampantly politicised the force," Opposition leader Ramesh Chennithala told The Lede.

What gives the impression that Vysakh’s audio message is not a case in isolation is the sustained messaging by senior functionaries of the police association asking fellow cops to get their allotted ballot papers deposited it with a particular policeman who is a part of the association.

Also with the news emerging that a post office in Vattapara in Thiruvananthapuram had received a request for a number of postal ballots all going to the same address and that too, the address of an association functionary, the antennae of the Election Commission are certainly up.

Are The Unions The Malaise?

While only a further probe will bring out the entire story, people like Justice K Narayana Kurup, the former head of the Kerala State Police Complaint Authority (KSPCA) point out that this could be a well planned operation by the unions, otherwise called the ‘associations,’ of the police force.

“See the sanctity of the polls in a democratic set-up is inviolable. But when the people who are the custodians themselves do it, it is undoubtedly an attack on democratic process itself which cannot be tolerated at any cost. The situation in Kerala today is who will police the police? There is only one reason for all this – rampant political intervention. If you ask me, the system of having unions inside the force is the sole villain here and it should be done away with at the earliest,’’ Justice K Narayana Kurup told The Lede.

The retired justice also questions the need for a disciplined uniform service to be given the right to organise into unions or associations. “Under the aegis of such unions which are mostly divided along political lines, the men end up doing many things which are against the tenets of a disciplined force. That cannot be allowed,’’ added Justice Kurup.

Thanks to a history of Left rule, Kerala and West Bengal had traditionally had such unions functioning even in the police force given the states' proximity to the ideology of the working classes.

While West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee tried disbanding the functioning of such unions in the Bengal state police in 2012, the Kolkata High Court stayed the government order saying the association had not been given a chance to explain their side.

Though police associations have existed in Kerala since 1979 when the central government gave the nod, these associations earned their present legal shape and prominence in the force only from 2011 when the Kerala Police Act came into existence.

Consequently there have been three associations functioning in Kerala police – the Kerala Police Association that is formed of the constabulary, the Kerala Police Officers Association formed by those in officer rank upto Circle Inspectors and thirdly the Kerala Police Service Officers Association comprising those above the Deputy Superintendent of Police rank but excluding the IPS officers.

Activists who have been closely studying the function of Kerala police over the years are of the firm opinion that it is the Kerala Police Act 2011 that is at the focal point of all the troubles that ails the force now.

Advocate DB Binu is a well known RTI activist in Kerala and points out that even when the Act exists giving the associations legal sanctity, the rules for the proper conduct of the association have not been properly chalked out and those existing on paper have never been implemented.

“I don’t fully agree that the solution to the problem is in doing away with the associations. They have been formed after a lot of years of protest and hard work with the primary purpose of looking after the welfare of the men in uniform which is also very important, given the kind of service the men do. But the real issue is that the rules which have been framed for the conduct of such associations remain only on paper. They are never implemented, which means it gives the associations more clout and power than they are allowed to enjoy without any controlling authority,’’ Binu told The Lede.

Activists say that these associations function in the grey area of technicalities because an official government order has never been issued to enforce the rules on paper.

A Highly Politicised Force?

And it is through these associations that the political influence creeps into the force. Those in the know, like Binu, reiterate that the reluctance of both the UDF (United Democratic Front) and the LDF (Left Democratic Front) governments to implement the rules of conduct of the associations is a way to keep the force under their political wings.

“Do you need eight years to implement the rules? This can be done in eight days. Can you believe that for eight years Kerala Police Act has not implemented the rules? The bottom line is that there is no political will to implement these rules which means there should not be any control mechanism so that these associations can be used for vested political interests of whoever is in power. Ultimately the nexus between the political class and the force becomes powerful,” added Binu.

Activists say that if the rules are implemented properly it would stop giving the associations a free hand which they enjoy at the moment. For example, the rules deter associations from collecting funds from outside, conducting mega rallies and fixing a definite term for functionaries.

Activists say that if these rules are implemented the political class will lose its control over these associations. The associations on the other hand would lose the power to lobby their way through the political set up. Hence non-implementation of the rules means a win-win situation for both sides.

Retired policemen who have faced the ire of the association members, for daring to go against their wishes, have long stories of coercion and blackmail to tell. Fears of transfer or entry of black marks in service records are the chief tools used to make such policemen who do not listen to the associations, fall in line.

“With the coming of the associations, sadly the allegiance of the force has been oscillating from the LDF to the UDF every five years depending on who is in power. They will get their men elected at the district and state level who will then decide on issues like appointment and transfer of personnel. It is a terrible state of affairs. You will be surprised to know the association’s clout is so much that they even have a say in the appointment of DGPs,’’ retired Superintendent of Police George Joseph told The Lede.

In May 2018, following yet another Intelligence report, the State Police Chief had ordered a probe into an open display of political affiliation, this time by Kerala Police Officers Association, comprising officers below the rank of Deputy SPs but including Sub and Circle Inspectors.

The immediate provocation for such a report was the political sloganeering and a commemoration of martyrs, both in line with the Left parties’ tradition that took place openly at the 2018 annual conference of the association in Kottayam.

In the same conference around 20 policemen also exhibited their political allegiance by sitting as a separate block wearing the red dress which is synonymous with the CPM rather than their uniforms or civil dress, much to the embarrassment of even Chief Minister Vijayan seated on stage.

While such open displays of political allegiance is one thing, the more disturbing trend has been the influence of the association in criminal cases that are politically motivated.

Instances of association functionaries calling the shots to release arrested men from stations, transfer of officers investigating high profile political murders are day to day allegations in the state, admitted an officer in anonymity.

“Kerala police has been completely ruined by this rampant politicisation. In earlier times we have seen political interference. But now the situation is different. Such interference is no more needed because right at the local station level the force is divided among political lines,’’ said N Subash Babu, another retired police officer.

Political pundits in the state say that derailing an electoral process by a political entity with a vested interest is one thing, but when the perpetrator is the same custodian that needs to protect the very concept of a free and fair elections, the ramifications are far reaching.

Many say that though those involved in the incidents are not high ranking officers, it is a reflection of how the entire force has been corrupted, from top to bottom.

“There is a culture of lobbying and misplaced loyalties all throughout the hierarchy of the force. Bogus voting is only minuscule in that culture. When there are a lot of such malpractices going unchecked inside the force, it is hardly surprising if the association members feel that casting votes collectively for a particular front is part of their loyalty. Even when the UDF was ruling the state this has been the result,’’ noted political commentator Joseph C Mathew told The Lede.

Association Rubbishes Allegations

Meanwhile the Kerala Police Association has denied allegations that they have anything to do with collecting postal ballots in large number or casting bogus votes.

“Every postal vote done by a policeman is also countersigned by a Gazetted officer before it is sealed and then sent off by post. My argument is if you can trust your postman then why don’t you trust the policeman who is voting? In the association we have not collected any ballots nor asked for it. We have only asked everyone to vote, nothing more,’’ Kerala Police Association General Secretary PG Anil Kumar told The Lede.

However when asked about the audio message and posts circulating allegedly on behalf of the association the functionary puts the onus on the “over enthusiasm of some junior cops” which could have led to such an error.

But the Election Commission is convinced that malpractice has certainly taken place. Only a thorough investigation will find out the extent of the malpractice.