The First Habeas Corpus Case of Kerala: The Rajan Kolacase

The horror-stricken stories of Emergency have been recounted time and again. Most Keralites remain unaware of the bone-chilling incident that took place in Kerala in 1976. During the Emergency, it led to the first-ever Habeas Corpus writ petition to be filed in the Kerala High Court.

The Martian Webster Dictionary defines Habeas Corpus as “a protection against illegal and arbitrary detention of a person. The petitions for Habeas Corpus determine whether the individual has been arrested according to the procedure established by law.”

Habeas Corpus literally means “to produce the body.” In simpler words, it can be recounted as follows: When the police, guilty or innocent, arrest a person, they must be produced before a magistrate within 24 hours of the arrest. But failure to do so can be called unlawful detention. A Habeas Corpus writ can be filed by the family demanding that the arrested person be produced in front of the court. However, in the state of an Emergency, the right to life was revoked in favor of protecting the Nation and National Security.

The Rajan Kolacase of 1976 went down in Kerala’s history as a protest against the justice system and the police brutality against college students and the general public.

P. Rajan was a student of the Calicut Engineering College (currently known as the National Institute of Technology, Calicut) in 1976. This was a period of Nationwide Emergency which led to an increase in police atrocities. During that time, the Naxal movement was slowly brewing in Kerala and resulted in attacks on the police station. This led to the police wreaking havoc on the Naxals. 

On the 1st of March, Rajan was arrested by the Kerala Police from Chatamangalam along with a fellow student, Joseph Chaaly. As was revealed later, owing to the petition in the High Court of Kerala, Rajan was known to have tragically died due to police torture that was inflicted on him while he was in police custody. He died from an extreme torture known as the ‘uruttal’. A heavy wooden or iron log is rolled over the victim’s body. The police even disposed of Rajan’s body after he was murdered, and the body was never found.

Rajan’s father, T.V Eachara Warrier, a professor from Thrissur, complained to the authorities, only to fall on deaf ears. Finally, he filed a Habeas Corpus suit, upon which the police confirmed that he had died in custody. 

Eachara Warrier spent all his money and savings scouring the three central jails to find his son. During this period, his mother lost her mental stability and was hospitalized. As Warrier delved deeper into the case, he realized that Rajan was arrested for a crime in which he had no role. This was also easily verifiable because Rajan was away with his college team for a youth festival during the said Naxal attack. Testimony from his friends and the college would easily prove his innocence in the case. Further, the police even arrested Rajan as he was stepping out of the college bus, which had traveled 40 km from another college, from where the youth festival was taking place. However, media censure and the suspension of civil liberties worked against it. 

He made multiple inquiries and finally stumbled upon the evidence that would change the face of the case. Rajan had been arrested under the directions of the Deputy Inspector General of Police, Jayram Padikkal. He had met the home minister, S. Karunkaran, many times regarding the issue and, all the while, sent petitions to the Home Secretary of Kerala, and other authorities, including the President and the Prime Minister of India. Unfortunately, all his attempts were in vain, as he received neither a reply nor an acknowledgment on their part.

The father compiled all the evidence, finally filed the Habeas Corpus writ in the court, and convinced the court that his son didn’t just disappear but was arrested by the police, a fact that the police were actively denying. The investigation into the petition revealed the truth of the arrest and the death of Rajan in custody. Civic Chandran, among the detainees at the Kakkayam Torture camp with Rajan, said that Rajan couldn’t survive the brutal torture.

Warrier fought a long political battle to expose the atrocities committed by the State and its disregard for human rights. Since the body couldn’t be recovered, multiple charges had to be dropped. Even the DIG, Padikkal, the youngest Deputy Inspector General in the country, was convicted, yet it was overturned. It led to the resignation of the CM of Kerala, Karunkaran, with whom he had a strong affiliation. 

Multiple movies have been made, especially focusing on the political background. Even in 2022, the movie Kaduva, in which Vivek Oberoi acts as Ouseputti and Janardhanan acts as the CM, has been loosely based on Padikkal and Karunkaran, respectively. The resignation has also been captured in the movie. The 2021 movie, Jai Bhim, starring Suriya, also refers to the Rajan Kolacase as an example of a Habeas Corpus case. 

While this case has turned eyes on the legal front, Rajan’s father’s book, ‘Oru Achante Ormakurippukal’, (translated to Memories of A Father), attracted the general public’s attention and won the state award in 2004. This father’s lone struggle regarding his son’s disappearance tells the heartbreaking story of a parent who could not perform the last rites of his son or see his corpse. He fought until the police admitted that they had killed Rajan. During the Emergency, the case garnered attention as a civil rights and human rights case against the Congress-led Government of Kerala. 

An excerpt from Warrier’s ‘Oru Achante Ormakurippukal’:

“They just took him, tortured him, and killed him. That was all that happened. Somebody gave the police a list, and they picked up people from that list.”

Shivani Sarat
Content writer and creator. Author of 'Black Daises', a poetry anthology.

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