Once there was a hero....

Forty years back on a February day, a crowd had gathered around Mananthavady police station in Kerala's Wayanad district. They were there celebrating the killing of Naxal leader A Varghese, whose body was on exhibit to send the message that the state had successfully quelled the Maoist menace.

Last week, K Lakshmana had another crowd in front of him, of protesters shouting slogans against him. The retired IGP was leaving the CBI court in Kochi after being sentenced to life for killing Varghese in a fake encounter.

It is quite a fall for the 75-year-old police officer, who was celebrated at one time in Kerala for overwhelming the Naxal upsurge in the state in the '70s. Even otherwise too, the story of Lakshmana, the first Scheduled Caste Kerala youth to be directly recruited as deputy superintendent of police, was an inspiration for many in the state.

It was a moment of pride for the young DySP when he was deputed to take on Naxals while serving in Kannur. Few remember now that this was the time when Naxals had spread fear throughout Kerala with sorties into Wayanad villages. Nobody questioned the need to have the problem tackled, or asked the officers about the means used. If at all there was a concept of human rights, it was but nascent.

In his deposition, retired CRPF constable Muhammed Haneef told the CBI court that on February 18, 1970, at the encounter site in Thirunelli forests in Wayanad, Lakshmana threatened first accused Ramachandran Nair to shoot at Varghese. When Nair refused, the police officer reportedly warned that next day's media would see a report that both Nair and Varghese had died in an encounter. Nair obeyed.

Lakshmana would go on to be feted as the man who had dealt a blow to the Naxals, and as one of Kerala's best officers. His investigation reports became reference text at police training colleges. With the reality of the encounter remaining hidden till Nair spoke up, Lakshmana got promoted as SP. On the eve of Emergency, he was appointed the Superintendent of Kozhikode.

Again, Lakshmana was accused of police highhandedness. It was during his term in Kozhikode that one of the most talked about police excesses during the Emergency occurred.

A student named Rajan was picked up from Regional Engineering College (now NIT-Calicut) in Kozhikode, after Naxals reportedly attacked a police station in the district. He was subjected to third-degree torture before he was killed.

Lakshmana was made one of the accused in the Rajan case following reports that he had been present (at Kakkayam in Kozhikode), when Rajan was subjected to brutal third degree methods before being killed. However, he was let free after the trial court in Coimbatore rejected the evidence against him.

Instead, another high profile Naxal hunter, Jayaram Padikkal, then DIG (crimes), was convicted, which was later overturned by the appellate court.

Many believe that at the time of Varghese's death, Lakshmana had the backing of the then government led by CPI leader C Achutha Menon. The police officer was the son-in law of the late IUML legislator, C Chadayan, whose party colleague C H Muhammed Koya was the home minister.

Although then opposition leader E M S Namboodiripad had demanded a probe into the death of Varghese, nothing had materialised then.

In political circles, Lakshmana was known as a loyalist of senior Congress leader K Karunakaran, who had been the home minister when Rajan went missing during police hunt. After the court acquitted him in the Rajan case, Lakshmana was promoted as DIG and then retired as IG 15 years back.

Some contemporaries say Lakshmana may have overstepped bounds as he was a tough officer demanding extreme loyalty from subordinates. "He loved junior officers who had executed his orders, even if they were wrong," said an officer preferring anonymity.

Lakshmana's daughter, advocate Sangeetha, is helping her father fight the case. "My father had never faced suspension in his 34-year-old career. The judiciary got influenced by the media trial, which had been going on after the confessions of Constable Nair," said Sangeetha, who was two at the time of Varghese's death.

"I have told my father to brace up to face the verdict. Many retired colleagues and serving officials have pledged their support," said Sangeetha.

A retired police officer, who had worked with Lakshmana in 1970s, remarks at the irony. "If the Naxal movement had not been suppressed then, the history of Kerala would have been different," the retired officer says. "But Lakshmana faltered."

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