'Made to work like slaves': Camp followers' association accuses Kerala Police's senior officers of exploiting support staff

TK Devasia
A news editor with Malayalam daily Mathrubhumi, Vinod Chandran and his wife Saritha, were brutally assaulted by a group of robbers who barged into their house in Kerala's Kannur district.

The lower ranks of the Kerala Police have been battling charges of atrocities against unsuspecting citizens for the past few months, but this week saw the focus shifting in the opposite direction. The police are facing accusations from within. This news came into the spotlight after a police driver complained he was grievously assaulted by the daughter of his boss: an IPS officer of the rank of Additional Director General of Police (ADGP).

The incident occurred on 14 June when Abdul Kareem Gavaskar, the official driver of ADGP Sudesh Kumar, took his daughter Snigdha and her mother in their official car to the Napier Museum grounds, a popular spot for walkers in the state capital, for morning jogging. Gavaskar alleged that Snigdha beat him on his neck and shoulders with her mobile phone when he was a little late to pick her up after the walk.

The medical examination of Gavaskar, who was admitted to Trivandrum Medical College Hospital, confirmed that he suffered contusions on his neck and bruises on the eyes that may affect even his vision. The incident triggered outrage as the police waited until the ADGP's daughter filed a complaint to accept the one lodged by the driver. Gavaskar's plea was registered as a counter complaint.

As the protests mounted, the police registered cases against both by 11 pm. The driver was booked under Section 354 (assault or criminal force to woman with intent to outrage her modesty) of the Indian Penal Code, which is a non-bailable offense and Section 294 (obscene acts), while Snigdha has been charged with causing hurt to deter a public servant from his duty under Section 332.

Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan, who holds the home portfolio, ordered the removal of the ADGP from his position and ordered a Crime Branch probe under the direct supervision of an ADGP after Gavaskar's wife and sister met him and appealed to him. They also alleged pressure on the family from the ADGP to withdraw the complaint. But Gavaskar stood his ground and affirmed he will go to the court if his assailant is not brought to book. Former superintendent of police George Joseph said the offence committed by Snigdha amounted to an attempt to murder as the injury Gavaskar suffered to his eyes could even lead to his death.

Whichever way the case goes, the incident has helped a marginalised section of the police draw the attention of the authorities towards their deplorable work conditions. This section, known as camp followers, are recruited as support staff at police camps and battalions. They perform a wide variety of jobs: Cooking, cleaning, cutting hair and washing clothes. A battalion of 135 police personnel usually have 10 camp followers. They remain on the fringes of the police department without being recognised either as police or civil servants.

"There are no fixed working hours for the camp followers. While men in uniform have been brought under eight-hour duty regime, we remain on 24-hour duty. We also have to work on Sundays and even holidays,' said PA Ashraf, patron of the Kerala Camp Followers Association. The camp followers are given the salary of last-grade employees without any scope for promotion. Almost all of them retire in the same post as they get into the service. They are also denied other benefits extended to the police personnel such as uniforms and festival allowances.

But what's most disconcerting is the practice of deploying the camp followers at the residences of the IPS officers to run errands, drop wives to work, children to schools, cook for them, bathe their dogs and perform other household chores. Ashraf said many are made to work like slaves. Following the incident, many camp followers narrated the bitter experiences at the hands of officers. Gavaskar accused the ADGP's wife and children of profusely abusing him when he refused to do menial jobs. He even accused the officer of once pointing a gun at him when he laughed in his daughter's presence. He alleged that most policemen working at the ADGP's residence faced similar experiences.

He said that the ADGP asked his daughter to sic his dog on a maid after she was late for duty. Association leaders said most camp followers working in officers' residences faced similar harassment from the officers and their family members. "Most are suffering the humiliation silently as the consequences for raising their voices will be serious. Severe punishment is meted out to those who complain. Many are implicated in false cases and some are transferred to far-away places. About 90 percent of the time, the punishment awarded to the camp followers is illegal," said Mini Shaju, secretary of the Kerala Police Camp Followers Women's Association.

The associations have been, for years, demanding an end to the 'illegal' practice of deploying camp followers at the residences of senior officers and improvement in their service conditions. The previous UDF government sought to end the system in 2011 by granting the officers a monthly allowance of Rs 7,000 to hire domestic help.

The then home minister Thiruvanchoor Radhakrishnan said the system was brought back after he demitted office in 2014. He said officers were now making use of the camp followers for domestic work even as they collected their monthly allowance. And it's not just camp followers who are made to work in the residences of officers. Kerala Police Association sources said a large number of uniformed men from the lower ranks of the force are also enlisted.

A report in Malayala Manorama daily said around 2,000 police personnel are serving at the residences of around 80 IPS officers and politicians. The total number of camp followers is only 1,300. Around 30 percent of them are deployed in non-camp works. The rest apparently come from the police force. Apart from this, many policemen are also deployed in non-policing activities in the name of working arrangements, other duties and special duty. Former DGP Alexandar Jacob said in an interview to a daily there were 6,670 such policemen enlisted in the state.

In the aftermath of the controversy, Vijayan directed state police chief Loknath Behra to collect details of the camp followers being engaged by IPS officers for their personal services. However, he is silent about the policemen taken away from the force. Roy Mathew, a senior journalist at Thiruvananthapuram, said that the political regime is not keen to end the system as they are its beneficiaries. He said police were being appointed as personal security officers of ministers, MLAs, MPs, senior political leaders and used for domestic and personal work.

"If these men are called back, Kerala can improve policing and escape the blame they are now facing for their inaction in the law and order front. It's possible only if the politicians are ready to sacrifice their extra benefits," he added.

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