Among the numerous civil service officers who coordinate the ongoing fight against Covid-19 pandemic across the country, Kerala's Sriram Venkitaraman is an exception.
Till getting appointed as the state's nodal health officer in charge of Covid-19 war-room in March-end, he was suffering from retrograde amnesia — a form of memory loss, often temporary, that may have been caused by the trauma of an accident. His memory loss was not an allegation leveled by his rivals but a mental condition he had confessed to a judicial court that was engaged in the trial of a sensational hit-and-run case in which he was the prime accused. There were medical reports to substantiate his claim that he was suffering from amnesia in the seven months preceding his appointment as the state's top Covid-19 fighter.
Now almost seven months have gone since he occupied the new role, and, fortunately, the amnesia never caused any hindrance to his discharge of the duty, which is mainly coordinating the health department's interventions in the face of the pandemic.
Though people who recovered from Covid-19 are now talking about lingering cognitive impact of the otherwise respiratory disease, the war-room manager in Kerala seemed mentally fit and healthy in managing the assignment. The government also remains supportive of his capabilities despite the harsh criticism he suffered from the Chief Minister and other ministers soon after the hit-and-run incident that killed a young journalist.
So, Sriram, the prime accused in the death of journalist K M Basheer, was deputed by Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan and his Health Minister K Shylaja as head of a fact-check team set up by the government to fight spread of fake news in Malayalam publications, online portals and television news channels, apart from the social media. While the government is claiming that the new facility with Sriram as the head is only meant for spotting fake news and countering it with factual, accurate data and information, Opposition parties and journalist groups say it is aimed at targeting media persons, who critically approach government plans and policies, mainly those which were taken in the backdrop of the fight against Covid-19.
Kochi-born Sriram, 33, who was Director of Survey and Land Records when his car knocked down and killed Basheer, is now facing trial on charges that include culpable homicide not amounting to murder, rash and negligent driving, drunk driving, and destroying evidence.
Objecting strongly to the government's decision, which has stirred up state-wide sensation in Kerala, senior Congress leader and Leader of the Opposition in the Kerala Assembly Ramesh Chennithala has demanded that the government reverse the decision to place a tainted official at the helm of news fact-check team. According to him, it is a bad precedent and an attempt to infringe on the right to know and right to dissent.
Under the new role, Sriram will assist the Department of Information and Public Relations by identifying and countering fake news and messages. Apart from Sriram, the fact-check division, headed by the secretary of the public relations department, includes representatives of the IT, police, cyber dome, forensic, and revenue departments. Cyber security experts from the state government-owned Centre for Digital Imaging Technology (C-DIT) will also form a part of the team.
According to Chennithala, it is unfortunate that Sriram has been included in the fact-check team. "What is there to fact-check when the state government keeps on lying about the Corona spread in the state? The norm of the LDF government has been to protect the accused, and now an accused in a hit-and-run case is deputed to infringe into media freedom," Chennithala says.
Kerala Pradesh Congress Committee (KPCC) president Mullappally Ramachandran described Sriram's inclusion in the team as highly deplorable. "It was under the guise of the pandemic that Sriram was hurriedly reinstated as chief of the Covid war room. Now the formation of fact-check division shows the government's intolerance and insensitivity to criticism. Moreover, an accused is deciding which news is original and which information is fake," according to Mullappally.
Meanwhile, a court in Thiruvananthapuram has given an ultimatum to Sriram to appear before it in the third week of October in connection with the case.
The Judicial First Class Magistrate Court issued the order after Sriram failed to appear, citing various reasons despite three subsequent notices issued to him. Critics of Sriram cite retrograde amnesia as the reason why he is not appearing in court and not responding to the summons. Meanwhile, he is reaching his office in the state secretariat daily to fight Corona and fake news without any fail. The court is hardly 3 kilometres from the secretariat, but he is abstaining from appearing there.
A charge sheet was filed in the court on February 1 this year against the IAS officer, arraigning him as the first accused in the case. The court has issued notice to him as per Section 209 of the CrPC. Section 209 deals with transferring of a case to a Sessions Court when an offence is triable exclusively by it. In this case, the court had, after considering the charge sheet, observed that Section 304 of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) would be chargeable against the IAS officer and it was triable by a Sessions Court. Section 304 deals with punishment for culpable homicide, not amounting to murder.
Before transferring the case, the lower court needs to complete certain procedural formalities, but those were delayed owing to Sriram's failure to appear before the court thrice. Wafa Firoz, his friend, who was also in the car, is the second accused in the case. Wafa Firoz has been charged with abetting the officer to drive the car rashly.
The 70-page charge sheet filed by the Special Investigation Team of the Crime Branch, which probed the case, has listed 100 witnesses and submitted 75 materials of evidence. It states that the 33-year-old officer was drunk and was behind the wheels in the speeding car while returning from a private party on the midnight of August 3, 2019.
The car hit K M Basheer, Thiruvananthapuram news bureau chief of the Malayalam daily Siraj. Basheer, who wason his motorcycle, died on the spot.
Sriram, a medical doctor himself, allowed police to collect his blood sample for examination only nine hours after the accident and after getting himself admitted to a private hospital in Thiruvananthapuram. His arrest was recorded nearly 17 hours later. The officer was shifted to the local medical college hospital after Basheer's family and media personnel protested over the "five-star treatment" being given to Sriram at the private hospital.
When Sriram was given the charge of Covid war room in March, what seemed to have counted with the state government was his MBBS degree, which he had earned before turning civil servant and the Master's degree in Public Health he got from University of Harvard.
"It's an insult to the journalist community in Kerala that a person who is facing the charge of destroying evidence is getting a new responsibility as fact-checker of the news flow. The government must revoke the decision and keep him in suspension until the trial in the hit-and-run case is over. If the state requires a public health expert to deal with the coronavirus threat or a fact-checker on Corona-related news flow, it can use the services of experts of international repute," according to KPReji, president of the Kerala Union of Working Journalists.
"We will resist the move in all possible ways. Injustice to Basheer will not be tolerated," Reji says.
According to sources close to Sriram, he had cited the memory loss to defend himself against the charges of lying to the police after the accident.
It is unclear whether the state government had received any medical report saying that Sriram had been wholly cured before appointing him to the two crucial assignments.
Going by the prosecution, the accident that killed Basheer had occurred in Thiruvananthapuram close to midnight on August 3, 2019. Sriram Venkitaraman was returning from a party with his friend Wafa Firoz in the passenger seat. His Volkswagen Venta collided with Basheer's motorbike, killing him on the spot. Ironically, it was the same day that an impressive speech on road safety that Sriram had delivered at an event organised by the Kerala police and transport departments had turned viral in social media.
The charge sheet against Sriram says he was heavily drunk and would have been clocking above 100km an hour when his car took the turn near the Museum Junction. The legal speed limit in the tiny neighbourhood, adjoining the Raj Bhavan, is 50km per hour.
Sriram had initially refused to cooperate, and the police, on learning who he was, "didn't insist." It was after continued media focus on the subject that he was arrested and booked under serious charges, and the case was handed over to the Crime Branch.
According to the charge sheet, "He (Sriram) had deliberately tried to destroy evidence. Sriram resisted attempts by a duty nurse to collect his blood sample...(and) intentionally delayed the proceedings to dilute the presence of alcohol in his blood."
Lacking a medical certificate that Sriram was over the alcohol limit at the time of the collision, the investigators have had to rely on the testimonies of doctors, first responders, police officers and witnesses.
Wafa, too, confirmed before a magistrate under oath that Sriram had drunk alcohol that night and that he was a regular drinker. The civil servant had allegedly told the police he was a teetotaller. The police say that Sriram had tried to mislead the investigation by saying Wafa had been at the wheel at the time of the accident. At the local government hospital where he was treated initially, Sriram had insisted that he be referred to specialist care at a particular private hospital where many of his former MBBS batchmates work.
Though the doctors at the government hospital had marked his injuries as minimal, they partially accepted his request and referred him to the nearby Government Medical College Hospital. The prosecution alleges that Sriram had lied to police, tried to deflect the blame to a woman friend and co-occupant of the car, and delayed the collection of his blood sample. Despite all these, he is still the chosen and beloved of Kerala's Left Democratic Front (LDF) government.