On a placid morning in 1980, a maid discovered the bodies of her employers, a rich elderly couple in Karikkanvilla mansion in Thiruvalla. A few days later, taking off on a clue given by her that the deceased used to mention about a relative they called ‘Madrasile Mon’ and the marks of a foreign-made footwear from the spot, a young police officer dashed to Chennai and nabbed the killers Reni George and his three foreigner accomplices. The officer was all of 30 and it was the first of a string of sensational cases he came to investigate in the course of an outstanding career lasting three and a half decades.
His name is Siby Mathews. In his revealing book of memoirs ‘Nirbhayam: Oru IPS Officerude Anubhavakkurippukal’ released last week by V.S. Achuthanandan, the veteran cop lauds the reformation that came about in the life of Reni George and his subsequent friendship with him. He concludes the chapter on the Karikkanvilla case by observing that the transformation in Reni’s life means more to him than the accolades that his seniors accorded him for solving the case. Such compassion underlines the book throughout.
The 328-page book often reads like a spine-chilling crime thriller. In fact, it reads like many crime thrillers. At the same time, it is a chronicle of the major felonies of a quarter century period, of murder, rape, suicide, corruption, political vendetta and skulduggery.
A marks-sheet forgery racket ran in the University in the early eighties when admission to professional courses was on the basis of Pre Degree marks. Students with bad track records were found landing admissions to Medical and Engineering Colleges. Mathews was personally elated to bring the culprits to book since he had wanted to be a doctor but was advised against it by his folks who lacked the financial wherewithal to sponsor his medical education. He exorcised the demons of his aborted medicine dream by copiously reading literary classics of western masters. After post graduation in Economics and brief stints in government jobs, Siby Mathews joined the Indian Police Service in 1977. From the first posting as ASP in Chengannur, began a saga that saw him relentlessly pursue hardened criminals with unflinching bravery and sense of duty for 35 years. He invariably brought the wrong-doers to justice and ensured that the law awarded them appropriate punishment.
The trigger for the popular Malayalam crime thriller Oru CBI Diary Kurippu was the case of an employee who was thrown to his death from the terrace of Polakkulam Tourist Home in Kochi. CBI officer Radhavinod Raju who investigated the case is the inspiration for the character played by Mammootty in the movie. Mathews who closely interacted with Raju for the case contributed the Chacko and Vikraman characters to the reel story.
Sooryanelli was one of the biggest sexual abuse scandals to wreck Kerala’s mass psyche. A teenage girl was subjected to exploitation by many people over several days. While handling the case, the realization dawned on Mathews that political parties were only keen on using such cases for getting even with their rivals or even power threats within the same party. A parliamentarian became a victim of this slandering. He was to be implicated, no less a person than the CM instructed Mathews. The upright cop’s reply was that he would not do any such thing without substantial evidence. He went about meticulously looking for cold facts. Mathews pinpoints for us the contradictions and gaps in the statements of the defendants over time and hints at what all could have transpired behind the scenes.
But there are limitations to what a police officer can do. First year degree student Jolly Mathew was asphyxiated to death by a priest called Father John and her body disposed with two people’s help. Mathews proved it without doubt. The lower court awarded life sentence to John and seven years each to his accomplices. But before long, a mute society had to helplessly watch money and muscle power take over as a High Court verdict set them free. The government showed no interest in appealing to the Supreme Court and a fatigued Mathews for once saw it pointless to dodge the matter.
The longest chapter of the book is understandably set aside for the infamous ISRO espionage case. The 1994 case, which saw the press go to town turns out to be murky political witch-hunting on the side. This reviewer, like many members of the public, viewed Siby Mathews as a vindictive villain government servant who went overboard in appeasing his political masters by running roughshod over the careers and lives of dedicated scientists and a pair of naive Maldivian women. The truth could be far from it. Some hold the spy case to be a conspiracy hatched by the Antony faction of the Congress to oust then chief minister K. Karunakaran. It did prove to be the leader’s nemesis as he had to quit following the alleged involvement of his favorite police officer Ramon Srivastava. He was shunted off to Delhi to never again become a force to reckon with in Kerala politics. It is true that politicians used Mathews, but he was steadfast in his quest for truth. Several books have been written on the spy case and there is public empathy for the scientists after CBI exonerated them. Emboldened by mass sentiment and the awarding of compensation by the UDF government per court’s directive, Nambi Narayanan has been hounding Mathews with libel suits. But Nirbhayam makes us believe that Mathews is more sinned against than sinner. There were indeed shady deals between the women and the scientists. He refused to arrest Srivastava based on hearsay. There is a veiled mention of a later-to-be-chairman intruding into a probe session at LPSC when a teary-eyed scientist was providing vital evidence.
Mathews masks names at many places and refers to people as JK, VJ, etc. Superiors, peers and subordinates holding him as their bête noire is not surprising as his profession staffs more black sheep in its rolls than any other. When a colleague phones him to enquire about the progress of a case, he has to be wary of passing information to a potential informer. Not just wily politicians but political secretaries and such wheeler dealers tried to twist his arm, with futile results. His selfless services were never recognized in word or deed, not even when he efficiently handled the gargantuan challenge of the only papal visit to the state. Staunchly religious, Mathews recalls the power of God and sincere prayers that helped him tide over the crises of life. Death has been a shadow, like when Manichan, the accused abkari in the Kalluvathikkal hooch tragedy, gave quotation to bump off Mathews in retaliation for putting him behind bars. Many a time, his car steered out of the way of speeding trucks set out by the don to crush him.
In 2012, while firmly in the saddle of Kerala police chief, Mathews hung up his boots. He was elevated to the prestigious post of chief information commissioner, vociferously endorsed by both the prominent parties for whom he was the go-to officer for several years. He retired last year. In the police force, Dr. Siby Mathews has always had to plough a lone furrow. He remains undaunted in his upholding of justice and his compassion for the wronged. He also continues to fight cases to salvage his reputation from malignant forces that are out to tarnish it while his erstwhile political masters conveniently look the other way. Kerala University awarded him a PhD in Sociology in 2007. The research findings became the basis of his book Kerala on Suicide Point: Paradox of a High Literacy State.