The Life and Death of Jisha

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What the gruesome rape and murder of a law student says about the dangers of being marginalised in an insensitive society where the police are as brutal as the sexually depraved

I REMEMBER HER SMILE. We had met a few times. She was very quiet, usually with a friend or two. We never talked. She studied in the same college where I pursued a mid-career course in Law. She was two years senior to me. I also have a fading memory of her during an exam. She turned up like any other student trying to revise the entire syllabus at the last minute before entering the examination hall. That’s all my memory tells me about Jishamol, the Dalit girl brutally raped, tortured and murdered at home in Perumbavoor in Kerala.

Despite being in the same college for a year together, there were things I didn’t know about her. I didn’t know she was living in a single-room shack that did not even have a toilet. She spoke little, kept away from celebrations on the campus, skipped lunch sessions on days when she did not bring her own. She used to leave the campus as soon as class got over. She often refused invitations by friends to hang out during free hours. Her friends and teachers knew very little about Jisha. Her presence went barely noticed and so did her death in the beginning.

On the night of 28 April, she was found dead in her shack on the side of a canal in purambokku land (land owned by the government for which residents do not have a title). The body was badly mutilated. Nobody, except a few in the locality, came to know of the murder. The next day, the body was taken for autopsy accompanied by no one. That same day, late evening, the body was cremated in the presence of a few relatives. No friends or classmates were present at the funeral. No one was informed.

I read the double column news with her photograph on the local page of a newspaper on 30 April. It merely said ‘a girl was found dead at home, suspected to be killed in a rape attempt’. She had the same smile.

Jisha’s body lying in a pool of blood was found by her mother, Rajeshwari. There were more than 30 stab wounds; deep cuts on the chin, chest and neck; her genitals were pierced and slashed open with a sharp weapon, exposing the intestines; her nose and a breast had been chopped off. There were marks of a heavy blow on the back of the head. She was also strangled with a shawl. The body was found nude and there were nail and bite marks all over.

When I reached her house at Kuruppampady in Perumbavoor, north Kerala, with a few friends and activists by evening, we were welcomed with a dreadful silence. A woman in the neighbouring house refused to open the door. Through the window she said she was home alone and had to seek her husband’s permission to let us in. She was the wife of the prime witness Varghese, who had informed the police of the murder. We visited all the houses in the locality and found no one had any clue about how Jisha lived or died. They did not know how the mother and daughter managed to make ends meet; how Jisha struggled to pursue her BA and LLB and what had happened that evening.

Jisha’s body lying in a pool of blood was found by her mother, Rajeshwari. There were more than 30 stab wounds; deep cuts on the chin, chest and neck

“We were not in touch with them. Jisha’s mother used to be hostile to everyone. In fact, we were scared of her,” said a woman who didn’t want to reveal her name. Others in the locality held the same view and averred that Jisha’s mother kept away from neighbours. The only person to have a different viewpoint was their immediate neighbour, Sumesh, a college teacher. “This is not true. She was quite normal. Her ferocious attitude may only be a strategy to keep men away,” he said.

The tiny one-room house was made of red stones, uncemented and roofed with asbestos. Located on one side of an irrigation canal, its rundown appearance made it stand out in the locality. In the back yard, a tiny space covered with a sari marked the space where they performed their ablutions. Other houses in the locality were multi-storied, with gardens and car parking areas. When we went there again the fourth day after the murder, we found the house unguarded and the scene of the crime unsealed. Without a cordon, anyone could walk in and contaminate the evidence.

After meeting the neighbours, we went to the government hospital in Perumbavoor to meet Jisha’s mother, Rajeshwari and her elder sister Deepa. We saw a mother heartbroken and crying violently. There was no deluge of visitors then. We talked briefly with Deepa and Jisha’s aunt Laila, but were advised by the nursing staff not to meet Rajeshwari because she might turn hysterical. But on seeing us in the verandah, Rajeshwari asked Deepa who she was talking to. When she came to know that I was a collegemate of Jisha, she wanted to talk to me, and when the hospital staff refused, I witnessed her crying and pleading loudly. She began to call me desperately. I was allowed to go inside.

She hugged and kissed me in tears. Even in the middle of such grief, she was worried about my safety and asked how I would go back home and whether I had a car. She told me not to trust any man, to be extremely cautious and to take all decisions by myself.

It was on the fifth day that the state machinery, the media and civil society woke up to the brutality of the rape and murder. There are cogent reasons to believe that the police deliberately tried to hush up the nature of the crime and misled the media. The day after the murder, a small piece of news was carried in the late-night edition of a few newspapers, but all it said was, ‘A girl was found dead at home, suspected to be murdered’. There was no mention about the rape or the brutality.

The inquest, autopsy and the cremation of the body were done the next day. Not just local media, but even people of the locality were kept unaware of the crime’s heinousness. It was easy for the police because of the family’s disconnect with neighbours. “It was around 8 pm when Jisha’s mother came to us. She was crying. We were told that Jisha is inside the house but not responding to her calls. I lit a torch to help her go to the backyard. I did not go inside. I called up the police,” says Varghese, the prime witness. None of the other neighbours went inside the house. No one accompanied the body when it was taken to the medical college for autopsy.

Once the nature of the crime became public, it was compared with the brutal rape and murder of a woman in Delhi in December 2012. Television channels then went into an aggressive campaign mode. The ward where Rajeshwari was admitted was flooded with politicians, Union ministers, activists as well as the media. Protests in the streets followed and social networks exploded in shock and anger.

The police, now under pressure, constituted a special investigation team under the Additional Director General, but the investigation has not made any headway. The reason is obvious. The police committed irreparable errors in the beginning, resulting in the erasure of traces of evidence. It began from the minute they reached the spot after 8 pm, with no electricity. They examined the crime scene using a mobile phone torch. The post-mortem was not done under the supervision of a police surgeon. Unconfirmed reports say it was carried out by post-graduate students of Alappuzha Medical College. Rape had no mention in the initial FIR and was added later by an additional petition filed to the magistrate. The explanation given was that it was confirmed only after the post-mortem report. “I don’t understand why a police officer has to wait for a post-mortem report,” says Dr Shirley Vasu, senior forensic surgeon and HoD of pathology at Thrissur Medical College. Dr Vasu, who is the author of Postmortem Table, her book of memoirs, says the legal procedure of autopsy is often not followed. “Post-mortem is very much a part of the investigation. The investigating officer has to be present, record the wounds and the oral statement of the doctor. Unfortunately, this is not the practice followed in general,” she says.

“It is unbelievable,” says Vinod Kumar, a former public prosecutor. “In this case, I understand that rape was evident even in the inquest. It is unfortunate that the police could not even file ‘rape’ initially. The evidence collected from the body and the scene of occurrence in the very early stage is very crucial in rape trials.”

Further, the police gave their nod to cremate the body that same day, making the retrieval of any evidence by a second post-mortem impossible.

RAJESHWARI HAD WORKED as an attendant in a private hospital for 14 years. She had shuffled numerous jobs like that of midwife, home nurse and even domestic help. Her only dream was to see her daughter become a lawyer. What was she scared of? I visited her daily after that first meeting and got some sense of it from her broken conversations. She spoke of strong differences with a number of people.

Her marriage with Jisha’s father had not lasted long. They separated after the birth of her two daughters and came to Kuruppampadi, where she built the shack. Jisha was eight at the time. Her husband used to come and stay, but the rough patches in the relationship were never settled. She often quarrelled with a neighbour who allegedly wanted them to vacate the place. “He used to threaten me. They objected when we tried to build a toilet,” she says.

Once when she was hit by a bike, Jisha took the key off the vehicle and filed a complaint for attempted murder. The owner approached her several times for a compromise, but Jisha refused. “He even threatened us that nobody would question him even if we were killed because we are from a Scheduled Caste,” says Rajeshwari.

Rajeswari alleges that Deepa’s husband, who deserted her six years ago, threatened Jisha once. Rajeshwari also had a quarrel with a group of workers after she managed to buy five cents of land with the money granted under a housing scheme for Scheduled Castes in Mudakkuzha Panchayat. She started the construction of a house two years ago. The workers did not complete the structure in time. “They demanded more money and did not do the work properly. I was cheated,” recollects Rajeshwari. All these people who Rajeshwari mentions are now listed as police suspects.

The complaints made by the family to the authorities were never investigated. On 17 May 2014, Rajeshwari had filed a complaint to the rural SP that a neighbour was harassing them, even threatening to kill them, to vacate the land for which they didn’t have title. Such a complaint should have been treated under the SC/ST Prevention of Atrocities Act, as the accused was an upper-caste man. But no action was taken and the police did not register an FIR.

On the morning of the day Jisha was killed, Rajeshwari had left home to meet some people for financial help to complete their house construction. When I asked for details of what happened that day, she said. “There was nothing to cook. I could not manage to buy rice for a few days.” I told her that Below Poverty Line card holders get rice and other food items free. She said that she had a regular ration card and had tried in vain to get BPL status.

Two weeks after the murder, with the murderer/s not caught, there are numerous stories going around. Perumbavoor is a hub of migrant labourers in Kerala and a few are on the suspect list. Jisha’s murder has only increased the tension in a state that has seen traces of xenophobia. A week after her death, Jyothi Bohra, a native of Assam, was lynched to death by a mob on the day of his arrival in Kerala for ‘suspicious behaviour’. The autopsy report suggested that he had not had anything to eat for 36 hours before his death.

The story of Jisha is also a testament to the fate of landless Dalits living on the margins. “Those who are sceptical about bringing the caste angle to Jisha’s murder should understand the relationship between land ownership and caste,” says Sunny M Kapikkadu, a Dalit scholar. Former DGP of Jail administration Dr Alexander Jacob says, “In the last five years, around 6,000 rape cases have been reported. The number of rape incidents have more than doubled. Around 70 per cent of the victims belong to SC/ST and other backward communities.”

Harish Vasudevan, a lawyer and environment activist, says there are 232,000 homeless registered and waiting for three cents of land in Kerala and these are just official figures. “Women and girls belonging to these families must live under the constant fear of being raped and killed, like Jisha,” he says.