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The Penalty for Murder

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Will capital punishment put an end to caste and gender-based crime?

Two cold-blooded killings in two different states—Jisha, 29, in Kerala and Sankar, 22, in Tamil Nadu—both of which took place around the same time and the accused were both held guilty on December 12th. Interestingly, their punishment is also the same—the death sentence. In both cases, the victims were Dalits. Jisha was from Perumbavoor in Kerala who lived in a single-room shack that didn’t even have a toilet. She was brutally raped and killed. Sankar was slaughtered for committing the ‘crime’ of falling in love with an upper-caste girl.

Jisha was found dead on April 28th, 2016 at her home. Her body was found by her mother, soaked in blood, badly mutilated and with wounds that indicated a gruesome rape. The incident which happened a few days prior to the State Assembly polls created a public uproar and its brutal nature was compared to the 2012 Delhi gang rape. The first thing done by the new Left-front government was to constitute a new team for continuing the investigation. The police till then had been repeatedly blamed for the lapse of duty that lead to the erosion of evidence from the crime scene. The unusual haste shown in cremating the body also led to many suspicions and speculations. Hundreds of people were interrogated and were even subjected to custodial torture according to sources. (One such ‘suspect’, Sabu, the girl’s neighbor, who had allegedly been tortured in custody hanged himself a few months back). Finally, a migrant worker from Assam, Ameerul Islam, 23, was arrested in connection with the rape and murder of Jisha. The case records confirm a DNA Match. There were no explanations on what his motive might have been. Even Jisha’s mother hadn’t ever seen him before. All the questions raised by the media were eschewed on the ground that no media briefs were to be given at the current stage of investigation. Everyone waited hoping that doubts would be cleared in the final chargesheet. The investigation was completed and the 1,500 page chargesheet was submitted in September 2016 to the Principal Sessions court in Ernakulam. The trial commenced in March and the court in a very unusual move decided to proceed in-camera for ‘protecting the privacy of the witnesses’. The Criminal Procedure Code doesn’t say anything about protecting the privacy of witnesses; it only stipulates in-camera proceedings for protecting the privacy of the victim and that too only for cases of rape. There was no request from the family members of Jisha to conduct an in-camera trial. The court’s decision, however, went unchallenged.

“I am not sure at all,” says advocate TB Mini, a high court lawyer and activist who closely followed the case and grilled the police for the lapses in the investigation. Mini is skeptical of the verdict. She stays unconvinced though she doesn’t want to comment without reading the judgment. “There is a DNA match but it confirms only his presence, right? Is there any concrete evidence for him executing the murder? What is the motive? I am not saying that the police have got it all wrong. I don’t understand why they had chosen in-camera proceedings for such a sensational case.”

On December 12th, the court found Ameerul Islam guilty under Sections 376 (rape), 302 (murder), 449 (trespassing into house) and 342 (wrongful confinement) of the Indian Penal Code. The death penalty was awarded on December 14th. The case was described as the ‘rarest of the rare’ according to the principal sessions judge and hence the severity of the punishment. Jisha’s mother, Rajeshwari, and sister, Deepa, welcomed the judgment.

THE ‘HONOUR KILLING’ of Sankar took place a month before Jisha’s murder. He was hacked to death by an armed gang in broad daylight on a street in Udumalpet in the Tirupur district of Tamil Nadu. There were plenty of eye witnesses. Sankar and his wife, Kausalya, had been out on a bike ride. Sankar succumbed to his injuries right in front of her. Kausalya was a Thevar girl—one of the OBC communities in Tamil Nadu. Sankar and she fell in love and got married against stiff resistance raised by the girl’s family. Eleven persons were arrested in connection with the crime including Kausalya’s parents, Chinnaswamy and Annalakshmi. The trial court held eight out the eleven accused guilty and awarded death sentences to six of them including Chinnaswamy, the prime accused. His wife was acquitted.

Kausalya remains rather calm despite the prime accused, her own father, being sentenced to death. “I do welcome the judgment,” she says, sounding determined over the phone. She is presently living with Sankar’s family and running a tuition centre for Dalit children in the village, named in memory of her late husband. The Kausalya who once turned up in traditional attire and kept long hair now has cropped hair and wears jeans. After Sankar’s murder she went through severe depression but eventually fought back with a vengeance. She has now become one of the chief speakers in platforms against Dalit oppression. She has also learnt to play the Parai, a drum which is traditionally played by Dalits. Kausalya says she will appeal against those acquitted including her mother and uncle.

Both the crimes, spine-chilling and horrendous, received nationwide attention and sparked debates over sexual crimes and caste hate. However, even those who actively campaigned for justice for both the victims refuse to acknowledge capital punishment. “I don’t think the circumstances of this case attracts capital punishment even if we keep the ethics of capital punishment out of debate,” says Harish Vasudevan, an activist and lawyer who doesn’t believe in the deterrent effect of the death penalty. Harish is also very skeptical about the in-camera proceedings for Jisha’s trial. “This case has created a very wrong precedent. Generally, there is no practice of conducting in-camera proceedings for cases being tried under section 302 of IPC. I can’t comment without reading the full text of the judgment, but I have heard that there are many things which may adversely affect the prosecution in the appeal stage,” he adds.

U Vasuki, the state leader of All India Democratic Women's Association in Tamil Nadu and a central committee member of the CPM generally welcomes the judgment for Sankar’s murder, even though the party’s position stands against the death penalty. “These are two different things. We demand capital punishment to be dismissed from the Indian Penal law, but so far it does exist as the hardest form of punishment to be given to heinous crimes like this.” The two murders have triggered fresh debate over the ethics of death penalty. Do the victims ever get justice? Will capital punishment put an end to caste and gender-based crime? Unfortunately not.