The bustling town of Perumbavoor stands around 40 kilometres from Kochi, and is best known for its plywood industry. Besides the agrarian income, its economy largely depends on the 1500 units that process the abundantly available rubber wood, employing more than 2 lakh people. When you turn into the Iringole Canal Road at the busy Vattolipaddy junction, you are greeted by a scenic silence: typical of Kerala’s rural monsoon landscape: the crowns of the tall dark trees lace the rain-lulled sky, the frolicking green undergrowth and the gentle swirl of the waters in the narrow irrigation canal that run alongside the road. However, it all seems speciously calm as if to mask the horror that occurred here over a month ago.
On either side, middle-class homes sit concreted in their modest successes. Families have been rooted here for decades and some even claim for centuries- as old as the Iravichira Siva temple itself. And the peaceful neighbourhood has never reported a theft for eons so a murder is even more alien to these parts. The police van stationed on the small bridge, is the only reminder that one of the most diabolic crimes, the most gruesome sexual assault carried out on any woman in Kerala, happened right here on the banks of this canal. On April 28, 2016, Jishamol K V, 32, a law student from the dalit community, was found murdered in her 3-room home. Irony seems to hysterically stalk Jisha all her life and so it did in death too. In this plywood town with its abundance of wood, Jisha’s unplastered dour house is fitted with two flimsy doors, and the front room has a single grilled rectangular opening in the wall without wooden window panes. This crude opening looks onto the canal and the road beyond. This toilet-less, asbestos-roofed house that squats on the narrow edge of excess government land, hardly afforded privacy let alone security to the mother and daughter who lived alone. Jisha and her mother, like most women living alone in Kerala, slept with a sickle under their pillow. With the mother, Rajeswari, 51, irregularly employed as a home nurse, and Jisha unable to clear her law papers their life was a constant struggle.
When night falls on Iringole canal road, darkness descends like an impenetrable blanket. The street light in front of Jisha’s neighbour Gee Varghese’s home is a dull yellow that does little for visibility. Varghese, who runs a grocery shop at Vattolipaddy junction, usually gets home around 8.30 at night. It was a dark sultry night well past 8.40 when Gee Varghese and his family heard a woman wailing at the gate. When Gee Varghese stepped outside Rajeswari cried to him that her daughter was not opening the door and he must come and take a look. GeeVarghese, accompanied by his son, shone a torch on the door but since it was bolted from inside he was reluctant to go further. Like everyone else in the neighbourhood Varghese too is wary of Rajeswari. Rajeshwari had given numerous complaints about people in the neighbourhood to the police that they were bothering her. She was paranoid about anyone who passed that way neighbours said. She also had the habit of spitting with a loud “thoo” (an insult in Kerala) when someone she disliked passed by. So people avoided her and dared not go near her home. So Varghese called the Kuruppampady police station which is close by. Within five minutes the police arrived and slowly a few more people gathered on the road on hearing Rajeswari’s cries. The two policemen went around the house and found the back door ajar. When the police entered, they found in the windowless middle room Jisha’s body sprawled half- naked in a pool of blood with her kameez riding up. Loops of intestine lay uncoiled in the pool of blood. The doubled up dupatta was wound around her neck. The post mortem report, according to sources, say that Jisha’s body was pockmarked with 38 minor and major injuries. Her nose was torn away and her face and neck were violently pierced and her breasts were jabbed 13 times. There were two bite marks on her back, her vagina was pierced twice with a sharp instrument. It had the signature of rage killing. The murder shocked Kerala because the horrifying murder was carried out casually and boldly during daytime. And to add to that there seemed to be no motive to kill Jisha in such a gruesome manner.
49 days after the murder, and two successive special investigation teams probing it, the Kerala police finally zeroed in on the murder-suspect Ameer-ul Islam, 23, a migrant labourer, from Dholda village, Nagaon district in Assam and arrested him from Kanchipuram, Tamil Nadu where he had re-located to work. (Kerala has a migrant labour population of over 35 lakhs of which nearly 4 lakhs are concentrated in Perumbavoor.) The police say his DNA profile matches the DNA of the blood and saliva samples found on Jisha’s clothes, under her nails and on the door. The accused, Ameer-ul, according to police sources, stayed one and half kilometres from Jisha’s house and had been employed as a helper for the past three years in the construction sector in Kerala. He lived with other labourers in a crowded rented room and had been living with them for a year. He is married to two women who are both living separately now. There is no information that he knew Jisha prior to the day he allegedly killed her. What is unfolding as the police interrogate him, according to sources, is that the suspect Ameer-ul, had gone to the government run beverage outlet which is 500 metres from Jisha’s house at 8 am that day. He had to pass Jisha’s house to the beverage shop and he probably knew that Jisha was alone there that day. Ameer-ul did not go for work on April 28 but hit the bottle instead. He made another trip in the afternoon and it was while returning with a bottle in hand on his third trip, that Ameer-ul, in an intoxicated state (and perhaps under the influence of drugs) saw Jisha sitting outside on the front doorstep of the house at around 5.30 pm. He went straight towards her and grabbed her. The house though on the roadside is lined with crotons shrubs so the doorstep is not easily visible from the road. She slapped him with her slipper. He pushed her hard and she stumbled into the house and he followed her and kicked the door shut with a loud bang and dragged her into the windowless interior of the middle room. He smothered her, bit her on the back, and inflicted a small wound with his knife he brought along. Then he strangulated her with a dupatta. When she pleaded for water he poured alcohol from his bottle down her throat. Her jugular vein was pierced with a knife and even as she lay dying, he removed her lower garments and attempted to rape her but failed due to a pre-mature ejaculation. So in a fit of anger he stabbed her repeatedly on her face, her chest and plunged the knife into her private parts pulling out her intestines in the process.
The Wire spoke to both people in authority and the locals to piece together the lonely life of Jisha who tried to live her life with as much dignity as she could manage. Death however cruelly robbed her of that dignity. According to Rajeswari, Jisha always lit the lamp in the evenings and sat on the doorstep in the fading light. The house had a narrow mud path lined with crotons that led to the doorstep. And the small space around the house was crowded with jacktrees, coccum trees, coconut trees, jasmine and hibiscus shrubs that had been painstakingly planted by the two. “We always did everything together. At nights we hugged each other and slept.” Cries Rajeswari. “I was late that night. We had got money from the SC department to buy a plot of land and we were building a house on that land. But we had run out of money so I had gone to the party office to ask for some money to complete the house. I also went to meet other people seeking help. When I got back it was 8.30 at night and when I saw there was no light and my daughter was not opening the door I became very, very afraid.” For Jisha, her mother was everything says her former classmate say Rita Balachandran, 65, who retired as a banker and was a student at the Ernakulam Law College between 2010 to 2013. Perhaps Rita is the only one who knew Jisha personally. Says Rita “Jisha was an exceptionally quiet and reserved girl. Though she never revealed her problems she was an exceedingly sad girl. She would sit apart from the others during lunch time and eat alone while all the others sat in groups and shared their lunch boxes. Now, looking back maybe she did not have anything to share so she sat aloof to salvage her dignity. I knew her from the first day in college for she walked nearly six kilometres to college from the hostel during the initial days to save on money. For her, her mother was everything in her life and she had often said she will commit suicide if her mother dies. In a short while, she quit the hostel and went back home because her mother was alone. She had told me that the backdoor was dilapidated and sometimes cows would walk in and sit inside the house at night so her mother needed her there to chase the cows away. I offered to buy wooden doors from one of the many plywood companies in Perumabvoor so that they could be more secure. She had initially agreed to it and then she called me and politely declined. Her mother was against it.” Rita explained that the mother and daughter greatly feared if they accepted anything from others then they would be exploited. “I know that she did not have enough money to buy books and she probably had arrears from the first semester. Jisha was a woman of gentle character who wanted to do something with her life. There was no one to motivate her, and she could not understand much of what happened in class and yet she was a self-motivated person.”
It was only after her death that the neighbours knew that Jisha was a law student. The two had stopped taking any help from their neighbours and stopped talking to them. Even to collect drinking water they would go to a house far away for Rajeswari had fought with every neighbour around the house. When she did not have work, Rajeswari, to make ends meet would, would go and meet people in far off places and ask for help with which they would survive for a few days. Neighbours say that when Jisha’s father K V Pappu was around, the family was more friendly with the neighbours but when their relationship soured Pappu moved out. And all relationship with the neighbours were cut off when Jisha’s older sister, Deepa, at the age of sixteen eloped with a man from her dance school and since then the mother grew possessively protective of her younger daughter. Though there was another colony with poor setllers close by, Rajeswari and Pappu preferred to stay away from them. And as Rajeswari relentlessly abused her neighbours, the two women found themselves totally alienated from their neighbours. So even after Jisha’s deathe, the neighbours were hesitant to talk about her or co-operate with the police. Though a neighbour in the opposite house had seen a man in a yellow shirt coming out of the house, she never reported it to the police for another four days. (Today she is the key witness in identifying the suspect.)
At 5.45 pm, Jisha’s closest neighbour heard a very unusual loud noise from the house, so the husband and wife stepped out to look but did not hear anything further. In the windowless middle room, Jisha was being killed. The neighbours thinking it was the mother and daughter fighting did not dare go into the house or call out to Jisha. It was only later at night they understood what had happened. The neighbours and the village Panchayat president Saumini Babu confirm that senior police officials had arrived at the scene and there was a police van stationed there all night and have been there ever since. On April 29, the police under the supervision of the Circle Inspector, Forensic Team conducted the inquest. The dog squad too had arrived and checked the area. The Panchayat president Saumini Babu said, “Five people from the panchayat were witnesses to the inquest. We were told the district magistrate would arrive but he never did, so the police carried out the inquest. The family did not have the money to send the body by ambulance for the post mortem so we panchayat members pooled in the money and gave it to them.” After the post-mortem in the government Medical College at Alappuzha which is more than two hours from Perumbavoor, the body was brought back to Perumbavoor and cremated that very night itself.
When Jisha’s four classmates arrived for the funeral on April 30, they found that the body was already cremated and that the outside world had not heard about the brutal murder. Though the newspapers had reported it, it was relegated to the inner pages. Jisha’s classmates Anu V Kuttan and Soumiya Dharmaraj were disturbed that no one was concerned about the murder. The police were indifferent and media had failed to give it the gravity it required. So Soumiya shared it on social media where it became a point of discussion and finally a week after Jisha’s death the mainstream media began reporting it in detail on their front pages.
George Pulikuthiyil, director of Jananeethi, who has been gathering material on the murder, points out that there were number of lapses on the part of the police. The attitude was very casual and it could be because she was a poor dalit girl who had neither the money nor anyone to speak up for her. “After checking the scene and stationing one police van there, all the senior police officers left the scene. They came back only next morning for the inquest. They did not act quickly to get the criminal. If they had immediately alerted all bus stops and railway stations then they would have nabbed the suspect earlier. (Ameer-ul went to the Aluva railway station that very night and caught the train to Assam only next morning.) And if a dalit person is murdered then it is mandatory that an official of magistrate rank be present during the inquest. This was not done. A videography of the post-mortem was also not taken which would have made things much easier for the police now.”
The lack of motive had confounded the police. And the Jisha murder case that came right in the midst of Kerala’s assembly election campaigning became politically entangled and the Left parties used the safety of women as an issue to beat the then Congress led UDF government ruling the state. The Left parties promised to nab the murderer within 48 hours if they came to power. The Kerala police though had followed the rulebook of dealing with the murder case, came under severe criticism for not doing enough to keep the crime scene intact. They had not cordoned off the scene was the biggest criticism. They were accused of letting evidence be tampered with and allowing the body to be cremated the very same day. Police in the old investigating team refute this saying that though it was not physically cordoned off there were policemen stationed there to keep people out and moreover nobody in the locality wanted to go into the house. According to the police after the post mortem, the body was handed over to the relatives. They did not have a place to bury the body so the relatives took a decision and cremated the body.
Neighbours, politicians, migrant labourers, family and even the police came under the scanner. And women- security in Kerala became a burning election issue the Left parties used well but their own sitting MLA Saju Paul lost the election in Perumbavoor for not heading to the pleas of Jisha’s mother Rajeswari. Jisha and her mother Rajeswari, had given numerous complaints to the Kuruppampady police station, Aluva police station, to Saju Paul and the party offices. But with Rajeswari giving complaints for the flimsiest reasons the Police did not take her seriously.
Under the Pinarayi Vijayan’s dispensation, the old investigating team was replaced by a new team with more than 80 police personnel headed by ADGP B Sandhya. More than 1500 people were questioned, 5000 people had their fingerprints taken. Over 27 lakh phone calls made on that day were scanned through till the search narrowed to the phones that were switched off from April 28. Amir-ul Islam’s phone was switched off and it was only a four days ago he switched it on with a different SIM in Kanchipuram. The police tracked him using the IMEI (International mobile equipment identity) number and nabbed him in Kanchipuram. Even as the Chief ministerVijayan and other ministers are patting themselves on the back and congratulating their team under their ministry for nabbing the culprit, the government is also politically dividing the police force saying that the investigation team under the previous government had no will to catch the murderer. The police officers who initially did a lot of ground work were transferred and their morale is at an all time low.
With the suspect in judicial custody, this should have been the end of the story but there are many including the father of the victim, Pappu, who thinks that the suspect may not be the real criminal but the Police under pressure is just parading someone. Pappu thinks the case should be handed over to the CBI. It is evident that the Police were under tremendous pressure for they were taking into custody anyone who had curly hair, had a gap between the teeth as per their sketch. They questioned over 2000 people in the past month and tortured over a dozen people to admit to the killing including a few of the neighbours and youth in that particular ward. Says Pulikuthiyil, “We were told that they were summoned to the police station, hung upside down from the ceiling for hours and beaten with iron rods on their feet to get them to speak.” These people had to pay for Police’s initial lethargy. Now who is answerable to that? That, of course may be just bump for a government and the police on to bigger things like a “feather in the Police cap.”