Photo: AP
Photo: AP

Jisha, the girl who lived with a sickle under her bed

Jisha's murder is more than just a statisticit's a statement on gender inequality, caste discrimination and women's safety in Kerala

It’s hard not to notice the contrast between Jisha’s house and the comparatively big houses around it.

The houses next to Jisha’s, located in the suburbs of Perumbavoor town, some 30km east of Kerala’s economic hub Ernakulam, have decorated courtyards, balconies and large tracts of vacant spaces lying idle. The murder victim, however, lived on a little strip, less than 100 sq. ft, of what is called purampokku land (the land which was in excess when the government decided to build a canal).

The house fronts onto the canal although it is screened from prying eyes by trees. A concrete slab placed over the canal leads to a narrow lane that acts as the house’s only entrance.

The lane is dotted with flowering plants in various states of neglect.

The police have restricted entry to the lane, after Jisha’s gruesome murder became more than just another statistic in Kerala, now debating larger questions over women’s safety and gender equality. Twenty-eight-year-old Jisha, a Dalit law student at the Government Law College, Ernakulam, was found murdered on 28 April at her home, where she lived with her mother. No cause or suspect has been detected yet.

“It’s a house that almost ends as (soon as) it begins," says a policeman, laughing. He is supposed to guard the house, but was sitting in a police jeep outside on the road. He claims to be one of the first to enter the scene of the crime, and paints a grim picture of the inside of the house.

Built using hollow bricks and roofed using broken asbestos sheets, he says, the house is actually one room partitioned into three. The first partition is a living room, which is where Jisha’s body was found. Then came a portion that served as the sleeping area and finally the kitchen, with a wood-fired hearth.

The main door opens to three tiny rooms, one after the other. The floor was full of cardboard boxes. All the clothes that the two residents (Jisha and her mother Rajeshwari) had were wrapped inside the boxes. In half-a-dozen other boxes were books and other belongings. A wooden plank placed over four hollow bricks presumably served as a study table for the law student (It had been broken when the officer entered).

The walls were filled with posters or pictures, giving a sense of the residents’ aspirations. The first, on opening the front door, was a poster of a regal house with manicured lawns and groomed hedges. Then there were five or six photographs of a young Jisha performing Bharatanatyam, including one with her father, who abandoned the family when Jisha was in school.

Towards the right was a picture of Jisha’s estranged elder sister Deepa, smiling along with the husband she eloped with several years ago. He abandoned her later. On the far right corner were images of every conceivable divinity— from Ganapathi to Jesus Christ —the posters encircled with cheap plastic garlands of small red and white flowers. Next to that was a big poster showing a basket full of fruits and vegetables.

The second and third rooms were full of wooden logs and utensils. But beneath the bed, the police found a sickle.

At the back of the house, some torn plastic sheets had been rung around four poles; this probably acted as the bathroom. There was no roof over it; you could see the sky and the coconut trees of the neighbours. A small roofing tile lay on the ground, positioned towards the canal, which stank of urine. There was no indication of what the house’s inmates did when nature called.

***

Jisha was found lying in a pool of blood, naked except for a shawl around her neck, a little over three weeks ago. She was brutally assaulted and raped, according to the post-mortem report. The body had 38 injury marks, most of them in the form of deep wounds on her chest and neck; her small intestine had come out. Someone hit her on the head with a sharp weapon, which was the cause of death, suggests the report.

All of this, the police estimate, happened between 1.30pm and 6pm.

The attacker possibly hit her on the head, rendering her unconscious, and then raped her. Or she was raped first and then murdered. There’s something the police still don’t understand—there are some 20 houses within a 50m radius, yet no one seems to have heard any scream when such a brutal attack took place, or saw anyone walking in or out from the house.

Hardly anyone in the neighbourhood kept friendly relations with Jisha’s family. That is the backstory of Jisha’s murder, the attitude of a society to a family and its connection to a brutal murder.

Suresh, who prefers not to give his full name, and lives with his family including two young girls just on the other side of the road, says they were surprised when they learnt from the police that there is no toilet in the house.

Eliyamma, who lives along with her son’s family in a four-acre property close by, says she is not sure whether it’s the older girl or the younger one who died.

Omana, who like Jisha and her mother is also from a backward caste family, is another elderly woman who lives just behind their house. She lives in her son’s rather large house that is still under construction. “I was preparing to go to bed after the 8.30pm television serial when my grandson told me there’s some noise in the house next to Mariyamma Chettathi (the grandson did not know Jisha or her mother’s name). My husband went up to see what happened but immediately returned seeing police vehicles. We don’t have anything to do with that family and we didn’t want any troubles," Omana said.

Jisha’s wasn’t a lonely cocoon-like existence in an urban jungle. The locality is in a rural countryside where houses contain rooted families that have been living there for decades, including Jisha’s family. The local residents’ association is so strong that it recently won a competition held by a newspaper.

The women in the households know each other as they are organized under the umbrella of Kudumbashree, a four million strong self-help network of women in Kerala. Jisha and her mother were not part of this, according to the neighbours.

How is it that just one family became an exception or an outsider in this seemingly normal community? Is it because of their caste?

Jisha’s mother Rajeshwari was from the Ezhava caste (OBC) and her father K.V. Pappu from the Pulaya caste (SC-ST), according to Thankamma, a distant relative of Pappu. As per Jisha’s college and school records, she chose her father’s caste. It couldn’t be immediately verified whether they were the only Dalit family in the immediate neighbourhood, but the family was living in the midst of upper-caste Nair families and Christian families.

The neighbours vehemently deny that the family was discriminated against because of their caste. In fact, when this reporter visited the area, the whole neighbourhood was erupting in anger against television channels, which, they said, “showed them in a bad light".

“You don’t know her mother. It was impossible to deal with her," says Suresh. “She was mentally unstable and always behaved in a weird way. If she saw someone on the road, or if someone stood before her house for a few seconds, she would start hurling abuses. She would even call the police, saying the person has intentions to attack her. About 20 young men in this area have police cases against them for petty reasons because of her."

Almost everyone in the locality has some sort of story to tell about Rajeshwari’s mental stability. There are stories that say she had asked the daughter to carry a pen camera for safety.

The two women seem to have had little connection with relatives, which could also explain the insecurities and fears. In the hospital where Rajeshwari has been admitted for severe mental stress, there was no family present. Thankamma had actually come to see her pregnant daughter in the hospital, but on the way, she says, she came to know from media reports about Rajeshwari being admitted in the same hospital.

“Both the mother and daughter did not attend any social functions in the family, so we had no clue about their whereabouts," says Thankamma.

The family used water from certain wells some kilometres away, despite everyone in the neighbourhood having wells and government-provided piped connections to their houses (Jisha’s house was an exception).

“She (Rajeshwari) used to take water from our house," says Suresh. “One day, I saw her taking water at around 8.30pm. I asked whether she could do such things in the morning. She hurled abuses, spit inside the well and walked away." After encounters similar to what Suresh experienced, Rajeshwari was generally shunned by most in the nearby houses, according to neighbours

Even the local MLA Saju Paul (he lost in the 2016 polls) and panchayat member Shiju Saju, both members of communist parties, weren’t spared of the mother’s suspicion. “One day, my brother’s son was playing near the canal next to their house and the mother got really pissed off. She attacked the boy and my brother intervened. Then she turned against my brother, and filed a police complaint that he tried to attack her," says Saju.

From her hospital bed, Rajeshwari has made serious accusations against Saju’s brother and the local MLA, even saying these politicians murdered Jisha. The above-mentioned brother has been bedridden for the past six months after a road accident.

“She was really weird, but given her living conditions, how could one blame her? I think every small quarrel she made came out of her insecurity. If you look at the politician’s case, the children were playing near the canal. The family’s little bathroom is right next to the canal, which explains why the mother was peeved," says Madhu, who lives in the nearest house.

He says there is no better evidence to prove that the mother’s insecurity wasn’t entirely baseless than what happened on that fateful Thursday. Perhaps she needed medical attention. “But what she received was ostracism, including from me," he says in a feeble voice.

There is an eerie resemblance here to the world of Franz Kafka’s A Little Fable. Wherever she was, the woman expected a trap waiting. The manifestation of the family’s insecurities simply ended up as a different trap.

***

Jisha was so brilliant that she cracked both the MA entrance exam of Marthoma College under Mahatma Gandhi University and the rigorous Kerala law entrance in 2010. She joined the history department at the college for some months, but later chose law and joined the Government Law College in Ernakulam the same year, “because she had a rooted understanding of justice and reality", says Anu V. Kuttan, who sat on the same bench with Jisha throughout her law school days, till 2013.

“She was a bold girl with strong convictions, who always said she would marry only after getting a job. She studied hard and when our classes ended in 2013, she had only three subject papers to clear to become a practising advocate," says Anu.

If someone like Jisha, an educated, strong-willed woman aware of the laws of the land, met with such a tragic end, it says something about the society they lived in.

“This girl had all sorts of disadvantages and she fought her way up in life," says J. Devika, an academic at the Centre for Development Studies, an institution for applied economics and social science research based in Thiruvananthapuram, who has been writing about Kerala for long time in several Indian and international publications. “Yet they were living in fear... it’s not just caste. Don’t think Dalit as just lower caste, Dalit means oppressed in every way. Her mother belongs to that group of workers (domestic) in Kerala who are most underpaid and most ill-treated. They don’t have land. They are a woman-headed family. It’s difficult to imagine a worse form of disempowerment."

But Kerala has the best development indicators for women, categorized by high literacy, low infant mortality and favourable sex ratio, hailed even by the likes of Amartya Sen. So how did such a heinous crime take place here?

The answer, say sociologists, lies ironically in the same thing: development. Jisha’s case is a classic example of income inequality in Kerala, the highest in India, reflecting the crude social inequality in the state.

“Growth has social consequences. Many of the social consequences are bad. One thing that happened with growth (in Kerala) is that people stopped to care about their neighbourhood. You are worthless if don’t have money or some other cultural capital like a higher caste name," says Devika.

The reality of Jisha remains the same for some 232,000 families who don’t have a piece of land or house and have registered with the government for some help, says Harish Vasudevan, a Kerala high court advocate and social activist.

Add to that the gender discrimination that the women in Kerala have to face, just like everywhere else in India, despite the best development indicators, he says.

In fact, the persistence of discrimination against women is something that gender activists have been consistently writing about for years now, but often gets overlooked because of the relatively good conventional development indicators.

“I get really irritated when people call me up and ask reasons (on what led to Jisha’s murder). I mean, we have been shouting about this from the rooftops for decades. No one cared to listen then," says Devika.

“From the perspective of an educated woman who can think for herself and would like to enjoy the basic freedom of making her own decisions, Kerala is far from the heaven on earth one may have been made to believe," noted a 2007 anthology on gender studies titled, The Enigma of the Kerala Woman: A Failed Promise of Literacy.

“Young girls can move out alone after dark only at their peril; the perceived risks of sexual harassment outside the carefully drawn out ‘lakshman rekha’ are high. Even married couples shun going for late night movies for fear that the general public might mistake the wife for a mistress, and misbehave," Swapna Mukhopadhyay, the editor, writes in the introduction to the book.

The book notes that rape and domestic violence constitute the majority of reported crimes against women in Kerala. It also finds that a 60.8% of women in Kerala justified wife-beating on one or other grounds, as against only 53% across India.

“Literacy and better education are considered important means by which knowledge and information is acquired and a progressive attitude towards gender equality ingrained. However, high female education in Kerala, rather than contributing to the emancipation of women, has led to social conformity and dependence," notes S. Irudaya Rajan of Centre for Development Studies in a research paper in the book.

Perhaps a most striking research on this subject came from an anthropology professor at University College London, Daniel Miller. He spent a month observing people in North Kerala’s Kannur district in order to know the minds of the state’s inhabitants, with a completely non-conventional indicator put for testing—jeans.

His study identified how wearing jeans could lead to a woman being judged in Kerala as straying from the “traditional" path ordained by society.

“Unmarried, older girls almost all said they had jeans, but only wore them when travelling outside of Kannur, which was now almost entirely accepted, depending upon how they are worn. Jeans, partly covered with a long loose kurta/blouse was fine. But jeans with a short blouse and certainly any kind of tight blouse… is seen as a sign of potential ‘loose’ behaviour," noted Miller.

“Perhaps," says Irudaya Rajan, “Jisha’s murder should be an eye-opener for the Kerala society on why it could not translate better development indicators into less gender discrimination and atrocities on women."

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