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The Indian police’s guide to royally screwing up a rape investigation

AP Photo/Aijaz Rahi
The “Suryanelli girl.”
Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

The body of the 29-year-old lies in a pool of blood in a shack-like house. Thirty deep wounds all over. Private parts slashed over 20 times. Stab wounds on the back of her head, on the chest, chin, and cheek. Intestines pulled out by an iron rod thrust into the vagina, chest torn open by stabs.

And it is not 6 pm yet. She lies dead for over two hours before her mom returned after the day’s labour.

The mother’s blood-curdling cries for help are met with dull thuds—neighbours’ doors being shut. The police do not arrive for another two hours. Once in, they take a look at the body using the light from mobile phones, and leave. The crime scene is not cordoned off. No policeman is posted on guard, no higher official informed.

It is noontime next day before the body is taken for post-mortem. The autopsy is allegedly performed by a student. After the procedure, the body is hurriedly cremated as directed by the police.

This is not a scene from some seedy crime thriller. This rape and murder took place in Perumbavoor, Ernakulam, in the southern Indian state of Kerala on April 28. “Jisha murder”, as it is now known in India, has become yet another case study in how to botch up a rape investigation with brutal insensitivity and criminal negligence.

The police take a look at the body using the light from mobile phones, and leave.

A day after her killing, local dailies carried the news in small columns in obit pages, revealing her name and other details—evidently fed by the police—but omitting the fact that she was raped. It gained traction in national media the following day after someone noticed chilling similarities with the December 2012 gangrape of 23-year old Jyoti Singh in New Delhi.

Kerala’s Nirbhaya,” they called this one. (The victim in the Delhi bus rape case was called “Nirbhaya” by sections of the Indian media.) Soon, news channels picked it up and social media outrage followed. Once the gravity of the situation was brought out, media coverage turned extensive. More details began tumbling out.

Jisha was a law student, the younger daughter of a single mother. Her sister married away, she lived with her mother in a single-room house—the family’s home for the past 40 years.

It was reported that she was earlier assaulted physically by the brother-in-law of the panchayat (village council) member of her locality. She complained to the police on April 17, 2014, saying she faced a threat to her life. The police claimed she was only verbally abused and her complaints were rejected as baseless.

Today, there is no trace of the murderer or murderers. The police have destroyed all evidence, according to the media. Classic.

The police officers’ insensitivity to Jisha’s plight or her first complaint should surprise no one. She was a Dalit. The family lived in poverty—their house had no toilet and they used a pit dug inside the house to answer nature’s call. They didn’t have enough food.

The mother, though mentally unstable, worked hard to bring up her two daughters. Jisha struggled to earn a degree and practice law. The neighbours weren’t even aware that she was a law student.

Awarded a small plot under a government scheme for the homeless, the mother-daughter duo was building a home for itself—and all by itself. There was no money to hire construction labourers.

Different eras, same mindsets

This isn’t the first time a sexual crime in Kerala has shocked the country. In my early years as a journalist, Kerala’s first ever trafficking case came to light. The victim, now known as the “Suryanelli girl”, was a 16-year-old from Suryanelli, Idukki district.

She was trapped by a bus conductor and made part of a sex racket. Sold to 41 men in 40 days, she and her family have harassment faced ever since.

However, there is a marked difference in public attitudes to the Suryanelli and Jisha cases.

A total lack of middle-class sympathy for the Suryanelli victim was evident from the beginning. Even the courts asked why she didn’t try to escape. Mainstream media and the honourable high court ridiculed her, calling her deviant. A retired judge termed her a “child prostitute”—illegal by the sheer coinageof the term.

There is sympathy for Jisha, though, because she was attacked in broad daylight inside her own home. She was not travelling alone. She didn’t wear revealing clothes.

Yet, two decades later, most other things remain the same.

In the history of the rape cases in Kerala, rarely have the police, judiciary, and media shown compassion for the victims or their families.

One the day the Suryanelli girl went missing—January 16, 1996—her father frantically sought help. Police officials shooed him away saying they had to look for an old jeep that had gone missing on the same day. So the child was not rescued—at least not before she was raped 67 times.

When the culprits did let her go, the police advised her father to withdraw the complaint. He refused. The police turned hostile.

The child was asked to come to the police station to record her statement. Physically and psychologically ravaged, she, along with her father, was kept waiting the entire day even as voyeuristic crowds gathered to take a peek at her. This was repeated over days. The policemen seemed to derive pleasure from the onlookers’ lewd comments.

Why is it that most men in our police force turn so anti-woman, anti-Dalit, and anti-poor?

In Jisha’s case, the police have been slammed for trying a cover up, especially in view of the May 16 state legislative election. No report was filed with the district collector as is mandatory in the event of the death of a Dalit. The haste with which the body was cremated, leaving no scope for a fresh post-mortem, remains unexplained.

Even after 20 years, which saw open discussions on gender justice and women’s rights, misogyny remains deeply embedded in the police.

Why is it that, except for a handful of committed officers, most men in our police force turn so anti-woman, anti-Dalit, and anti-poor? Are they trained this way or do they choose this attitude?

Politicians are no different. They often exhibit savage enthusiasm to turn such cases to their advantage, tarnishing their opponents, who in turn attacked the victims and their families.

For instance, when the Suryanelli victim identified a senior Congress leader—then a minister in the union cabinet—as one of her abusers, she was turned into a political tool to attack the Congress party. So, when the Congress-led government returned to power in Kerala, she was framed in a case involving theft at her workplace and jailed.

In Jisha’s case, too, politicians are busy shedding ritualistic tears. Promises of secure housing and job for her sister have begun pouring in. The Left-led opposition attacked the Congress-led government over police negligence. The Congress-led ruling front attacked the sitting Left front legislator of the area and the Left-controlled panchayat committee for not lending timely help to the family.

Undoubtedly, more than tracing the culprits, mud-slinging is the focus.

Women unsafe

Meanwhile, the number of recorded rapes more than doubled in Kerala to 5,918 over the past five years. Besides, the number of sexual harassment cases, too, have shot up to 20,201 from 13,381 in the same period.

Not surprisingly, only 10% or even fewer cases in Kerala see conviction. Denying and delaying justice in epoch-making rape and sexual harassment cases have contributed to the steep increase in such violence—both within and outside homes. Add to that, the assaults under the pretext of moral policing.

It was only in the Soumya rape and murder case that the police, politicians, media, and the judiciary, along with the general public, stood together for justice. Death sentence was awarded to the accused, Govindachami, a one-armed non-Malayali thought to be a beggar initially and later found be a hardened criminal.

It is a disturbing thought, though, that had Govindachami been a Malayali, the society may not have stood together.

Is there hope?

It is comforting that the ideas of gender justice and gender equality are slowly seeping in through social media, thanks to the work done by feminist groups and women’s organisations. Let us hope the mindset that sees a rape victim as a subject of mockery and humiliation will change.

Back to Jisha—was it a planned rape, accentuated by her caste and class? Considering that rape has nothing to do with sex, and is all about power, violence, and misogyny, isn’t it horrendous that it is this society that had bred and raised the culprit too? It is scary that he is still out there, free and unknown.

How many such deaths must we witness? What will be left of us to be shocked?

K R Meera is a Kerala-based writer. Her novel Aaraachaar (translated by J Devika as Hangwoman) was awarded the Kendra Sahitya Akademi Award in 2015. We welcome your comments at

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