Perumbavoor: The bustling town of Perumbavoor, best known for its plywood industry, stands around 40 km from Kochi. Besides the agrarian income, its economy largely depends on the 1,500 units that process the abundantly available rubber wood, employing more than two lakh people. When you turn onto the Iringole Canal Road at the busy Vattolipaddy junction, you are greeted by a scenic silence typical of Kerala’s rural monsoon landscape: tall dark trees that lace a rain-lulled sky, frolicking green undergrowth and the gentle swirl of the waters in the narrow irrigation canal that runs 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 success. Families have been rooted here for decades and some even claim for centuries, as old as the Iravichira Siva temple itself. The peaceful neighbourhood hasn’t reported a theft for eons, so a murder is close to alien in 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, a 32-year-old law student from the Dalit community was found murdered in her three-room home. Irony seemed to hysterically stalk her life and so it did in death too. In this plywood town with its abundance of wood, her unplastered dour house is fitted with two flimsy doors. 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. Like most women living alone in Kerala, they slept with a sickle under their pillow. With the mother irregularly employed as a home nurse and the daughter 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 their neighbour’s home is a dull yellow that does little for visibility. He runs a grocery shop at Vattolipaddy junction and usually gets home around 8:30 pm. It was a dark sultry night, well past 8:40, when he and his family heard a woman wailing at the gate. When he stepped outside, wailing woman – the mother – cried to him that her daughter was not opening the door and he must come and take a look. He agreed, accompanied by his son, and shone a torch on the door. But since the door was bolted from inside, he was reluctant to go further.
Like everyone else in the neighbourhood, he too was wary of his neighbour. The mother had made several complaints about people in the neighbourhood to the police, saying 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. People avoided her and dared not go near her home.
So he called the nearby Kuruppampady police station. Within five minutes, the police arrived. Slowly, more people gathered on the road on hearing the mother’s cries. Two policemen went around the house and found the back door ajar. When they entered, they found in the windowless middle room the young woman’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 her body was pockmarked with 38 minor and major injuries. Her nose was torn away and her face and neck were violently pierced. 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 a rage killing.
The horrifying murder shocked Kerala, even more so because it was carried out casually and boldly during the day. To add to it, there seemed to be no motive to kill her in such a gruesome manner.
What happened that day
Forty-nine days and two special investigation team probes after the murder, the Kerala police finally zeroed in on a murder-suspect. Ameer-ul Islam, 23, is a migrant labourer from Dholda village in Assam’s Nagaon district. He was arrested from Kanchipuram, Tamil Nadu, where he had relocated to work. (Kerala has a migrant labour population of over 35 lakh, of which nearly four lakh are concentrated in Perumbavoor.) The police say his DNA profile matches the DNA of the blood and saliva samples found on the woman’s clothes, under her nails and on the door. The accused, according to police sources, stayed 1.5 km from the house and had been employed as a helper in the construction sector in Kerala for the last three years. He had been living with other labourers in a crowded rented room for a year. He is married to two women, both of whom are now living separately. There is no information that he knew the law student prior to the day he allegedly killed her. What is unfolding as the police interrogate him, according to sources, is that the suspect had gone to the government-run alcohol shop 500 metres from the victim’s house at 8 am on April 28. He had to pass her house to get to the shop and probably knew realised that she was alone.
Islam did not go to work that day, hitting the bottle instead. He made another trip to the store in the afternoon and it was while returning with a bottle in hand on his third trip, that he, in an intoxicated state (and perhaps under the influence of drugs) saw the young woman sitting at her front doorstep at around 4:30 pm. He went straight towards her and grabbed her. The house, though on the side of the road, is lined with croton 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. He followed her in and kicked the door shut with a loud bang, dragging her into the windowless interior of the middle room. He smothered her, bit her on the back and inflicted a small wound with the knife he had brought along. Then he strangled 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 premature ejaculation. So in a fit of anger, he stabbed her repeatedly on her face and chest, and plunged the knife into her private parts pulling out her intestines in the process.
The Wire spoke to the authorities and locals to piece together the lonely life of a woman who tried to live with as much dignity as she could manage. Death, however, cruelly robbed her of that dignity. According to her mother, she always lit a 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. The small space around the house was crowded with jacktrees, kocum trees, coconut trees, jasmine and hibiscus shrubs that had been painstakingly planted by the the mother and daughter. “We always did everything together. At nights we hugged each other and slept,” said the mother. “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 the young law student, her mother was everything, said her former classmate, a retired banker who had decided to study law. Perhaps this classmate is the only one who knew her personally. “She 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 6 km to college from the hostel during the initial days to save 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.” The classmate explained that the mother and daughter feared that if they accepted anything from others, 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. She 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, yet she was a self-motivated person.”
It was only after her death that the neighbours knew that she was a law student. The mother and daughter had stopped taking any help from their neighbours and no longer spoke to them. Even to collect drinking water they would go to a house far away, for the mother had fought with every neighbour. When she did not have work, she would go and meet people in far off places and ask for help with which they would survive for a few days and make ends meet. Neighbours said that when the woman’s father was around, the family was more friendly with the neighbours, but their relationship soured when he moved out. Finally all relationships with the neighbours were cut off when the young woman’s elder sister eloped with a man from her dance school at the age of 16. Since then, the mother grew possessively protective of her younger daughter. Though there was another colony with poor settlers close by, the family preferred to stay away from them. And as the mother relentlessly abused her neighbours, the two women found themselves totally alienated from their neighbours. So even after the law student’s death, the neighbours were hesitant to talk about her or cooperate with the police. Though a neighbour in the opposite house had seen a man in a yellow shirt coming out of the house, she didn’t reported it to the police for another four days. Now she is the key witness in identifying the suspect.
At 4:45 pm on April 28, the next-door neighbours heard a very unusual loud noise from the house. The husband and wife stepped out to look but did not hear anything further. In the windowless middle room, a woman was being killed. The neighbours, thinking it was the mother and daughter fighting, did not dare go into the house or call out. It was only later that night that they understood what had happened. The neighbours and the village panchayat president confirmed that senior police officials had arrived at the scene and there has been a police van stationed there ever since.
On April 29, the police, under the supervision of the forensic team circle inspector, conducted an inquest. The dog squad also checked the area. The panchayat president said, “Five people from the panchayat were witnesses at 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 postmortem, so we panchayat members pooled in the money and gave it to them.” After the postmortem in the government medical college at Alappuzha (more than two hours from Perumbavoor), the body was brought back to Perumbavoor and cremated that very night.
When four classmates of the victim 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. They were disturbed that no one was concerned about the murder. The police were indifferent and the media had failed to give it the coverage it deserved. So they shared it on social media, where it became a point of discussion. Finally, a week after the death, the mainstream media began reporting it in detail on their front pages.
George Pulikuthiyil, director of NGO Jananeethi who has been gathering material on the murder, points out that there were a number of lapses on the part of the police. Their attitude was very casual, perhaps because the victim was a Dalit girl who had neither 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 the 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, they would have nabbed the suspect earlier. [Islam went to the Aluva railway station on the night of the incident and only took a train to Assam the 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 postmortem was also not taken, which would have made things much easier for the police now.”
The lack of motive had confounded the police. Since the murder case that came right in the midst of Kerala’s assembly election campaigning, it became politically significant and the Left parties used the safety of women as an issue to beat the Congress-led UDF government ruling the state at that time. The Left parties promised to nab the murderer within 48 hours if they came to power. Although the Kerala police had followed most the rulebook while dealing with the case, they came under severe criticism for not doing enough to keep the crime scene intact. That 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. Officers in the old investigating team refuted this, saying that though the crime scene had not been cordoned off there were policemen stationed there to keep people out. Moreover, they said, nobody in the locality wanted to go into the house. According to the police, after the postmortem the body was handed over to the victim’s 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. Women’s security in Kerala became a burning election issue that the Left parties used well, but their own sitting MLA Saju Paul lost the election in Perumbavoor for not answering the pleas of the mother. Both mother and daughter had lodged numerous complaints at the Kuruppampady police station and Aluva police station, to Paul and party offices. But with the mother filing complaints for the flimsiest reasons, the police did not take her seriously.
Under the Pinarayi Vijayan regime, the old investigating team was replaced by a new one with more than 80 police personnel, headed by additional director general of police B. Sandhya. More than 1,500 people were questioned and 5,000 people had their fingerprints taken. Over 27 lakh phone calls made on that day were scanned till the search narrowed to the phones that were switched off from April 28. Islam’s phone was switched off and only switched back on four days ago when he switched it on with a different SIM in Kanchipuram. The police tracked him using the international mobile equipment identity number and nabbed him in Kanchipuram. Even as the chief minister and other ministers are patting themselves on the back and congratulating their team 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 groundwork were transferred and their morale is at an all-time low.
With the suspect in judicial custody, this should have been the end of this story. However, there are many, including the father of the victim, who think that the suspect may not be the real criminal but that he has been nabbed by a police team under pressure. The victim’s father has called for the case should be handed over to the CBI. It is evident that the police was under tremendous pressure. They were taking into custody anyone who had curly hair and a gap between their teeth, as per their sketch. They questioned over 2,000 people in the last month and tortured over a dozen people to admit to the killing, including a few of the neighbours and youth in that particular ward. Pulikuthiyil said, “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 the police’s initial lethargy. Who is going to answer for all that? That, of course, may just be minor collateral damage for the government and the police.