In the run-up to the May 2016 Assembly elections in Kerala, women’s safety was a burning issue. The brutal murder and rape of 29-year-old Jisha, a law student of the Government Law College in Ernakulam on 28 April, just days before the elections, added much fuel to the question of deteriorating law and order situation under the then United Democratic Front government led by Congress leader Oommen Chandy. The failure of the police to track down the killers and its subsequent goofing up of the investigation became the focus of the rest of the campaign, even pushing the allegations of rampant corruption against the government to the backseat. At the time, every political leader worth his/her salt made a beeline to Jisha’s hut beside a stinking open canal, shedding copious tears and making promises galore. The CPM and its chief ministerial candidate Pinarayi Vijayan was in the forefront baying for Chandy’s blood. Once Vijayan became Chief Minister, riding on a wave of resentment against the UDF, everyone genuinely believed in the LDF’s popular slogan that everything would be all right once they came to power. Immediately after taking over as Chief Minister, Pinarayi Vijayan vowed that “there will not be another Jisha”. He also promised to make the state live up to its reputation as “God’s own country”. Sadly, after nine months in power, Pinarayi no more talks about Jisha as many other names have been cropping up on a regular basis and Kerala is alarmingly transforming into “Satan’s own country”.
The latest to join the legion of women victims is a top ranking South Indian actor, who was waylaid, abducted and raped by a gang of goons, including her one-time driver, on the intervening night of 17-18 February. The incident, which took place on the national highway leading to the port city of Kochi at around 9.30 pm in a moving car, has naturally sent shockwaves across not only the state but also got nationwide attention. It is true that the incident would not have got so much publicity had it been just another Jisha. But this time the victim was a big fish, that too from the glamour world of cinema. However, the casual way the police, the government and a section of the media treated the incident in the initial days of the crime has come under severe public scrutiny. If this is the fate of a leading lady of South Indian cinema, people started wondering what awaited an ordinary woman walking on the streets of Kerala.
While the CM, who is also in charge of home affairs, expressed full faith in his police and claimed that law would take its own course, his party state secretary, Kodiyeri Balakrishnan, dismissed the case as an “isolated one”. It was only when the other leading partner in LDF, the CPI pointed out that “isolated cases are happening on a regular basis” that it dawned upon the government to take note. Though the police has now arrested the most wanted in the case, many questions remain unanswered. The victim and a handful of her close friends suspect a larger conspiracy to defame her.
The finger of suspicion is pointed at some bigwigs within the industry. Sordid stories of how so called mega and superstars employ musclemen as drivers and bodyguards, but actually use them for their underworld dealings are tumbling out every day.
There is also an equally alarming rise in moral policing in the state. Initially, the onus was on the growing influence of the Sangh Parivar for the rise of these goons in the guise of cultural monitors. Now cases are coming up proving that young upwardly mobile comrades belonging to the CPM on the campuses too are not far behind. It is an open secret how political parties, especially CPM, use these “quotation gangs”, a Malayalam euphemism for hired mafia, to settle political scores. Most of the killers of the sensational 2012 murder of Marxist dissident T.P. Chandrashekharan are said to be on the payrolls of the party. Hence, not many took the government’s decision to round up the most wanted rowdies in the state seriously.
At the same time, the news that the Kerala Governor P. Sathasivam, himself a former Supreme Court Chief Justice, returned a list sent by the government to unilaterally grant pardon to around 1,850 hardcore criminals in different jails, was greeted with jubilation. Pinarayi Vijayan has come out with a statement against the Governor for leaking the news, while clarifying that his government had only sought to minimise their term of imprisonment. But the truth remains that among those on the list were the main accused in the Chandrashekharan murder case.
People’s memory is short. Public angst against the latest atrocity on a woman may last for another week and the case will be “settled” to the satisfaction of all those involved. By then it will be time for the next victim to make it to the headlines, but till then there will be a deafening silence.