With near universal literacy and long life expectancy, the small Indian state of Kerala is a model for the rest of India.
In recent weeks, however, the small state tucked at the bottom of the country has been in the spotlight for what its glowing human development indicators do not reveal.
It sometimes takes an awful event to uncover maladies beneath the surface, and here, it was the savage murder of an underprivileged law student.
Monsoon rains pour down on the shack where 29-year-old Jishamol Kuttikkattuparmbil Pappu lived for more than two decades with her mother. (Long names customarily get abbreviated and hers is Jisha K.P.)
The hovel on the outskirts of the small municipality of Perumbavoor had no bathroom and no panes on the windows, just grills, and a flimsy door. Jisha’s mother raised two daughters here — alone.
Ringed by lush vegetation and police tape, their makeshift home is now a crime scene.
Jisha’s mutilated body was discovered here on the evening of April 28. The postmortem documents dozens of deep wounds, sexual assault and strangulation.
Close-by neighbor Sheeja M.C. recalls sitting on her porch the night of the murder and hearing an “unusual” sound.
“It was a strange, but human sound,” she says. “Two other women were out and said they also heard something but thought it was the mother and daughter quarreling.”
Several neighbors considered the mother, Rajeshwari, to be antagonistic toward the community.
But feminist academic J. Devika says it would be natural for Jisha’s mother to be aggressive as a way to defend her turf and her daughters.
“I’m sure that Rajeshwari must have been a tough character,” she says. “This is not a society that offers any kind of dignity to a woman who’s alone.”
And she says poor women increasingly head households alone, often in insecure homes, making them vulnerable to intruders. Rajeshwari’s daughters would have been especially exposed.
“Young girls are not safe in this society. So if Rajeshwari were this sweet, little nice women, then the girls would not be safe, that I can tell you,” Devika says.
Rajeshwari and her two daughters, Jisha and Deepa, hail from the lowest strata of Indian society, from a group at the bottom of the Hindu caste hierarchy. They built their shed on government land that they did not own, beside a canal and surrounded by solid homes with mostly upper caste residents. Rajeshwari told police in 2014 that neighbors had tried to evict them from the area, threatening violence, a charge residents reject.
Neighbor Sheeja M.C. says while the family may have perceived they were discriminated against, she insists “caste discrimination is a serious offense” and “it is not practiced here.”
But J. Devika says the family’s situation is “emblematic of people who do not have land and who have to struggle to hold on to a small shack.”
Marginalized by poverty, gender and caste, Rajeshwari and her daughter Jisha actively fought back using the tools of the state. They applied for — and got — a small plot to which the landless of Kerala are entitled. But there was not money to build a house. They repeatedly complained to police about harassment, but nothing came of it, according to daughter Deepa, who had been living away from home following a failed marriage.
I met up with Deepa in a tea shop across from the government hospital where her mother is recovering from Jisha’s murder. Deepa says that the state has promised the family a house and a small pension for her mother, and given Deepa a job as an entry-level clerk. She says Jisha had studied to be a lawyer to fight the injustices they faced.
But at school, classmate Rita Balachandran says Jisha was preoccupied with safety. Balachandran says Jisha lived in fear of something or someone breaking into their shack and would race home immediately after class. But she persisted with her degree to better their lives.
Economist and demographer S. Irudaya Rajan says education is at the root of the advances women of Kerala have made. “Women are going to school, women are going to college, women are marrying late, women are having less number of children. Women are living longer!”
Jisha was educated but also socially disadvantaged. That’s what Kerala’s prized model of development doesn’t take into account, says Rajan: For all the great progress for women in the state, poor, lower caste women are still falling through the cracks.
“Women are literate, there’s no question about that,” Rajan says. “I never said women are not literate. But it has not transformed their lives.” His point is that education does not guarantee that a woman can overcome discriminatory practices.
And in Jisha’s case, her home was not a secure place, and that put her a risk.
The young woman’s face peers out from posters across the state demanding “Justice for Jisha.” Angry demonstrations have drawn comparisons to the gruesome gang rape and murder of a young woman on a moving bus in Delhi that ignited international outrage in 2012. Protesters say there’s been no such publicity trained on Jisha’s case precisely because she is from a marginalized community.
A fresh team of investigators — the original one was accused of botching the case — has kept developments quiet.
But local media has reported a breakthrough: Nearly 50 days after the murder, police have reportedly taken a key suspect into custody. He’s a migrant worker from the state of Assam.
The newly elected state government praised the police but had called the entire affair a “shame” for Kerala.