There is an immediate need to politicise issues related to caste and gender in the Malayali public sphere. There could not be a much more telling time than this when the regional media of Kerala is debating the complexities involved with the brutal rape and murder of the Dalit law student who was found dead inside her house in Perumbavoor on April 28, 2016.
The rape and murder almost immediately made her ‘Kerala’s Daughter’. The media and the general public want everybody to believe that the heinous crime was committed by one or many migrant laborers populating the area. Suddenly she is a symbol of every Malayali woman. Widespread paranoia is generated regarding ‘migrant labourers’, mostly from the Eastern Indian states.
Mass migration of labour force from the agrarian regions of Bengal, Assam, Orissa and Bihar to Kerala for better wage is a new phenomenon in the state. Initially, Kerala was familiar with only a limited and seasonal migration of workers from Tamil Nadu. However, in the past two decades, Kerala has witnessed the mass migration and year round presence of linguistically and culturally unfamiliar people popularly called ‘Bengali migrants’.
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After the incident, Whatsapp messages were shared frantically and urgently asking people to watch out for migrant labourers. Popular stories suggested that the migrants are potential rapists and robbers. But the interesting situation is that, until her death happened, she was not considered as Kerala’s daughter. She was clearly defined and cast away as a Dalit colony dweller surviving in an unsafe makeshift hutment in a wasteland. The culprits in this case are still not found, the elections are at our doorstep and everybody wants a piece of the pie from this ‘Kerala’s daughter’.
Media took pains to find out her academic status. They displayed utmost care in publishing details about it quite prominently. The papers she had yet to clear in her law degree became an indication of her lack of merit.
It is from extremely underprivileged circumstances that Jisha managed to make a successful attempt at studying and dreaming to move forward in life. When a woman like her was raped and murdered, intestines pulled out reminding everybody of the iconic Nirbhaya rape that happened in Delhi in 2012, taking a supposedly innocent dig at her academic credentials is nothing short of casteism displayed by the Malayalam mainstream media.
It is as brutal as the incident itself to show this level of lack of empathy. When Nirbhaya case happened, large populations of Delhi from different backgrounds irrespective of their political preferences marched to centers of power in protest in 2012. The laidback Malayalis on the other hand, wanted to know the pedigree of the organisations who were organising the hartal in her name before offering their support. It is shameful that a left party leader could remark that the protesters have no name and address. If this is not casteism, what is?
On top of it all, her mother was portrayed all over the media, online and offline as somebody who is mentally unstable and who has a foul mouth. Previous incidents reveal that both Jisha and her mother had to constantly deal with knocks on the door at night, flashlights through the windows and even direct threats about caste based lynching. The daughter is reported to have the habit of sleeping with a machete underneath her pillow. She and her mother had recently installed a pen camera inside their household to bring in some sense of vigilance. Attempts at filing complaints with officials failed miserably probably because they were two destitute, unaccountable, Dalit women trying to survive in a world that was hostile, insensitive and extremely abusive towards them.
From the day media started reporting this case, they were publishing photographs of her, her mother and her sister. No sensitivity was displayed while making their identities public. It can be easily observed that in similar cases happened previously, extreme care was observed to maintain the privacy of the victim and family.
This media profiling in short became an example of how caste plays out and makes certain lives easy to be tampered with, commented upon and so on. Attempts were made by the regional media to criminalise her sister. They cooked up stories about her being taken into custody, adding masala to the story as they pleased fit. She later clarified that since it was unsafe for her to travel alone and go to her house, a police officer offered to accompany her, which was later translated into this juicy little story by the media. The sister was shown asking the media to stay away from their lives. As she was speaking, one could see the various regional media microphones literally poking her with their labeled microphones.
It is at this juncture that Kerala, the state that has boasted of progressiveness needs to be critically looked at. A hundred percent literacy or lesser mortality rates do not necessarily make everything idyllic. Kerala might be better than many other Indian states. That does not make it above all criticism. Kerala is a space where women, Dalits, sexual minorities, migrants and other underprivileged communities face numerous micro aggressions on an everyday basis. This case gets this level of attention because of the inhuman level of brutality involved. However, many others are probably facing smaller but non-negligible instances of violence on a daily basis. Kerala and its public engagements with menstruation, women’s bodies, caste issues and criminalising of migrant labourers reflect upon a society that is progressive on the outside and extremely oppressive and conservative on the inside.
The mob killing of a migrant laborer recently, the humiliating experience faced by social activist Daya Bai on a KSRTC bus from the bus conductor because she looked like a vagabond etc are to name a few instances in which caste and class unfolds itself. The way the state and its people has been dealing with its women, its Dalits and its migrant laborers from other states of India should be a premise under which Kerala should do a self check about progressiveness. It is time to stop believing in the tourist department lie that Kerala is a “God’s Own Country.” Clearly, it is not.