On Tuesday, August 27, 2019, the Kottayam Principal Sessions Court announced its landmark judgement convicting 10 persons to double life sentences for the death of Kevin P Joseph. Kevin, a 23-year-old Dalit Christian man, was abducted, murdered and found floating in the Chaliyekara river in Kollam 15 months ago.
But for Neenu, the young woman with whom Kevin was in a relationship, the ordeal is far from over.
The motive behind the gruesome crime was that Kevin and Neenu, a Latin Catholic woman, were in love against the wishes of her family and the young man refused to withdraw. It was shortly after the duo decided to apply to get their marriage registered that he was abducted and murdered on May 28, 2018 by Neenu's relatives.
For Kevin's family, especially father Joseph, the judgement comes as a bittersweet victory, the end of a hard fought battle against powerful persons on the other side.
However, if there is one person who has become the symbol of tenacity and strength in the last few months, it is Neenu. The 21-year-old stormed through a treacherous, conflict-ridden path to secure justice for Kevin.
In May 2018, Neenu not only lost her partner before they could begin a life together, she was almost immediately thrown into a protracted legal battle against her immediate family, including father Chacko John and brother Shanu Chacko who masterminded Kevin's murder.
But while her brother has been convicted, her father has been acquitted and is free to give interviews about his â€śwaywardâ€ť daughter, painting Neenu as a selfish woman who had turned her back on her family.
Even as a child, Neenuâ€™s relationship with her family had been strained.
Speaking to TNM in an exclusive interview back in 2018, Neenu recalled the mental and physical abuse she had to undergo as a child and young adult while living with her parents and brother.
"All three of them (mother, father and brother) had uncontrollable temper issues. I remember back in school, when I would come home and tell them about any boys who approached me, they would beat the kids up," Neenu said.
Neenu's mother, who is Muslim, would even beat her up for trivial things and she once burnt her hands with a metal object after Neenu expressed her wish to go out with her paternal aunt.
"I never used to like staying at home due to the environment. I would always find ways to stay away," she said.
But putting up with your family, no matter how much they infringe on your rights, is what is expected of a good daughter, and Neenu was soon to discover that.
Harassment from Gandhi Nagar SI and Chacko
On May 25, 2018, Neenu and Kevin decided to visit the sub-registrar's office at Ettumanoor to apply to for their marriage registration. The couple had been in a relationship for over two years and was ready to take the next step despite stiff opposition from Neenu's parents.
The next day, dramatic events unfolded at the Gandhi Nagar police station with the couple being summoned by Sub Inspector MS Shibu. Her father and a neighbour turned up there.
Over the next few hours, Chacko took her aside and tried to persuade her to accompany him back home and to break off her relationship with Kevin. Following this, the SI called her and Kevin inside his office. Chacko too was summoned.
Inside his office, Neenu was not only humiliated and deprived of her rights as an adult woman, she was nearly forced to go home with her father. Far from helping the young couple, she said that all the officers in the station chided her and asked her to leave the station with her father.
"The SI shouted at me quite a lot. I even remember falling at the feet of ASI Biju. After a lot of struggle, Kevin and I were taken inside and asked to write and sign a letter stating that we chose to live together out of my own volition," she told Mathrubhumi..
Fighting media scrutiny, moral policing and smear campaign by kin
Ever since the trial for the case began in February 2019, the young woman has had to battle a slew of setbacks. It started off with her father Chacko John submitting a petition before the Ettumanoor Magistrate, stating that his daughter was mentally unstable and hence had to be moved to a safe place. Neenu had been staying at Kevin's parentsâ€™ house in Kottayam town.
In subsequent interviews to the local media, Chacko had spread the same rumour about Neenu's mental health.
Dismissing her father's claims, Neenu had said that she had never taken any medicine for any mental health issues or visited a hospital for the same. She was even forced to divulge that she had visited the Ananthapuri Hospital for counselling earlier due to her family background and the circumstances in her house. Despite all this, Neenu gave a strong account of what transpired and the threats from her family to the judge. It was based on her statement that the court decided that Kevin's murder was a case of honour killing.
Coupled with this was the relentless scrutiny and moralistic arguments about â€śturning against the same parents who raised herâ€ť, which the young woman had to brave at every point of the case. In a patriarchal society, a woman is always considered to be the property of a man â€“ father, husband and son â€“ and she is expected to comply with their decisions on what to do with her. Neenuâ€™s rebellion and the assertion of her agency challenges this bedrock on which our society is built â€“ a reason why Chacko continues to find sympathy even though the law is with Neenu.
Today, one can say that Neenuâ€™s fight has borne fruit, but the young woman's future is still riddled with risks and uncertainty. Among the four persons acquitted in the case is her father Chacko, who is said to have played a major role in conspiring to abduct Kevin. The only evidence against Chacko was the phone calls he had made to son and prime convict Shanu Chacko on May 28. The court let him off as Chacko was not found to have direct involvement in the abduction and his part in the crime was not established beyond reasonable doubt.
With Chacko acquitted, threats to Neenu's life and future is a possibility that cannot be ruled out. However, the 21-year-old is positive, focused on completing her studies and starting life afresh.