The four women - aged 17, 20, 21 and 34 - were doused in fire and set ablaze in broad daylight by their stalkers.

news Violence against women Tuesday, October 22, 2019 - 18:51

Kavitha Vijaykumar, Neethu, Soumya Pushpakaran and Ramya* - the four young women died in a span of eight months this year in Kerala.

All four were murdered in the same way, with the same motive and by the men they'd consciously chosen to stay away from. They were doused in petrol and set on fire in broad daylight by their stalkers — men whose romantic pursuits or marriage proposals they'd turned down.

Although such incidents have been widely reported in neighbouring states, Kerala had not previously witnessed stalking cases repeatedly taking a violent turn as in recent years. However, four women have died in a span of eight months this year in Kerala.

The similarity in the cases reveals a discomfiting pattern - that of toxic masculinity looking for validation in a culture where such behaviour is glorified by the society, media and cinema. And where the perpetrator is seldom punished.

Murdered for saying ‘no’

Kavitha Vijaykumar, a 20-year-old BTech student, was en route to her college in Pathanamthitta district, when 18-year-old Ajin Reji Mathew stopped her and started an argument. In a matter of few minutes, Ajin took out a can of petrol, poured it over and set her on fire. She sustained 65% burn injuries. A week after battling for her life in the Intensive Care Unit (ICU), Kavitha succumbed to her injuries and died on March 20.

The second victim this year was 21-year-old Neethu, who was an engineering student at the Axis Engineering College in Thrissur district. On April 4, Neethu was at home with her grandmother, when the stalker, 32-year-old Nidheesh, reportedly entered the house through the backdoor. According to the police, the two had been in a relationship although Neethu did not agree to marry him. The two reportedly had an argument over this at her house. Nidheesh then began stabbing her with a knife, poured petrol over her and burnt her alive. 

On June 15, around 3 pm, 34-year-old Soumya Pushpakaran, a Civil Police Officer at a police station in Alappuzha, was returning home after work when her stalker Ajaz knocked her two-wheeler down with his car. He chased her, stabbed her and then set her on fire, killing her instantly. Ajaz was a police officer of Aluva traffic station. Soumya was married with three children. The investigating officer in the case had told TNM that 33-year-old Ajaz and Soumya had been friends for three years. But their friendship turned bitter when Ajaz said he wanted Soumya to leave her family and marry him. Soumya rejected the proposal, stopped answering his calls and messages, which angered Ajaz.

In the wee hours of October 10, Mithun banged on the doors of 17-year-old Ramya’s house in Kakkanad. Mithun, who was allegedly doused in petrol, poured the fuel on the class 12 student, burnt her and himself alive. According to reports, Mithun, who was in his 20s, had been expressing his interest in her since she was in class 8, and even wanted to marry her. She declined his advances and gifts, but he never stopped.

In March - two days after Kavitha was set on fire - a man poured petrol on two women who were riding a two-wheeler in Kochi's Panampilly Nagar, in an attempt to set them ablaze. The women, fortunately, escaped. In May, a 39-year-old nursing assistant in Thiruvananthapuram was attacked by her stalker, who also cut off her ear. According to the investigating officer, the two were close, but the 35-year-old man thought the victim was getting close to others.

When frustration manifests as crime

Kavitha, Neethu, Soumya, Ramya and other victims of such stalking incidents knew their offenders. They may or may not have been in a relationship with the offender, but eventually, they exercised their right to say ‘no’ - a personal and fundamental choice any human being must be able to make in their personal and professional life.

Such cases are commonly misconstrued as 'crime of passion', where the perpetrator commits the act on an impulse. However, these incidents were anything but spontaneous crimes. The perpetrator procured the petrol cans, knives and even knew where the woman would be when he could commit the crime, clearly revealing premeditation.

Despite their offers of ‘love’ or marriage proposals being declined by the women, the offenders in these instances continued to stalk them, pursue them, harass them, and eventually, unable to handle the rejection or feeling insecure, the men resorted to violence. 

“In a relationship, internalising such frustration can manifest or be diverted in different ways, including suicides, which is more common. However, externalising that frustration into violence, which targets the person whom he supposedly loves, that is a recent phenomenon in the state,” notes A Hemachandran, a top senior IPS (Indian Police Service) officer in Kerala.

According to the IPS official, the character of the relationship has to be seen in proper perspective; each incident may not have the same source of motivation to kill the woman.

“In some cases, the man could feel that he is being ‘used’, ‘exploited’ or ‘fooled’, which could induce a sense of frustration in them. But the common cases - like the recent incident in Kochi, where relatively young people were involved - the character of the relationship, or the so-called ‘love’, is superficial, almost like a material possession. Such relationships could be an extension of an adolescent or young man’s need to possess a bike or a car,” he explained.

Hemachandran also observed that the way success and failure are defined also matter. “A person’s capacity to deal with failure is often depreciated, especially in the absence of a role model or a person to guide them,” he added.

The misconception that love is eternal is an outdated concept. “Yet, in an average family, this is not accepted. Refusal by a girl still means the end of his life. In the absence of proper guidance or informed decisions, they think violence is the only way out,” says Lekshmy Rajeev, a noted author and activist in Kerala.

Recollecting the instance of Kavitha, Lekshmy explains why it is important to take a woman seriously when she raises the alarm about a stalker.

Kavitha, one of the victims of stalking, had informed her parents about the man who was harassing her. Her family had told TNM that she was gloomy most of the time and even used to switch off her phone or keep it on silent. “We, however, did not take it seriously then as she mentioned it in passing. But we did not imagine it would turn out to be this serious and tragic,” Kavitha’s brother-in-law, Vikas, had said.

“In all these cases, the women had clearly said ‘no’. Nobody could have known the mindset of their stalkers better than these women, which is why they probably refused any advances,” says Shahina KK, a journalist,

Also, there haven't been any convictions in such cases of violence.

According to Shahina, the media also plays a role in fueling such incidents. News reports make a hero of the offender, and directly or indirectly portray the crime as an ultimate manifestation of love.

The discussions on social media platforms, too, justify the stalker and sympathise with the stalker. So, another person who is in a similar situation might conceive himself as a hero and would feel that he could also resort to such crimes. Society does not show him as a criminal,” she added.

Read: If Neethu was in a relationship with Nidheesh, does that make his crime any less?

“We do not have a ready solution for this, but we should start recognising the problem,” said Hemachandran. “Instead of ignoring these as isolated incidents, this has to be seen as the manifestation of some underlying social malice, which all stakeholders have to understand.”

(*Name changed as the victim was a minor)

Read: Stalkers on screen: How has Malayalam cinema treated romantic pursuit?