Why the Kevin murder trial is a landmark in the battle against casteism in Kerala

On May 28, Kevin was found drowned in the Chaliyakkara canal in Kollam, and his wife Neenu’s father and brother are currently on trial.
Why the Kevin murder trial is a landmark in the battle against casteism in Kerala
Why the Kevin murder trial is a landmark in the battle against casteism in Kerala
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A fragile calm emanates from every wall of the house at Nattassery in Kottayam. On a table in the living room is a photo of a young man, with a candle flickering in front of it. Next to it, a poster reads: ‘Priya suhurthe, nee Jeevikkunnu Njangalilude’ - Dear friend, you are still living through us. The young man in the photo smiles serenely, unaware of the void his death has left in the lives of his family and friends, even a year after he was murdered.

The killing of Kevin, a 23-year-old Dalit Christian man, shocked Kerala last year. Kevin, his wife Neenu, and his family, have become symbols of what casteism and false notions of ‘honour’ can do to young people and societies. And the fight that has followed to bring those responsible to justice has become a part of a recurring theme in India – the Jessica Lal or Priyadarshini Mattoo case of Kerala, where the powerful will use any means necessary to escape the clutches of law. And when that fails, they will stop at nothing to evade justice.

Kevin's home

Six kilometers away from Kevin’s house in Nattassery is the Principal Sessions Court of Kottayam. Judge C Jayachandran hears the case every day, and Joseph, Kevin's father, does not miss a single hearing. 113 witnesses, including Neenu, Kevin’s cousin Aneesh Sebastian (the prime witness), Aneesh’s elder brother Jossan J (Second witness) and Lijo, a neighbor of Neenu’s family (26th witness), have deposed before the court. The case has faced its share of setbacks: Five witnesses have turned hostile so far, and efforts have been made to confuse the witnesses and prevent them from identifying the accused.

Retired Judge of the Kerala High Court, Justice B Kemal Pasha, believes the case holds a particular social relevance.

“It exposed the kind of untouchability and the practices of not having equal rights for everyone. It exposed the social attitude that someone belonging to a ‘dominant’ caste — which they consider as dominant — can’t marry someone who doesn’t belong to a non-dominant caste. Even within the Christian community, Dalits are not considered as ‘real Christians’ by the others. A Dailt Christian marrying a Christian from another denomination is not welcomed. This case is a classic example of that,” he says.

Neenu with Kevin

An Additional Sessions Court in Kottayam had referred this case as an ‘honour’ killing. On November 7, 2018, the court agreed to hold trial for Kevin’s death as a case of ‘honour killing’ based on a plea by the Special Public Prosecutor, who pointed to the Supreme Court order in March 2018 which put in place punitive, preventive and remedial guidelines to tackle ‘honour killings’.

“Honour killing cases are rare in Kerala unlike in several other parts of the country. Punishment in the case is particularly important for people to retain their faith in the judiciary in the future as well,” Justice Pasha adds.

The cases of Jojo and Athira

It is a fact that compared to other parts of the country, caste killings are rare in Kerala. As per the 2016 NCRB data, a total of 71 instances of ‘honour killing’ as a motive of murder were reported across India, while Kerala had zero cases. In 2015, there were three cases from Kerala, out of a total of 166 countrywide and in 2014, again, no case was reported from Kerala. In 2013, the state saw three ‘honour killings.’

The case of Jojo was one of the few caste killing cases from Kerala that reached trial. Jojo allegedly tried to elope with a minor and was found dead in a paddy field in Thodupuzha. The accused were convicted by the Kerala High Court. However, the Supreme Court struck down the High Court’s conviction in 2010, and upheld the trial court’s verdict.

The prosecution had told the court that the father and brother of the girl in question were involved in Jojo’s death. However, the trial court stated that the prosecution’s case was not ‘free from reasonable doubt’ and acquitted the accused.

Kevin’s case has taken on new importance in the absence of a conviction in other ‘honour killings’ in the state. Moreover, there is palpable concern that these cases will only increase over time. In March 2018, just two months before Kevin’s death, a 21-year old woman was stabbed to death by her father on the eve of her marriage to a Dalit man.

Athira had been dating Brijesh, an army man, for years. Athira’s family belongs to the Ezhava community that comes under the OBC category in Kerala. Her father P Rajan had strongly opposed the alliance, but reluctantly gave his consent to the marriage after Athira eloped with Brijesh.

But Rajan, in an inebriated state, allegedly stabbed Athira as the wedding preparations were in full swing.

A never ending battle against prejudice

The murders of Kevin and Athira in a span of just two months had shaken Kerala and created a dent in its reputation of being an enlightened society where social progress had dealt with casteism.

However, the people belonging to non-dominant castes have long been aware of casteism’s insidious existence.

Dalit activist Sunny M Kapikad, notes, “Kerala society instead of addressing caste has always presided on an unrealistic fact that caste doesn’t exist in Kerala. Due to the peculiar political atmosphere of the state, the focus had been on class and the notion was that caste is not a factor that needed a public sense to be built around it. Hence, there was no in-depth or clear study on the impact of caste in society, even as the marginalised had recognised its existence long ago.”

Sunny says he prefers the term ‘caste killing’ to ‘honour killing.’ He asks, what honour is to be gained by killing someone? “When Athira or Kevin were killed it didn’t lead to mass protests. After Kevin was murdered, only the Dalit community protested. A part of the society didn’t even think what was needed was a general protest. When we protested we were viewed as someone who talked about caste and not as a group against casteism. People prefer to sit in a safe shell of caste without publicly admitting or addressing it,” he says.

Kevin's parents and sister at his tomb

For the family, the fight is a long one as they continue to battle for justice against all odds.

“Casteism won’t vanish from people’s minds whatever progress they claim. It is still there. Take the case of Aneesh (Kevin’s cousin who was abducted along with him), he had been facing all the troubles since Kevin’s death. We are attached to the CMI Church, Kottayam diocese. But the Church authorities didn’t even give Aneesh a job despite our pleas, though the Church runs several institutions. Even within the Church, we are treated as second grade people and not treated on par with dominant Christians though the intention for our conversion in the past was our upliftment,” says Biju Joseph, a friend of Kevin and Aneesh at Mannanam.

Proving the case

Neenu met Kevin for the first time in 2016, just two months after she started her course in Geology and Water Management at the BK College in Amalagiri in Kottayam. For two years, the couple were in a relationship.

In love and ready to take the next step in their union, Kevin and Neenu applied to register their marriage on May 25, 2018, and even had it notarized.

But their story took a horrifying turn in the early hours of May 26. Kevin and his cousin Aneesh Sebastian were abducted from Aneesh’s home in Mannanam, just a few kilometres from his parents’ house in Nattasseri. Two days later, on the morning of May 28, Kevin was found drowned in the Chaliyakkara canal near Thenmala in Kollam. A mechanic by profession, he had been working in the Gulf and had come back to Kerala only a few months before his death.

In the case, which is currently on trial, there are in total of 14 accused, and Neenu’s father, Chacko, and brother Shanu Chacko are the fifth and prime accused in the case respectively.

Neenu’s father is a Latin Catholic and mother, Rehna, is a Muslim, while Kevin’s family are poor Dalit Christians.

“Neenu’s parents are rich. Kevin is a Dalit Christian. They may not have liked him because of these two reasons,” Joseph, Kevin’s father, had told TNM the day Kevin was found dead.

Standing on the witness box has not been easy for Neenu, especially since she must testify against her own family.

“Yes, it is true that it is my mother, father and my brother who are on the opposite side, but I am doing what I ought to do. It’s my duty to do this for my Kevin Chettan. It’s only his face that is in front of me… It was to Kevin Chettan to whom I used to tell everything. Even now… his chats are on my phone. I would send him messages whenever I feel like talking to him… you know what? I would see him in my dream whenever I feel tense or worried and the next day I would feel energetic,” Neenu says.

Neenu hasn’t just walked away from her own parents and brother as she fights for justice. After Kevin’s death, she continued to live with Kevin’s family and she never plans to return to her home at Thenmala in Kollam.

“I have been passing through the toughest phase in my life. Kevin Chettan’s family had accepted and allowed me to stay with them. I am determined to do well in my studies and I need to show my parents that I haven’t given up. When you are alone in life, you become determined to show people around you that you won’t give up. And taking care of Kevin Chettan’s family is my responsibility too,” Neenu says.

Neenu plans to pursue her post-graduation in Geology.

“No one from her family ever came asking for her. We have lost our son and got a daughter instead. She has been living here and she goes to college from here,” Joseph says.

The preliminary hearing in the case began in February and the trial began in April. The court had earlier decided to complete the trial in one-and-a-half months by continuing it till June 6. But on that day, the prosecution had asked for an extension and it was granted. The trial is expected to be completed soon.

The crucial witnesses in the case are Neenu, Jossan J and Lijo, apart from Aneesh. According to Neenu, her father Chacko and relative, Niyas, who is the fourth accused in the case, had told her that they would kill Kevin if she didn’t sever ties with him. Jossan, Aneesh’s elder brother, is the second witness. After kidnapping Kevin and Aneesh, Neenu’s brother Shanu had allegedly called Jossan, who had said that they would release Aneesh only if Neenu was handed over. The statement is crucial as the prosecution believes this proves that the kidnappers had tried to negotiate.

Lijo, a neighbor of Neenu’s family in Thenmala and a friend of Shanu Chacko, had allegedly been aware of the plot prior to the crime. It is believed that Lijo, a government employee, allegedly turned against Shanu and Chacko after the crime, out of fear of repercussions he would face if caught. He allegedly gave a statement claiming that Shanu had called him up to say that Kevin had been killed. His words are crucial as it counters Shanu’s statement that they hadn’t killed Kevin as he escaped from their custody and he might have accidentally fallen into the water.

But on June 3, a major development in the case came as forensic experts from Thiruvananthapuram told the court that Kevin had been forcibly drowned to death.

“This is a clear case of homicidal drowning. The victim, Kevin, was conscious during the time of his death and seems to have struggled while he was drowning,” Dr K Sashikala, a professor from the Department of Forensic Medicine in Thiruvananthapuram Medical College, told the court, according to Special Prosecutor CS Ajayan. The forensic expert also said that the water in the Chaliyekkara stream only came up to Kevin’s knees and so he could not have drowned accidentally, Ajayan said.

Aneesh remains the most important witness in the case. For the young man who was abducted from his house along with his cousin Kevin, it had become tough to continue living there.

Aneesh and Biju Joseph

“I sold that house, it was not possible for me to continue living there. Kevin was everything for me. He died six months after the death of my mother. I still haven't overcome the fact that he is not with me anymore,” Aneesh tells TNM, sitting at a coffee shop at Mannanam.

On that day, a group of people in three vehicles had first gone to Kevin’s house in Nattasseri. When they realised that Kevin was not at home, they went to Aneesh’s house.

Aneesh had also discontinued his cold storage business after the incident, but recently restarted it.

Though Aneesh was with Kevin and a direct witness to the kidnapping, the accused have employed tricks to confuse him and other witnesses. All the 14 accused in the case wore similar clothes and had got similar haircuts during the trial. The prosecution argued that this was a deliberate attempt to confuse the witness.

“Fortunately, the trial in the case began at least a year after the crime, but that is not the same in other cases. If the accused had come dressed like that, it would be really difficult for the witnesses to identify them after some years. But I was able to identify them,” Aneesh says. “I am confident of getting justice.”

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