Two sensational murders that shocked the neighbouring states of Kerala and Tamil Nadu in the recent weeks seem to have been cracked by the police; but there is something distinctly different in the way the police, the media and politicians went about their jobs in the two states.
The murders in focus are that of Jisha, a landless Dalit girl who lived in Ernakulam district of Kerala; and Swathi, a middle-class IT employee in Chennai city. Both had been found murdered — in Jisha’s case, there were no eyewitnesses and in Swathi’s case, there were some because it happened on a railway platform. In both the cases, the immediate response by the police — in Jisha’s case, the local police and in Swathi’s case, both the Railway police and the local police — had been sloppy.
Jisha’s case took more than a month to investigate, and Swathi’s, just about a week. And the cases of course have to be proved in a court of law for us to be sure about the culprits.
The reported breakthrough in Swathi’s murder came at around midnight on Friday — probably a ploy by Chennai police to keep speculation at bay for at least a few hours. Till the police released the information about the suspect and the way they cracked the case, there was practically nothing worthwhile in the media. Neither her family and relatives nor the police spoke to them and nobody knew what was going on except that the police were in possession of CCTV footage from the locality and that the images they released of the suspect were from the same footage.
There were no leaks from the police either. Now that the Commissioner of Chennai police has spoken, whatever little that had appeared in the media seemed to have been cooked up.
In comparison, in Jisha’s case there were leaks and speculation galore right from day one when the media first picked up the story. They had a new angle and new speculation every day, some of them absolutely mindless, on who could have killed her and how the police were investigating the case. One day, it was about screening people using forensic odontology and another day, DNA matching. One day, they said the police and doctors messed up the autopsy, and another day they hailed it for picking up extremely sensitive pieces of evidence. Contradictory reports and police leaks filled up pages and prime time TV discussions as media trial raged for days on end.
The victim’s mother and family were troubled by the media and politicians to such an extent that her sister accused them of spreading falsehood. Nobody knew where the leads were coming from - but there were bizarre stories and conspiracy theories. And there was no solution in sight for a month even as shameless politicians drummed them up.
In Swathi’s case, the police didn’t speak. Neither did they leak. And the politicians were guarded even as provocative rumours circulated in social media. While people thought that the police were clueless, they were obviously connecting the available dots. The media said the family wasn’t cooperative, that they were more concerned about her character being sullied and the police was groping in the dark with no information from anybody. But when the city police commissioner spoke on Saturday morning, it was clear that the family was indeed cooperating with the police and that the latter were moving with a clear plan that used both conventional and modern methods of investigation.
Part of Chennai police’s victory is that they kept the media at bay, ensured discipline in their ranks, and ensured that the victim’s family or friends didn’t speak unnecessarily. Obviously, they could take them into confidence.
Take a look at Jisha’s case. Her mother blamed everybody — from police, to politicians, to even neighbours because she was so uncared for even in grief. She was a loose cannon that the media indiscreetly relied on. The politicians — mostly the CPM — exploited the situation so badly that finally the UDF government had to match it with false promises. The pressure by the media and the opportunistic politicians were certainly counterproductive. And there were too many loud mouths in the police.
The scenario is strikingly dissimilar even after the arrests. In Jisha’s case, there’s still no official statement on the details that led to the arrest of the suspect except media leaks. In the case of Swathi, the Commissioner met the media within a few hours of the reported breakthrough.
Is there a point? Yes, overzealous and irresponsible media and lousy politicians are both injurious to public interest. And the Police should do their job, not talk prematurely.