Jollyamma Joseph, believed to have killed six people over fourteen years in Kerala, is not exceptional
Nikita Doval | 22 Nov, 2019
(Illustration: Saurabh Singh)
AFTER HE WAKES UP EVERY MORNING, Sattar Ali, a 50-year-old farmer, walks to the seven unmarked graves in his frontyard. Ali isn’t given to volubility, but even eleven years after the graves were dug, he struggles to explain what happened. Between April 14th and 15th, 2008, six members of Shaukat Ali’s (Sattar’s brother) family in Bawankhedi, a village in Hasanpur Tehsil of Amroha, were axed to death. The seventh, a 10-month-old baby, was throttled. It was around 2:10 am when the cries of the sole survivor and only daughter of the family, Shabnam, rang out, waking the village. Bawankhedi has not moved beyond that moment.
The reason is that, far from being the only survivor of a terrible massacre, Shabnam—reportedly 22 at the time and an MA degree holder, a village teacher and above all the quiet, studious daughter of ‘Masterji’, as Shaukat Ali was known—was the one who had planned the murders. Moreover, it was she who had convinced her two brothers, Rashid and Ameen, to stay back (Rashid was studying engineering in Meerut while Ameen was an engineer working in Jalandhar), she who crushed and mixed diazepam (better known as biopose) in the after-dinner tea for everyone, and she who held the heads of her comatose family while her lover Salim wielded the axe. She was seven weeks pregnant and her family was opposed to the match.
Recently, headlines were dominated by Jollyamma Joseph who, over the course of 14 years, is believed to have killed four members of her family and two others—beginning with her mother-in-law in 2002 to the first wife of her current husband in 2016 (Jolly is believed to have killed her own husband in 2011). It is the deception practised by this seemingly ordinary woman from Kerala’s Koodathayi village that has captured the popular imagination. But before Jolly there was Shabnam and even before Shabnam there was Sonia and, in between, Maria Susairaj and Indrani Mukerjea. And set apart from all of these are Seema Gavit and Renuka Shinde (the Gavit sisters) and KD Kempamma (nicknamed ‘Cyanide Mallika’). These are the women whose names are associated with some of the most violent crimes committed in India over the last two decades. Yet, every time a woman is unmasked as the perpetrator, society seems to take a step back and gasp.
Criminality and violence are almost synonymous with masculinity the world over because of the associated aggression—and even ruthlessness when applicable. In India, prison data shows that women criminals (at least those arrested) add up to only a fraction of the male criminal population. According to the National Crime Records Bureau’s Crime in India report of 2016, 3.54 million men were behind bars while the total number of women was lower than 200,000. Between 2001 and 2011, the total percentage of women criminals rose from 5.4 per cent to 6.2 per cent, a mere 0.8 per cent increase but what changed is the nature of the crimes. ‘Earlier there were lesser records of women involved in heinous crimes, however, as time passed, women arrested for much harder and sophisticated crimes is on the rise,’ states a 2015 paper on female criminality in India. “No one ever questions the criminality of men. World over, it is accepted that violence is an integral part of the make-up of men between the ages of 18 and 40 but we refuse to see female criminality and violence through an objective lens,” says clinical psychologist Rajat Mitra.
Shabhnam-22 at the time, a village teacher and the quiet, studious daughter of ‘masterji’, as Shaukat Ali was known-had planned the murders. Moreover, she had held the head of her comatose family while her lover Salim had wielded the axe
History is replete with real-life examples of women who commit serious and violent crimes but our touchstone remains Shakespeare’s Lady Macbeth. Women who kill are the ultimate outliers, exceptions in nature, and Lady Macbeth herself alludes to it when she calls upon the spirits to ‘unsex me’ before she sets the plan to kill Duncan in motion. Women have taken huge strides in almost every profession but the lens through which the gender is viewed is still motherhood and, by extension, as life-givers. “So, when a woman takes a life and does so cruelly and violently, it challenges every notion that we have of womanhood and, as such, our understanding of how the world functions. Thus, it is easiest to dismiss these women as anomalies rather than accept that the female of the species is as capable of violent crime as the male,” says Mitra, who feels countries like India have far more trouble accepting the idea of a female killer than Western societies do.
LAL BAHADUR KHOWAL, AN attorney in Hisar, was the public prosecutor in the Ram Singh vs Sonia and Others case. He was tasked with proving the guilt of Sonia, 22 at the time, and her husband Sanjiv in the brutal murder of her entire family of eight, including two nieces, one only 45 days old. He still has photographs from the crime scene which show the bodies, bloodied, after being bludgeoned to death. “Why would a woman do this? Why would a daughter do this?” he asks. The murders were committed in 2001 and even today he doesn’t have an answer, although the facts of the case are very clear. Sonia, a taekwondo student and an alumnus of one of Hisar’s posh schools was the daughter of Relu Ram Punia, a one-time MLA from Haryana. Punia had started out as a truck cleaner but made a fortune in the black market for bitumen and oil. He had several acres of land and a sprawling farmhouse at Litani, his ancestral village. It was here, at the Punia farmhouse, that Sonia gathered her entire family on the night of August 21st, 2001, on the pretext of celebrating her birthday.
There are similarities between the cases involving Shabnam and Sonia. Like Sonia, Shabnam too was the daughter of a rich man. Shaukat Ali was a government school teacher but also a rich farmer with a few acres of mango orchards. Like Sonia, Shabnam was well educated. However, temperamentally, they were poles apart. Bhawankhedi villagers still remember Shabnam as a very “quiet girl who used to walk with her eyes down” while Sonia is remembered as a brash, outspoken young woman. The modus operandi of the murders was the same, both women pretending to be the sole survivors of a bloody massacre carried out by unknown people. Both had drugged their families before killing them with the help of their partners. And both were caught out by policemen with many years of experience to find their ‘sixth sense’ tingling the minute they walked into the crime scene.
The narrative around women killers is shaped by their appetite, carnal and otherwise. Much has been made of Jolly’s desire for the good life. Recently, Jolly’s brother, Nobi, has recalled his sister’s extravagance in terms of her desire to “eat fish and meat every day”
RP Gupta, former SHO at Amroha police station, was the investigating officer in the Shabnam case. He recalls interviewing Hasmat Hussain, the victims’ neighbour and the first on the scene, several times. “Hussain was shaken up. He had woken up in the middle of the night to Shabnam’s screeches of ‘everyone is dead’ and had to compose himself before he could cover the short distance of seven feet to the family’s bungalow.” Shabnam had stood on the balcony screaming “bachao, bachao” while Hussain and a few other men gathered their courage to go in. “We thought, what if there are people still inside?” Everything that followed was a blur says Hussain, sitting in the same spot today where he had dithered for a few minutes 11 years ago. He can still see the bodies of “Masterji and the family, blood splatters on the wall.” Shabnam had opened the door to let in the villagers and Gupta was stuck on this one point: who would lock the door after killing an entire family but before escaping? In Sonia’s case, the then superintendent of Hisar Police, Rajpal Singh, pondered the mysterious shutting of a third car door when there were supposedly only two occupants. It was this hunch that led him to uncover the presence of Sonia’s husband on the night of the murders.
“Everyone says families are safe but we increasingly know that families are where women are the most unsafe,” says J Devika, historian
When a woman stands accused of a violent crime, the media coverage is almost always sensationalist and voyeuristic, with nicknames coined that tend to reduce the perpetrators to caricatures. Thus, Jolly is the ‘Jolly Black Widow’ while both Indrani Mukerjea and Maria Susairaj were femme fatales. Indrani and Maria were as much on a media trial for their lifestyles as for the crimes they stood accused of. Indrani served as a cautionary and clichéd tale of the ambitious small-town woman. Maria was seen as a ‘modern’ woman willing to trade sex for career advancement while stringing along a fiancé. In an article in The Guardian earlier this year, Sean O’Connor wrote: ‘…murder cases involving women always shone a light on the age and culture in which they took place.’ By that yardstick, the coverage of both the Mukerjea and Susairaj cases seemed to be an exercise in misogyny and sexism where the crime could only be understood by the otherness of the perpetrators.
“When a heinous crime is committed, we actively look for differences between us and the perpetrator, so that you can assure yourself that you are different and not capable of this. This is basic human psychology,” says P Madhava, professor at the Department of Criminology, Manonmaniam Sundaranar University at Tirunelveli, Tamil Nadu. In the case of a woman aggressor, the need to ‘other’ the individual concerned becomes more intense. The narrative around them is shaped by their appetite, carnal and otherwise, as well as their vanity and duplicity. Much has been made of Jolly’s desire for the good life, quite like Indrani and Maria before her. In a recent interview, Jolly’s brother, Nobi, recalled his sister’s extravagance in terms of her desire to “eat fish and meat every day.” Even the possession of a car, despite her claiming penury before her family, was seen as suspicious.
Indrani served as cautionary tale of the ambitious small-town woman. Maria Susairaj was seen as willing to trade sex for career advancement
One of the first theories about female criminality was put forward by Cesare Lombroso, who thought female criminals were more inclined, biologically, towards masculinity (more body hair, lack of maternal instincts, etcetera). Subsequent criminologists tried to understand the phenomenon by means of feminism and even evolution. Those looking at female criminality through the lens of feminism have argued that the political movement has made it possible for women to be out and about and as such more prone to criminal behaviour. Evolutionary studies, on the other hand, have attempted to understand why women kill those they do (acquaintances, family members, and so on) as well as how they do so (poisoning, etcetera). No single theory is widely accepted. Research has shown that developmental factors like childhood abuse, relationship with parents, living conditions, etcetera, contribute more to a woman’s turn to crime than gender or evolution.
“It is accepted that violence is an integral part of the make-up of men but we refuse to see female criminality through an objective lens,” says Rajat Mitra, psychologist
Financial reasons remain one of the biggest motives for murder. Mitra cites repeated deep humiliation as one of the big factors when it comes to women committing violent crimes. This is especially true in the case of Sonia and Shabnam. In his confession, Sonia’s husband, Sanjiv, detailed a lifetime of abuse and acrimony, including violence, between Sonia and her family. The family members were barely on speaking terms. Sonia’s father and stepbrother (her mother was Punia’s second wife) would not even eat food cooked by her. In Shabnam’s case, the village was well aware of her family’s disapproval of her relationship with Salim. There was class difference (he was a Class VI dropout who worked as a wood craftsman while she had an MA degree) apart from the social identity or caste factor (he was a Pathan and she a Saifi). Hussain recalls hearing stories about Shabnam being beaten by her parents for her insistence on marrying Salim. “Everyone says families are safe whereas we increasingly know that families are where women are perhaps the most unsafe,” says J Devika, associate professor, Centre for Development Studies, Thiruvananthapuram. “Women’s ambitions have grown but they haven’t been encouraged to seek education, to seek control over their own lives. The space between home and outside has shrunk so much that even the most homebound person is exposed to all kinds of desires thanks to the internet,” she adds. In the wake of the Jolly case, Devika has written several columns about why she feels the answers to Jolly’s alleged killing streak lie in Kerala’s deeply patriarchal society. “I have had several hostile responses saying I am trying to defend Jolly,” she says. At the heart of this case too, are issues of property and disposable income.
Devika sees society’s part morbid fascination, part revulsion vis-à-vis women criminals as the response to an underdog biting: “You console yourself by saying the dog is usually loyal but this one is misguided, it’s lost its way.” In Bawankhedi, for instance, people who knew Shabnam her whole life, now put her age at the time of the murders as between 28 and 30, and the reason as lust. They describe her as quiet in one breath only to insist that there were rumours of trysts with different men in the mango orchard. Salim, her co-accused, on the contrary, is fondly remembered as “the quietest, gentlest man possible.” The narrative of the woman as the Jezebel who leads the man astray has been used to great effect in the cases of both Mukerjea and Susairaj as well.
Childhood deprivation and sociopathic tendencies go a long way in explaining the crimes of the Gavit sisters, Seema and Renuka
In the cases involving the Gavit sisters and Kempamma, childhood deprivation along with sociopathic tendencies goes a long way in explaining their crimes. The Gavit sisters, Seema Mohan and Renuka Shinde, are in prison on charges of killing five children between 1990 and 1996 in Maharashtra’s Pune, Kohlapur and Nashik. They, along with their mother Anjana Bai Gavit, were petty pickpockets who began kidnapping the children of rickshaw-pullers, beggars, and so on to serve as foils in case they were caught in the act. Once the children outgrew their usefulness, the trio would kill them. Similarly, Kempamma, would lure women into temple compounds and then kill them for their jewellery. All three women are considered serial killers. “In India most serial killers come from impoverished backgrounds and are defined by very basic motives: greed, lust, etcetera,” says Anirban Bhattacharya, author of The Deadly Dozen, a book on Indian serial killers. He refuses to ascribe any other motive than avarice to all three of these women: “They wanted money; they found the easiest way to get it.” The Gavit sisters were initially arrested on the charge of kidnapping their step-sister. The discovery of the gruesome murders was chance. “The children they abducted were of poor migrant labourers. I doubt any police station would have even entertained those complaints,” says a retired official familiar with the case.
AT PRESENT, THERE ARE ONLY two women on death row in India—the Gavit sisters. Sonia was sentenced to hang too but in 2013, the apex court commuted her sentence to life on grounds that it has been in abeyance for too long. Shabnam’s sentence was stayed by the court as well. Female criminality, experts in the field agree, is only going to increase in India. And while we may not be able to stop it, we need to develop better institutional support for dealing with it. “We are not prepared to deal with female criminals. The procedure to have a woman in the police station is complicated without adequate support,” says Madhava. It is also important to see the female criminal in isolation, in the context of just her case, as opposed to the broader background of her gender, feels Mitra. “In India, if a woman is caught speeding, she can talk her way out of it whereas that is not the case in the US, Europe or even Southeast Asia. We have to understand, as a society, that women too are capable of breaking the law and only then will we be able to treat them as part of us, rather than as outliers.” Till that happens, however, we will likely continue to treat the Jollys, Indranis and Shabnams as aberrations rather than products of the times we live in. Till that happens, Sattar Ali will keep looking at the graves among the mango orchards and wonder why.