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How to get away with murder in small-town India

In my line of work, there are few things as gratifying as catching someone in a lie

Ellen Barry | NYT 

How to get away with murder in small-town India

On my last week in India, I went to say goodbye to Jahiruddin Mewati, the chief of a small village where I had made a dozen or so reporting trips.

Jahiruddin and I were not precisely friends, but we had spent many hours talking over the years, mostly about local politics. I found him entirely without scruples but candid. He suspected my motives but found me entertaining, in the way that a talking dog might be entertaining, without regard for the particulars of what I said.

Jahiruddin, though uneducated, was an adept politician, fresh from winning a hard-fought local During our conversations, he would often break into rousing, patriotic speeches about truth and justice, thumping the plastic table in emphasis and making it jump. The effect was somewhat tarnished by his Tourette’s syndrome, which caused him to interject the word “penis” at regular intervals.

He was frank about the dirty aspects of his job. He occupied a post reserved for women from lower castes, but no one pretended this was any more than a sham; his wife’s name appeared on the ballot, but the face on the poster was his.

Nearly everything he did in local government was transactional, driven by the desire to secure the votes of minuscule family and caste groups. The funny thing was, it seemed to be working pretty well.

Among his pet constituencies was a community of former beggars, some of the poorest people I had met in I had visited these people regularly over the past two years, and their lives had improved in striking ways — in some cases through Jahiruddin’s intervention.

He had persuaded — and by this I mean bribed — caste leaders to allow their women to work as day laborers, and their rising incomes were apparent in new brick houses and well-nourished children. A new subsidy had provided women with gas stoves, freeing them from the grinding task of scavenging for firewood. That shift struck me as quietly revolutionary, like the arrival of the contraceptive pill in the West.

I wanted to compliment Jahiruddin on his advocacy for these people, and also to say goodbye. Everything I owned had already been loaded onto a container ship that had left the port of Mumbai and headed past the Horn of Africa.

Jahiruddin seemed unsettled by the news of my departure and, perhaps assuming that he would not have another opportunity, peppered me with questions for the next 45 minutes.

Why did the British leave If the British left, why are you still here? What do you people like to eat the most? Do you think I am asking stupid questions? In America, if I like you and take you away, will your father kill me? What is the benefit to you of writing stories from here? How much money do you have in the bank? What is your salary? If you do not tell me your salary, how will I know how much money you have? Is it true that white people are not honest? When your replacement arrives, would he like to lease a car from me?

It went on like that. I promised to keep in touch, and he saved my telephone number under the name “Angrezi,” which translates, more or less, as “white lady.” We parted on good terms.

A short while later, someone told me about a in Peepli Khera, and I realized I had to visit him one more time.

Thursday: A Grim Rumor

While reporting in Peepli Khera, I often set myself up at the home of a woman named Anjum, who lived next to a hand pump for water and therefore served as a clearinghouse for gossip.

I was lounging there when I heard that a woman had been killed last year, bludgeoned to death by her husband in front of at least a dozen people.

Anjum said the woman’s screams had woken her from a deep sleep, and she stumbled through the dark to the neighbor’s house, some 20 feet away. The woman, Geeta, was cowering in a neighbor’s bathroom, a U-shaped enclosure used for showering, while her husband brought a bamboo stick down on her, again and again, she told my colleague Suhasini, who was translating.

“I dragged her out to protect her,” Anjum said. “No one was protecting her. Everyone was just watching.”

But when Anjum stepped away, Geeta’s husband — a slight man named Mukesh — stood above Geeta, who was slumped on the side of a rope cot, and brought the stick down on her head several more times. She died on the spot.

What bothered Anjum, she said, was that the police had been contacted about the killing but almost immediately closed their investigation, releasing Mukesh after a few hours.

In fact, just the day before my visit, Mukesh had remarried, to a girl who was lighter-skinned and taller than the dead woman, and he kept driving his new wife around on the back of his motorcycle, showing her off.

Mukesh’s brother, Bablu, happened to be hanging around Anjum’s, and he said his brother had caught Geeta cheating and had killed her.

“He was sad,” he said of his brother. “But then yesterday he got another one. So why would he be sad?”

We drove to the nearest police station, a few miles away, and a young constable, Jahangir Khan, was sent out to speak to us. He was carrying a rifle whose butt was held together with wire — he reckoned it dated to “the time of Hitler” — and he said he could tell that I was American because my nose shook when I talked, a characteristic he had observed while watching James Bond films.

What follows is an abridged version of our conversation:

Constable: She was sleeping on the terrace. She woke up to urinate. So there was a wooden staircase, a makeshift wooden staircase made of bamboo. Her leg slipped when she was coming down the staircase. She got hurt in the head.

Reporter: Didn’t her injuries suggest something more violent?

Constable: When you are hit by a stick, you will just be hit on one spot on your head and you will die. But when you fall off a staircase, you will not just get hit on the head. She had seven or eight marks on her body, which means she was not hit with a stick but she fell down the stairs.

Reporter: It seems unusual to get that kind of head injury falling down the stairs. You might break your neck.

Constable: When you fall off the stairs you will get bruised all over.

Reporter: Didn’t the neighbors tell you that she was beaten?

Constable: Some of the neighbors said the husband had killed her. But the wife was fine. She was strong and well fed and happy, and she had two kids. She was healthy, plump, like you.

After a while, the constable indicated that he had no more time to discuss the case. As he left, he turned back to me.

“This is the trick that foreign countries like yours are playing,” he said. “You will write something. People will read what you write, and say, ‘This country will progress only after 100 years.’”

Friday: Visiting the Killer

I had a degree of sympathy for the constable on his last point.

Over the past decade, in Russia and then India, I have been asked versions of this question hundreds of times: Who are you to come here and tell us what is wrong with our system? And it’s true, the whole enterprise of foreign correspondence has a whiff of colonialism. During the years I have worked abroad, Americans’ interest in promoting their values in the world has receded, slowly and then precipitously. I doubted the regional hegemons filling the vacuum would do better, but still, I wasn’t sure it was such a bad thing.

I worried, as the constable suggested, that I wrote too much about In India, in particular, where millions of people move out of extreme poverty every year, there is a great deal to be hopeful about — the transformation that comes with mobile phone and internet access, or with young women cashing their first paychecks, or even something like installing a family’s first air-conditioner.

I wrote those stories, too, but the move from dire poverty to ordinary poverty is subtle and difficult to capture. writes itself.

But there was also this: I had spoken to two young women who lived in the courtyard where Mukesh killed his wife. The next day, they crouched on the ground and used their hands to mop up the blood. They then covered the whole courtyard with a thin layer of cow dung, which hardens into something like plaster.

New wives occupy the lowest rung in the family hierarchy, which means that when food is scarce young women do not eat, even if they are pregnant. Caste rules forbid them to sit on chairs or cots if higher-ranking people are present, which is pretty much all the time, so I interviewed them the way I always did: me sitting on a cot, them crouched at my feet, looking up at me from the ground.

When I asked about Geeta’s killing, the older daughter-in-law answered quietly, because her answer did not line up with the village consensus.

“It was wrong,” she said. “What happens now if my husband beats me?”

We found Mukesh on his terrace with his new wife, slicing okra. My heart was racing as we climbed the stairs, but it needn’t have: When we asked him whether he had killed his wife, he told us in detail how he had done it. The new wife said she believed Geeta had deserved to be killed and Mukesh should not worry himself about it.

The new wife was excited because she was cooking on a gas stove, the one Geeta had signed up for before her death. At first it frightened her, but Mukesh had helped her light it, she said, blushing. She was enjoying wearing Geeta’s jewelry and using her makeup.

She seemed grouchy about one thing, which was that her in-laws had told her she would have to answer to a new name after the wedding. Her name was now Geeta.

Saturday: Back to the Constable

In my line of work, there are few things as gratifying as catching someone in a lie. We returned to the constable the next day, with a recording of Mukesh’s confession saved in my phone.

The constable seemed a little uneasy. He said he didn’t want to talk to us in the station, and invited us across the road to a tea stall. But the tea stall was occupied by a half-dozen khaki-clad police officers on break, mussing one another’s hair and smoking beedis, so he took us to a cubbyhole tractor repair shop, where we sat facing each other — him sitting on a lawn chair, me on a rope cot.

It was very hot, and bullock carts kept squeaking past on the main road. As we told him what we had discovered on the previous day, the constable kept mopping his forehead with a handkerchief. Then, after a minute or two, he spoke.

“When you get information of any kind,” he said, “you go and investigate. There are two sides to every story. We have to assume that both sides are telling the truth. Mukesh told us she fell down the stairs. We also spoke to the girl’s family. What the mother gave us in writing was that her daughter fell down the stairs.”

For the next 45 minutes, I asked him the same question in many different ways. As she translated, Suhasini tried to make my questions seem less angry, but this was not easy, since I was sitting three feet away from him, leaning forward and staring into his eyes.

If you had asked me at that moment, I would have had difficulty explaining why the truth mattered, since no one I had spoken to seemed interested in reopening the case. But I kept asking him and he kept lying until we were both exhausted.

At one point there was a sort of ripple in the surface of the conversation. We were sitting quietly, having run out of ways to restate our positions. He was gazing at the back wall of the shop, and, completely out of the blue, he said something about Mahatma Gandhi.

“People hang Gandhi’s portrait on their walls here,” he said, “but they do not follow Gandhi’s rules.” I asked him whether he liked being a policeman, and he shook his head briefly. No.

Then he asked us for a ride home. I wondered whether he might just be interested in riding in an air-conditioned van — people here were so poor, he might not get another chance — but as soon as we began to drive, he began to speak, staring not at us but at the road ahead.

“I will tell you, this was a murder,” he said.

He said that Mukesh’s family had bribed the senior officers in the police station, but that it could not have happened without a vigorous effort by the village chief, Jahiruddin Mewati, to persuade Geeta’s widowed mother, a day laborer from a village 30 miles away, to withdraw charges.

The whole thing made him a little sick. “I felt bad about it,” he said. “That’s the reason I want to quit this job. Ninety-nine percent of cases are dealt with in this way. I get very angry. I am an honest person. I can show you four guys here who can rape a woman as easily as plucking the feathers off a bird, but they never get arrested.”

He said he was thinking of becoming a driver and asked if we could help him get a visa to the United States. He asked how old my parents were, and where they lived, and whether it was true that many people suffered from diabetes in America. I said this was true, and he looked at me strangely, asking, “Why should I go to such a place?”

Sunday: The Headman Explains

So I found myself back in Jahiruddin’s yard, now armed with a file folder full of evidence that he had broken the law.

This was a change in the dynamic of our relationship. I put my phone on the table right in front of him, so he could see that I was recording. At one point, listening to us talk, his son tried to warn him that he was incriminating himself, but Jahiruddin didn’t care at all. He told us he was proud of burying the case.

This was not because he believed that Geeta deserved to die or that her husband deserved to escape punishment. It was something more practical. Mukesh’s extended family controlled 150 votes; Jahiruddin had won his last by 91. A case would have been a blot on their caste, and by brokering the cover-up, he had performed a particularly valuable service to a key vote bank. It might help him win re-someday.

“In India, there is no vote in the name of development,” he said. “In India, there is no vote in the name of doing something good. The vote is in the name of caste, family, community. And then 10 percent of people will say, ‘He did something good for me.’”

It had not been easy, he said. The police had demanded a large bribe from Mukesh’s family. The hardest part, he said, was persuading the victim’s mother to withdraw the charges.

The mother was a day laborer, a tiny, dark-skinned woman who worked on a construction site, carrying cement mix back and forth all day in a basket on her head. She had never been addressed by a policeman until the day of her daughter’s death, let alone a village chief. But she was angry when they saw the state of her daughter’s body. Mukesh had hit the girl so hard, her relatives said, that they could see her skull through the parted skin of her scalp.

Jahiruddin said he had worked on the mother for five hours before she relented.

“They were totally adamant — they said, ‘We will not allow this compromise to happen.’ They would not budge. They sent the girl’s body for post-mortem,” he said.

Sometimes it seemed that the European legal system, with its liberal emphasis on individual rights, had settled only lightly on a country fixated on the rights of groups. Political leaders have driven this deeper into the culture: Equality, in India, is equality among groups. Justice is group justice.

Whatever triumphal feeling I got from interrogating the constable, it was gone. So was my amusement with the village chief. He noticed this, and turned to Suhasini.

“Please ask her what type of person she thinks I am,” he asked her. “I’m not greedy. I don’t have any kind of greed. It’s a service. Maybe you think I am greedy for votes from villagers.”

When I failed to adequately reassure him, he became animated.

“You are here with some kind of greed,” he said. “You want some kind of news. But what am I getting from you? I gave up two hours of my time. What does that mean to you?”

On the way back to Delhi, we stopped by the town where the dead woman’s mother lived, but I no longer expected to find much interest in our investigation. The woman’s mother had accepted what the village chief told her, that dropping the case would be better for Geeta’s four children. That the consequences of provoking a conflict between related clans would have weighed heavily on her. It was all for the best, she said.

The silences between us extended uncomfortably, and I realized she was desperate for us to leave but did not dare to say it.

Beside her, with his knees drawn up to his chin, was a small boy of about 8, who had been listening to the whole conversation. It turned out to be Geeta’s son. He was silently glowering, and when I asked him what he thought about this whole situation, he said his father was a good-for-nothing.

“My father did not love my mother,” he said, his voice so quiet that I had to lean forward to hear him.

His grandmother looked at him dotingly. “Maybe when he grows up,” she said, “he will take revenge.”

© New York Times News Service

First Published: Tue, August 22 2017. 09:38 IST
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