How to Get Away With Murder in Small-Town India
In India, there is no vote in the name of doing something good. The vote is in the name of caste, family, community.
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 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 election. During our conversations, he would often break into rousing, patriotic speeches about truth and justice. The effect was somewhat tarnished by his Tourette’s syndrome, which caused him to interject the word “penis” at regular intervals.
A short while later, someone told me about a murder in Peepli Khera, and I realized I had to visit him one more time.
Anjum said that she had witnessed the murder of Geeta by her husband.
Photo: Andrea Bruce for The New York Times
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. The woman, Geeta, was cowering in a neighbor’s bathroom while her husband hit her with a bamboo stick 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, Mukesh, stood above Geeta, who was slumped on the side of a rope cot, and hit her on the head several more times. She died on the spot.
What bothered Anjum, she said, was that police had been contacted about the killing but almost immediately closed their investigation, releasing Mukesh after a few hours.
The day before my visit, Mukesh had remarried, 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, and a young constable, Jahangir Khan, was sent out to speak to us.
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
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. 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.
Jahangir Khan, the young constable who initially propagated the official version of events that labeled Geeta’s murder an accident.
Photo: Andrea Bruce for The New York Times
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 on 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 it was occupied by a half-dozen police officers on break, so he took us to a cubbyhole tractor repair shop, where we sat facing each other.
It was very hot. As we told him what we had discovered the day before, 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.
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.
“I will tell you, this was a murder,” he said.
He said Mukesh’s family had bribed the senior officers in the police station, but 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 murder charges.
“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.”
Jahiruddin Mewati, the chief of Peepli Khera, India, where Geeta was beaten to death by her husband, Aug. 4, 2017.
Photo: Andrea Bruce for The New York Times
Sunday: The Headman Explains
So I found myself back in Jahiruddin’s yard, 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 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. 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 election by 91. A murder 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-election 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.’”
© 2017 New York Times News Service