CHENNAI: Amid the confusion generated by the claims and counterclaims in the Ryan International School murder case, the one person who put a finger on the pulse was the accused bus driver Ashok Kumar’s wife Mamta. She said: “My husband was framed by the Gurugram police. This happened because we are poor.”
In case after case of this sort, blaming underprivileged individuals is a ready-made template that is followed by law enforcement agencies and civil society alike. Be it a burglary or a household homicide, police first point the needle of suspicion at domestic workers and then take up the investigation. It’s a tactic that predisposes our police to make preposterous mistakes — as seen in the Ryan school murder case.
The Ryan school murder was not the first case in which law enforcement agencies leapt first and looked later. There have been repeated instances where poorly paid workers, including domestic servants, were named as prime suspects without any prima facie evidence.
In the Aarushi Talwar murder case for instance, the Noida police initially suspected the Talwars’ domestic help Hemraj and launched a manhunt only to be shocked the next day to find his body lying on the terrace of the same flat where Aarushi had been murdered. The police had not as much as searched the scene of offence thoroughly enough before naming the suspect – who in this case lay dead himself a few dozen yards from the victim.
After Hemraj’s body was found, police pointed their finger at a compounder at the Talwars’ Noida clinic and then domestic servants of their friends and neighbours. All of them were subjected to rough interrogation before being given the clean chit by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), which was given the case after the initial hiccups.
To date, it is yet not clear who murdered Aarushi. Apart from the fact that it is a compelling mystery, the series of botch-ups and false leads seen in the case make it an example of the ‘servant-dunit’ syndrome of Indian crime investigation.
Despite the standing example of the Aarushi case, the Gurugram police once again jumped to the hastiest conclusion available to them when the body of seven-year-old Pradyuman was discovered in the toilet of Ryan International School. The very day the murder came to light, they arrested bus conductor Ashok Kumar and put out stories in the media that CCTV footage from the crime scene nailed his culpability.
Yet, two months into the investigation, the CBI came on the scene and cited that very footage to say that Ashok Kumar had no role in the murder. Instead, they said a class 11 student, said to be weak in studies, had killed Pradyuman to get the school to declare a holiday in order to defer a scheduled parent-teacher meeting and an exam.
Even a cursory search on Google throws up a number of results in which domestic workers were named as the first suspects even before the investigation had begun, be it theft or murder.
Activists fighting for the rights of such workers say this tendency is a result of the caste system. As a report by the National Domestic Workers’ Movement (NDWD) says, “In India, the stigma linked to domestic work is heightened by the caste system since tasks such as cleaning and sweeping are associated with people belonging to the so-called low castes. They are often victims of suspicion. If anything is missing in the house, they are the first ones to be accused of threats, physical violence, police interrogation, conviction, and even dismissal.”
Says Christin Mary National coordinator of NDWD, “We have come across many cases where domestic workers were not even involved but were suspected of a crime committed by a family member itself. This is largely because there are no proper laws to protect them.Domestic workers are a vulnerable and marginalized group. Since they work inside four walls, they are prone to false accusations and have no rights and laws to fall back on.”
Mohit Verma, the lawyer defending bus conductor Ashok Kumar, said the police are mainly to blame for using the ‘suspicious servant’ template by default. “People like Kumar are easy targets for the police. They don’t have any legal protection. They are invariably coerced into giving confessions.”
While there is an incipient but sparsely-funded movement in India to secure rights for domestic workers, the fight is more in the realm of wages and working conditions rather than safety from an unjust application of the process of the law, as seen in the Ryan murder case.