Sister Abhaya and Why Society Refuses to Accept Crimes Against Women

Social Commentary

Sister Abhaya and Why Society Refuses to Accept Crimes Against Women

Illustration: Robin Chakraborty

Nearly 30 years ago, a nun in Kerala’s Pious X Convent was found dead in a well. Sister Abhaya was killed in March 1992, and it was only now, at the end of 2020, that her killers were found guilty and sentenced to life imprisonment. Abhaya’s murder was followed by a twisting investigation and legal battle to get her justice, a battle that took 28 years to fight. The special Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) court in Kerala’s Thiruvananthapuram found Father Thomas Kottoor and Sister Sephy guilty of murder and destruction of evidence in connection to Abhaya’s death. In addition to life imprisonment, the two convicts were also fined ₹5 lakh each by the court.

At the time of her death, Sister Abhaya was an inmate of the Pious X Convent Hostel, who was a pre-degree student in a college in Kottayam. As subsequent investigations by state police and CBI discovered, Abhaya was killed for discovering an affair involving Kottoor, Sephy, and another priest, Father Puthrikkayl. When she stumbled upon the trio during a late night trip to the kitchen, Kottoor and Sephy strangulated her, attacked her with an axe, and dumped her body down the compound well with Puthrikkayl’s help. The young woman’s life was snuffed out just to keep a secret, and it would be a while before her death was even treated as a murder.

The initial investigation of Sister Abhaya’s death by the crime branch of the Kerala state police ruled it to be a suicide. It was only after the CBI began investigating the case in 1993 after complaints from the nuns at the convent. Kottoor, Sephy, and Puthrikkayl were finally arrested in November 2008. Glimpses of this pattern were also seen this year in the Hathras rape case, where media initially attempted to pass off the victim’s death as a case of “honour killing”, before the CBI confirmed that she was raped.

The Hathras victim, like Sister Abhaya, will not be able to see her killers brought to justice. Tragically, she died due to the injuries they inflicted on her. These women are just two examples of how justice delayed is justice denied. The judicial system does eventually bring perpetrators of crimes against women to account, but all too often the victims themselves become casualties along the way. Even as the women who’ve suffered the most are lost, the rest of Indian society takes solace in the notion that the guilty were made to pay.

Consider the reaction to the death of rapists in society. In the last 12 months, we have seen both the state-sanctioned execution of the Nirbhaya rapists, as well as the extra-legal “encounter” killing of the men who raped and murdered a veterinarian in Hyderabad last December. One so-called proper manner of punishing rapists, and another more vigilante variant of justice. While a majority of the nation cheered on the demise of the rapists, the sad fact was that their victims had already lost their lives. Safety for women goes beyond simply punishing rapists, it means ensuring conditions are in place for women to get raped in the first place.

While two of Sister Abhaya’s killers have been sent to prison, the life they ended will never return. And no amount of strict punishments by the courts is going to bring these women back to life.