As I read about the ‘honour killing’ of Amrita Singh, the Rourkela girl strangulated to death by her relatives for the ‘crime’ of marrying a Muslim man, my mind inevitably went back 30 years in time when another inter-faith love story blossomed in the same Steel City but later went horribly wrong. Little, it seems, has changed in the three decades since that incident. As in Amrita’s case, the one 30 years back also ended in the tragic death of a young girl. [It is important to note that it is ALWAYS the girl who has to die to save the family’s ‘honour’, never the boy.] At a time when the youth is trying to break free of the medieval mindset and the barriers of caste, class and creed that have held the country back for so long, it is distressing to find that their parents continue to be trapped in a time warp.
My good friend ‘A’ (whose identity will have to remain a secret to respect his privacy) was a teacher in a college in Rourkela when he fell for a Muslim girl (who will be referred to as ‘F’ in the rest of the write up). Both of them were outstanding minds and it was perhaps natural that what began as an intellectual companionship eventually turned into love. But knowing that F’s parents would never agree to marriage between the two, ‘A’ had sent two of his close friends – I and another friend who was a lecturer in the same college – to her house to gauge her mother’s attitude without broaching the subject of his marriage. The girl’s mother was decency personified. She received is warmly and graciously and managed to convince us to have lunch. The conversation, mostly in English and Hindi (we could see that she was not very comfortable in Odia), lasted an incredible five-six hours, interspersed with a wonderful lunch, and covered a wide range of topics, including inter-faith relations in India, though only on general terms. [I later found out that she was post graduate in English.] Midway through the conversation, her husband came for lunch and greeted us as warmly as his wife had done before.
As we left the place, we were upbeat about the prospects of A’s marriage with F. “If there is one truly secular, liberal family in India, it is this,” I remember telling my good friend Mihir on the way back.
How wrong can impressions get!
When F finally mustered the courage to tell her parents about her plans to marry A, they were furious. With parental consent ruled out, she eloped and married A in a Ghaziabad court. From Ghaziabad, the newly-wed couple came straight to my non-descript rented house in Baramunda Housing Board Colony in Bhubaneswar – not exactly a honeymooners’ paradise but the best – and the safest - they could afford in the circumstances. By then, A was a lecturer in a government college. He left after a few days leaving F in my care. I also had to see her off to Delhi where she was to take admission in a master’s programme in JNU (she had topped the entrance).
Later, I learnt from A that just as F and A’s friend in Delhi were waiting for a bus to go to JNU for the admission, her parents showed up there. “Since you are legally married now, we are reconciled to it. But your naani (maternal grandmother) is in the death bed and wants to see you once. We shall leave you here in two days’ time. I any case, the admission is open till the next week. Will you not fulfill her wishes?” her mother asked her, using emotional blackmail to telling effect. Poor girl! How was she to know that it was an elaborate charade? She agreed and went with her parents to Karachi where her naani lived. [It is instructive to note that Amrita’s two brothers and her brother-in-law used the same treachery to bring her back to her parental home before killing her.]
In those pre-mobile days, A got the news very late. He kept hoping against hope that her in-laws would honour their commitment, but it was not to be. The ‘two days’ turned into weeks and then months, but F remained under virtual house arrest in the palatial building of her maternal grandparents. ‘A’ did everything he could to get his lady love back. I remember taking him to Debashish Munshi, the then correspondent of The Times of India, who later did a great story on the incident that was published as a six-column ‘hanger’ on the front page. Soon, the ‘Dawn’, ‘The International Herald Tribune’ and several other international media organizations picked up the story. Not content with this, A then filed a habeas corpus petition in the Supreme Court. The apex court ordered the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) to produce her in court. The MEA, in turn, asked the Indian High Commission in Pakistan to trace F. But when two officials from the High Commission reached her grandparents’ place, she was dead and cremated! The official version, duly corroborated by an obliging local police (F’s uncles owned one of the biggest transport chains in Pakistan and thus wielded a lot of clout in the administration), was that she had burnt herself while cooking and died (how convenient!)! It was a blatant lie, for sure, but there was little that A – or anyone else, for that matter – could do about it – just as Kulbhusan Jadhav’s family is finding 30 years later!
The biggest revelation in the whole case for me, however, was a letter written by F’s mother, the lady I had met just a few months ago, to her brother. ‘F’ had managed to write a letter to ‘A’ during her months- long house arrest and had inserted her mom’s letter in it. Even after so many days, one particular line in the letter remains firmly etched in mind. “I would rather have her dead than come back to India,” she wrote to her brother in what was more a command than an expression of desire. And sure enough, F was dead and never came back to India!
Amrita and F are but only two entries in the long and seemingly interminable chain of ‘honour killings’ that continues unabated in our supposedly civilized country since medieval times. With the ‘love jihad’ brigade getting the kind of traction it has in the last couple of years, the danger of more names being added to the list is greater now than ever before.