She a double MA, he a Class VI dropout. Theirs was a relationship star-crossed from the start that ended in the violent killing of seven of her family members. Now with the Supreme Court upholding — and then staying — the death penalty imposed on the couple, Uma Vishnu travels to Amroha to tell their story.
By 2 am, they were dead. All six of them. Shabnam allegedly held each of them by their hair while Saleem aimed the axe at their necks. Drugged, they offered no resistance — Shabnam’s father Shaukat Ali, 55, mother Hashmi, 50, elder brother Anees, 35, and wife Anjum, 25, younger brother Rashid, 22, and cousin Rabia, 14. Shabnam then allegedly throttled 10-month-old Arsh, her brother Anees’s baby, who lay still, his dead parents on either side. The seventh victim. Then, the first cries pierced through the stillness of the mango orchards: “Bachao, bachao…”
That was on April 14-15, 2008. Bawankhedi, a village in Hasanpur tehsil of Amroha in western Uttar Pradesh, had witnessed the most diabolical of murders. Seven years later, on May 15 this year, a Supreme Court bench of Chief Justice of India H L Dattu and Justices S A Bobde and Arun Mishra upheld the death sentence awarded by the Amroha Sessions Court in 2010 to Shabnam and her lover Saleem. But only 10 days later, on May 25, the apex court dramatically stayed the death warrants.
The tall, rusting iron gates to Shabnam’s house open into an unkempt lawn. On the right is a two-storeyed house, the balcony of which faces the main road. It was here that Shabnam stood that night, around 2 am, crying for help.
“When I heard her cries, I thought there had been a robbery,” says Hasmat Hussain, 72, a retired primary school teacher whose house is just across the road from Shabnam’s and who is the second prosecution witness in the case.
Hussain says since the gates were locked, he and his son and a few neighbours scaled the boundary wall and saw Shabnam standing on the first-floor balcony. “We asked her to come down but she kept crying, saying they’d kill her next. After a lot of persuasion, she came down the stairs and opened the locks to the main door. We ran up and saw masterji (Shaukat Ali) and the others lying in pools of blood. A few minutes later, the police arrived and I took Shabnam home for a few hours,” he says, sitting on a stringed cot in the courtyard on the first floor of the house, right at the spot where he saw Shaukat Ali dead.
The courtyard, which extends into the balcony, opens into three rooms. It was in one of these that Anees, his wife and their baby lay dead. The adjacent room, Rashid’s, has blotches of rusty red on its dull green walls.
“See, the blood stains are still here,” says Shabnam’s younger uncle Sattar Ali, 46, who moved into the house with his family after the murders. “Rashid was a strong boy. He was drugged but he must have put up a fight,” he says.
At the far end of the courtyard is the room where Shabnam’s mother and her cousin were killed. Shabnam was to have slept here that night but didn’t.
She later told the police she had been sleeping on the terrace since it was hot and had come down as it started raining and discovered the murders. In one corner of the room is a shelf built into the wall, still holding books of Anees, Rashid and Rabia, all caked with dust. On the wall is a framed work of art signed by Shabnam. “Masterji taught art at Taharpur Intermediate College. Shabnam had inherited masterji’s skills. She was good with her fingers,” says Hussain.
Amroha SHO R P Gupta, who took over as Investigating Officer of the case on April 15, the morning of the murder, says he had his doubts the moment he saw the beds on which the victims lay. Now retired, he says, “The sheets were crumpled but not the way they would have been had the victims thrashed about while they were being attacked. So when I took the bodies for post-mortem, I asked the doctor if it was possible that they had been drugged. We had recovered an empty strip of 10 tablets of nashilee goliyan (Biopose) so I had my doubts. And sure enough…”
The doctors who conducted the post-mortem that afternoon found traces of the tranquilizer diazepam (Biopose is the brand name) in the viscera of all bodies except 10-month-old Arsh’s. The prosecution argued that Shabnam had poisoned their food, possibly served them tea laced with the drug, and since the baby may have been only drinking milk, he couldn’t be drugged. That was a theory the High Court relied on while upholding the death sentence.
Besides the empty tablet foil, Gupta claimed to have recovered blood-stained clothes from Shabnam (she was wearing another set of clothes when the first eyewitness arrived at the spot) as well as her mobile phone and Saleem’s SIM. He says he later got Saleem to “point out” the exact spot in a pond nearby where he had allegedly thrown the axe after the murders and recovered his blood-stained shirt and mobile phone from his house. “I got the call records out and that sealed it,” says Gupta proudly.
Shabnam had initially named a cousin of hers, who had also been detained, “but as an IO”, he adds, “my hunch all along was that this girl was in it”.
The prosecution claimed that Saleem and Shabnam made frequent calls to each other between 7.30 pm on April 14 and 1.09 am the following day. “…And there was a gap of 31 minutes,” reads the High Court judgment. This, the prosecution alleges, was the time Saleem was present in Shabnam’s house and when the murders were carried out. The two again spoke from 1.40 am to 2.09 am. It was after this that Shabnam cried out for help.
On April 19, five days after the murders, Shabnam and Saleem, both in their 20s, were arrested. They were both sent to Moradabad jail, from where Saleem was later shifted to Agra Central Jail. In December that year, Shabnam, who was seven weeks pregnant when she was arrested, gave birth to their son Taj.
During the course of their trial, the couple turned against each other. The Supreme Court judgment says that in her Section 313 statement, Shabnam said Saleem had entered the house with a knife through the roof and killed all her family members while she was asleep. Saleem, on the other hand, said he reached the house “only on the request of Shabnam” and that when he reached there, she confessed to having killed the others.
“They were never meant to be together,” says Hussain. “Shabnam’s was the most educated family in the whole of Hasanpur. Masterji was someone everyone looked up to, his eldest son Rashid was an engineer in Jalandhar, Shabham has a double MA (English and Geography) and taught at the village primary school, and Rashid was a final year B.Tech student.”
Saleem, a Class VI dropout, worked at a wood sawing unit outside Shabnam’s home and spoke to his friends about striking it out on his own.
There was a lot of tension in Shabnam’s household those days about her relationship with Saleem, Hussain says.
“Sabse badi baat, biradiri alag thi (The biggest problem was that they belonged to different communities). She is a Saifi Muslim, he is a Pathan,” says Rauf Khan, a village elder.
Friends of Shabnam and Saleem say they gave no hints of being in a relationship. “I have never seen Saleem get up and go in the middle of a conversation to take a phone call. Don’t they do that, phone kaan se chipkake (glued to their phones), if they have girlfriends,” says Saleem’s friend Sajid Khan, 34, who was in Moradabad jail around the time Saleem was there.
“I was inside for some quarrel in the village. We were in the same jail for two years. I could never get myself to ask him if he actually did it,” says Khan.
In a photograph from her brother Anees’s wedding in 2006, Shabnam has her arm around a friend who’s “more like family”. “Not many would want to admit they are friends with Shabnam. I am not afraid but I don’t want my in-laws to object,” says one of the girls in the photograph, speaking on the condition of anonymity.
Looking at the photograph, she smiles. “You see her haircut? She was fond of going to the beauty parlour. We would pull her leg, saying she could spend all the money she wanted to but would still be dark-complexioned. She would simply smile,” says the friend, now 30 and the mother of a five-year-old. “I have seen Saleem in the area around her house. But the two never looked like they were together,” she adds.
At Saleem’s house, an exposed brick structure in the far end of the village, his mother Chaman and two sisters are wary of outsiders. “Yes, we have visited him in jail. I don’t remember what we spoke. How is that important?” shoots back Saleem’s sister, furiously fanning her child.
“You can choose whether to believe me… but my son would never do such a thing. That night he left home only after the entire village woke up to the deaths. Maine apne sar pe haath rakhwake bulwaya tha (I made him swear he hadn’t done it)… he said he wasn’t involved. Beta toh beta hai. Sara kasoor meri phooti kismat ka hai (He is my son, after all. The fault lies in my fate),” says Saleem’s mother, interrupted by angry glares from her three daughters. Her younger son is away in Saudi Arabia and her husband works as a daily wager in Haryana.
On the lawn of Shabnam’s house, the men on the stringed cot are still discussing the killings, like they do every time they get visitors. Today, a few people from the village have brought their relatives from Aligarh on a tour of Shabnam’s house and of the seven graves lined up near the boundary wall.
“She could have simply run away with Saleem. But then, how could she? She knew Saleem had no money and could never hope to earn. Besides, she was pregnant with his child. Bhaage bhi toh kahan bhaage? Yahan paisa hai, jaydad hai (Where could she have run? Here there’s money, property)…” says Hussain.
“Who would have known this quiet girl, who always walked with her eyes lowered, would do this to her own parents and siblings? And now she is stuck with an illegitimate child. Who will take care of the child after she is gone?” says her uncle Sattar Ali.
Usman Saifi, a journalist in Bulandshahr, believes he has the answer to that. Shabnam’s son Taj turns seven this year and he can no longer stay with his mother in the barrack at the Moradabad jail. As the district Child Welfare Committee (CWC) looked for people who might be willing to adopt the child, Usman turned up.
“The Shabnam you hear of, the woman on death row, is not the Shabnam I know. We went to the same college, she was two years my senior. We took the same bus back from college, usually sat next to each other and shared jokes. Those days, main har maamle main kamzor tha (I was weak in all respects) — money, health, studies — and she helped me throughout. She once paid my college fee when I couldn’t, she would help me with my notes and stand up for me in college. All this, just like an elder sister would. But we lost touch after my graduation in 2005. So when this happened, I was shocked. From 2012, I tried 13 times to meet her in jail and my application was rejected each time. Finally, I saw advertisements in Hindi newspapers about the child being put up for adoption. I told my wife that I owe a lot to Shabnam and must do this for her. So we applied and seven months ago, I got a call from the CWC asking if I wanted to meet her.”
When Usman finally met Shabnam, she had her face covered with a veil — she always does that, says jail superintendent B R Verma, “so it’s impossible to read her face” — but Usman says he instantly knew something had changed. “Chid-chidi si, baat nahin sunna… yeh Shabnam alag thi (She was irritable, wouldn’t listen… this Shabnam was different),” he says.
When he offered to adopt Taj and “take care of him like he is my child”, he says, Shabnam told him he wouldn’t be able to protect the child. “She told me, ‘The people who killed my parents will kill him… I can’t let him go’.”
She has now asked for time to decide whether she wants to send Taj with Usman.
In the outhouse of Shabnam’s home, her aunt Fatima Khatoon, 45, is just back from shopping. She admits she hasn’t considered the possibility of Shabnam returning home.
“Before this incident, I had hardly met Shabnam. We used to stay in our ancestral village Taharpur and Shabnam’s family stayed here. We weren’t too well off and her father never helped us. After the murders, we moved in here. People say this property is worth crores and that if she comes back we will have to move out. But we have a share too.
“After this ghinauni harkat (despicable act) of hers, how can she come here? And that child she has… Shabnam is not even married. How can he be the waaris (heir)?”
And then Fatima pauses, and asks, “What you do think? Will she come back? Ummeed hai?”