November 12, 2014 was probably the most important day of 21-year-old Bhawna Yadav’s brief life. It was the birthday of her boyfriend of two years, Abhishek Seth, and the day the two had chosen to elope and get married. “We had planned it all in detail for over two months. There was no scope of error,” says Seth, 24. The only thing they had failed to take into account was how her parents would react to their decision. On November 16, Bhawna, a resident of Dwarka, was allegedly strangulated to death by her parents and then cremated at their village in Alwar, about 200 km away. She was allegedly killed for marrying the man of her choice, a man who belonged to a different community.
In her class of 23 final year Sanskrit (Honours) students at Delhi University’s Sri Venkateswara College, or Venky as it is popularly called, she was simply Roll no. 2 — the girl who rarely came to class, the “girl with the boyfriend”. Yet, Bhawna was not always known to turn a blind eye to the prospects of education. She completed her class 12th from Sarvodaya Kanya Vidyala in Kakrola, scoring 60 per cent in her boards, a chirpy teenager who sat in the front row and who, despite being an average student, was never tardy. She rarely missed classes and would forever stress on the importance of getting into a good college. Getting admission in the prestigious South Campus college was a dream come true for her. “She had studied Sanskrit till class 12th and barely managed a good score in the exams. But it was not the course, but the college which mattered to her,” recalls Soni, her classmate in school, and a close friend who lived in her neighbourhood.
It was at Venky that she would meet Abhishek, even though he was studying for his Bachelors in Computer Application at the Indira Gandhi National Open University (IGNOU). Abhishek had been dating one of Bhawna’s friends from school and the two were familiar with each other. When he broke up later, a common friend told him that Bhawna had a crush on him. “Our friend arranged a meeting in 2012. I had to go to her college, because she was not allowed to go elsewhere. Thankfully, it was a co-ed college, otherwise we would not have gone on that first date,” says Abhishek. He says their relationship was a classic case of opposites hitting it off really well. He encouraged her to experiment with her looks and introduced her to different cuisines. Soon, Bhawna would take to stitching clothes and try her hand at cooking unfamiliar dishes like pasta at home. “She used to be surprised initially by my relationship with my parents and how they knew about my past girlfriends. Slowly, I think, I became a mirror of the life she wanted to have,” says Abhishek, sitting in his residence in Hastsal near Vikaspuri in west Delhi.
Soni remembers how Bhawna changed in college, but in a “cool way”. “She started travelling on her own, dressing differently, and giving tuitions to earn pocket money. But she stuck to us, her school friends,” she says. Months after she joined college, her pigtails were replaced by straight black hair that dropped to her shoulders. Her comfort fit colourful salwar kameezes gave way to skinny jeans, shirts, and dresses in pinks, whites and blacks. Bhawna would design and stitch most of them herself from materials scoured from the Sarojini Nagar market. Tailoring was a skill she had picked up on her own, turning to online designs or magazines for ideas. By the end of the first year, she began leaving college by midday. College records from the last semester show that she had attended only 43 of 235 classes, with an 18.3 per cent attendance record. When she did come to college, she would be glued to her phone.
It was also the time when she began to chafe at the restrictions imposed by her parents — like other girls from her community, Bhawna was expected to be home by 5 pm and not go anywhere but to college. “In our first year together, we only met once a week, usually on Saturdays. When I joined work as an adhoc programmer at Rashtrapati Bhawan last year, I would leave for lunch early, and she would leave college to meet me in Connaught Place or Mandi House,” says Abhishek. These were places she had never seen before and every day became an adventure for her, a glimpse into a life she had never known. “She began dreaming of a new life. She had started to feel suffocated at home. She would often speak about going for a movie in the evening or having dinner out after we got married. These were things that she really looked forward to,” says Abhishek. Bhawna had also been planning to get a tattoo, with their initials on her arm, after the two got married.
A visit to Alwar to attend a cousin’s wedding left her incensed. “She ranted about how her cousin had to wear a ghunghat all the time, and was not allowed to sit down in front of her in-laws or eat till the other family members had finished their meal. I calmed her down after a lot of effort and with a cup of cappuccino made the way she liked,” says Abhishek.
Three weeks after her death, Venkateswara College is busy with the final semester exams. Students and teachers in the Sanskrit department have little to say about Bhawna, who last came to class three weeks before the semester exams were to start.
“I kept telling her to be regular, letters were also sent to her parents. We dedicate the first 10 minutes of every lecture on morality; in the final year, her class was studying the Bhagwad Gita — who knows if she had spent more time in college, maybe things would have turned out different,” says a senior faculty of her department, on conditions of anonymity. At a candle light march organised outside her college, only one teacher from the English department turned up. The four teachers in her department and her classmates chose to stay away.
No one really knew Bhawna, says one classmate. “She almost never came to class and there were days when she would spend all the time in the college canteen with her boyfriend, clicking pictures together or sharing snacks,” she says. She would rarely participate in class activities, but showed a quick understanding of the concepts on the days she attended lectures. Never a brilliant student, her grades, however, dropped rapidly. She scored less than 40 per cent in her first and second year exams and failed to clear them in one go in both years.
Studies were the last thing on Bhawna’s mind at the time. Her parents had selected a groom for her from within their community and the boy and his family had visited their residence. She was scared her fate would turn out to be similar to her cousin’s. “She was so put off that she fasted for 16 consecutive Mondays in the belief that she would get married to the man of her choice. She began going to religious places, praying for our life together,” says Abhishek. That was also the time when, just a year into their relationship, she proposed that they get married. It took Abhishek two months to agree — he thought they were too young to take the plunge — but when he did, Bhawna was beside herself with joy.
After much deliberation, Abhishek chose the Arya Samaj temple in Mandir Marg as their wedding venue. A friend had recently gotten married there and he had been impressed by how organised and efficient they were. “They provide a lawyer for the marriage registration, and the registration certificate comes earlier than usual,” he says. Bhawna, in the meanwhile, had been secreting out her clothes and essential documents in her college bag every day, and giving them to Abhishek. A fortnight before the wedding, she began stitching her wedding attire — an elaborate lehenga-choli in red and gold, embroidering and lining it with gotas that she bought over several trips to the markets. “She was very particular about the wedding outfit. She knew exactly the kind of borders, embroidery or threadwork she wanted. We would trawl the markets several times to get things of her choice. It was like going on an expedition,” says Kirti, a friend, who accompanied her on these shopping trips. Bhawna would stitch the outfit at night, after her parents went to bed, exchanging messages with Abhishek over WhatsApp about their upcoming wedding. “She communicated a lot more on messages because she was shy. We had no money to go for a honeymoon immediately after the wedding, and she also had her exams to prepare for. We thought we would go in December, after her 22nd birthday. She had never been to the sea and wanted to go to a beach,” he says.
Like all other days, Bhawna woke up early on November 12, finished her chores and left, telling her family she was going to college. At 9 am, she met up with her friend Kirti to go to the Arya Samaj temple. She seemed nervous, but her friend put it down to the pre-wedding jitters. “The first thing she asked me that day was if she was doing the right thing. She became teary-eyed and emotional, and so I asked her if she really loved Abhishek. That was all it took. Soon, she was talking about the kind of mehendi she wanted,” says Kirti.
During the course of the many conversations she had with Kirti and Abhishek, Bhawna had talked about the world she came from and the rigid customs that governed their lives. The Yadavs lived in a three-storey home in Bharat Vihar, a densely populated colony in Dwarka on the outskirts of Delhi. Bhawna was born and brought up in Delhi. The family had strong ties with their relatives living in the ancestral home in Baroda Kan in Alwar and visited often. Her homemaker mother Savitri was a stern taskmaster and did not take kindly to transgressions of any sort. Bhawna seemed more attached to her father Jagmohan, a property dealer than her mother. She was especially fearful of her maternal uncle, a man prone to violence, who came to their house often. Even then, she had told her parents about Abhishek when they began looking for a groom for her. “She was very scared of her mother. Her mother had grown distant ever since she told them about Abhishek and barely spoke to her. Even on the day of the wedding, she kept saying her father would come around, but her mother would find it difficult to forgive her,” says Kirti.
To her female cousins in Alwar, she was the Delhi didi who, unlike them, had the privilege of education, owned a cell phone and who could go out “just to meet friends”. The same reasons made Bhawna’s conduct unacceptable to her paternal uncles Manohar and Samay Singh. “She stayed in Delhi throughout, which is why she made this mistake. Had she been brought up here, she would not have dared disobey her parents. It is about upholding your family’s pride. How could she even think of marrying into another caste? Don’t talk to our girls about her. We don’t want them to get foolish ideas and think of her as some sort of a martyr,” says Manohar.
On the day of the wedding, Abhishek recalls battling nerves and a niggling doubt about whether he was prepared for marriage. “But when she stood there, radiant in her wedding dress, wearing chooras, all my doubts vanished,” he says. Hours after their wedding, when she first called her parents, they came over to the Seth household along with her maternal uncle and took her away, promising to send her back after the wedding rituals. Two days later, Abhishek got a call from Bhawna, pleading with him to take her away since her parents had arranged her marriage to the other suitor. He picked her up immediately, but a few hours later, her family was back again, apologising and promising not to deceive them anymore. That was the last time Abhishek would see Bhawna. Her parents have been arrested since for killing their daughter.
Sitting in a room full of Bhawna’s belongings, Abhishek says her absence has still not sunk in. “Every morning at six, she would send me a good morning message. Now, I wake up early and stare at my phone, willing it to buzz. Are you sure she is really gone?”
The story appeared in print with the headline Before The Beginning, The End