FOR SIX years, Sandeep and Anju Verma did not dare return home to Ichhwapur village in Rae Bareli. After they did last year, Anju Verma was too scared to leave home for two months. Then, she started stepping out, but never too far and never without her veil. On September 2 evening, the 25-year-old went to relieve herself in the fields with other women of the household. Within hours, she was dead, her head bashed in with a cricket bat allegedly by her cousin, who had been angry with her for getting married to a Dalit.
The mango orchard where Anju was attacked lies a stone’s throw from the houses where the 25-year-old, an OBC, and 26-year-old Sandeep, a Dalit, grew up. The fields around are where they first met.
Following an FIR for murder at the Salon Police Station, Anju’s cousin and main accused Pankaj, 20, was arrested. But Anju’s brother Pradeep and cousins Ajay and Vijay, who were allegedly with Pankaj at the time of the attack, are absconding. Police are also looking for Anju’s uncle Ashok.
If Sandeep’s home is in shock, 100 metres away, Anju’s house stands locked, the family having left since the incident.
Ichhwapur village has a population of 700, with an equal number of OBC and Dalit homes. Residents claim there has been no tension between the castes.
Recalling how they first met, Sandeep says, “Anju was around 16 and I 17 when we started talking. I gave her a Nokia phone so that we could talk at night. Soon we started meeting in the fields and would just sit and talk for hours.” Smiling feebly, he adds, “Several times her family members seized her phone. I remember I gave her five phones in all during those early days.”
After two years, Anju told Sandeep she wanted to spend the rest of her life with him. “It was the best day of my life,” he says.
Realising their families would not accept their relationship as they were from different castes, the two decided to go to Ludhiana where Sandeep had friends who could help him find work.
Sitting on the ground near Sandeep, his 60-year-old father Harilal says he was deeply “embarrassed” when Anju’s father Rajendra Verma stormed into their house to accuse Sandeep of tricking his daughter into running away with him. “My first thought was Sandeep would not do this. I felt he had let me down and people would laugh at me. I started crying. Then I contacted some of his friends and got to know he is in Ludhiana.”
Harilal says he begged Sandeep to return, and he and Anju came back a couple of days later. Anju’s family took her away, and sent her to a relative’s house. Sandeep says he returned to Ludhiana “as I could not face my family”. “A few days passed and on August 15, 2012, Anju called me and said she could not live without me… I went directly to her, we took a bus and came to Ludhiana.”
Sandeep says he joined work as a salesman at a hosiery shop. “With the help of a colleague I rented a room for Rs 1,800 and married Anju at a local Krishna temple. We got the wedding registered two years later when I attained the legal age (of 21).”
For a while, he says, “life was beautiful”. “I called her Kajal, she called me Deep. I earned around Rs 12,000 a month, we would cook together, I would take her shopping. Those six years passed so fast.”
Harilal says he didn’t contact Sandeep in all this time, as he was angry with him.
Then, in January last year, Sandeep’s granduncle died. “I planned a short visit with Anju to attend the funeral, and ended up staying a month. On the day we were to go back, we missed our train. I decided to stay a little longer, and then things started to change. My father had started talking to me by then and it seemed we were a family again. Anju was so happy. I opened a welding shop here and never went back to Ludhiana.” Recently, the family made their single-floor house pucca with the money Sandeep saved in Ludhiana and later earned from the welding shop.
The couple remained apprehensive of the reaction of Anju’s family though, and hence she almost never ventured out. Seema, the wife of Sandeep’s younger brother, says that on September 2 morning, she, Anju and their sister-in-law Rekha went to the fields to relieve themselves. While the family has a toilet, they prefer the open.
“We left the house around 5 in the evening. Around 5.30 pm, on our way back, we saw Anju’s brother Pradeep and cousins Pankaj, Ajay and Vijay playing cricket in the mango orchard around 150 metres from our house. Pankaj stopped Anju and said he wanted to talk to her. As we moved ahead, Anju asked Pankaj to leave her alone. She had just taken a step when Pankaj attacked her with a cricket bat. When she fell down, he hit her again on the head. There was blood everywhere,” Seema says, her voice breaking.
The women tried to help but the men allegedly warned them away. By the time they got help from the village, Anju was dead, her skull split open.
Rae Bareli SP Swapnil Mamgain said they were looking for the four absconding accused. Ram Ashish Upadhyay, SHO of Salon Police Station, said while Pankaj is claiming that only he was involved in the killing, they would trace the other accused.
Harilal says he doesn’t know what to tell a grieving Sandeep. “Why would someone do something like this to their own family member? Anju was such a nice person. We might have been angry with her earlier, but that had changed. She used to take care of all of us, respected us. I was proud she was my daughter-in-law,” says the 60-year-old while his wife sits beside him, sobbing.
At Anju’s deserted home, three listless buffaloes stand tied outside. A 68-year-old neighbour who refused to be named said the animals hadn’t eaten in three days, since the family went missing, and that the last they had some water was when a policeman came the previous day.
The woman adds, “I never thought someone would kill Anju as things were pretty normal. We have never heard anything bad about the youth who killed her either.”
She isn’t surprised though at the turn of events. “I have been told Anju was not in a veil that day. Pankaj objected to that and she laughed… It’s not that I support the murder but I understand the condition of a family whose daughter runs away with someone of a different caste. It’s fine if our children marry someone with no land or money but caste is a priority.”
Sandeep stands nearby, his arms folded. Far removed from all the talk in his family about “justice” and “security”, he says all he cares about now is finding a reason to live. Hearing what the woman says, he shakes his head and starts walking away. “Maybe all that happened was for nothing,” he says, before going to his room and locking the door.