Friends and relatives were putting up a wedding pandal in front of the three-room house of Brijesh T T, on the night of March 22, when a news scroll started running on television about a girl being found murdered. Brijesh was out buying a mangalsutra and a sari for the wedding, scheduled the next day. Seconds later, the scroll had put a name to the girl, Athira Rajan. A hush fell over the pandal as someone rushed forward to switch off the TV. When Brijesh returned half an hour later and asked what the matter was, he was told his bride Athira had been injured in a “melee” with her father.
But, as he sits under the pandal that still stands, fluttering as a train rushes past in the railway tracks nearby, Brijesh says he knew. Next to him and the plastic chairs hired for the wedding, lie the gold mangalsutra and bright pink bridal sari the 26-year-old had bought. They are the only things that remain of the wedding that would never happen. After allegedly killing Athira, her father Palathingal Veetil Rajan also burnt the entire trousseau she had collected.
It was an end the couple had feared for long, with Rajan, an Ezhava, opposed to his 22-year-old daughter’s relationship with Brijesh, a Dalit. Numerically the largest community in Kerala, the Ezhavas are backward caste Hindus.
On March 22, Rajan, a truck driver, is alleged to have chased Athira with a knife at their home in Areekkodu in Mallappuram district. When she ran into a neighbour’s house, he reportedly forced his way in and stabbed her to death. Rajan was arrested the next day.
Brijesh and Athira had met and fallen in love three years ago. Brijesh, a soldier with a unit of the Madras Engineer Group in Bareilly in Uttar Pradesh, had brought his mother Valli A T to the Government Medical College in Kozhikode for dialysis, where Athira worked as a technician. Brijesh says that Athira got close to both him and his mother during the hospital stay. Brijesh’s mother is now dead.
A year later, Athira told her parents about the affair. “Initially, everyone in her family was against it as I belong to a Scheduled Caste. But as Athira stuck to her decision, her mother Sunitha came around to backing our relationship. But her father wanted to separate us at any cost,” says Brijesh. He claims Rajan made many threatening calls to him, saying he would never allow a marriage between them, and that Athira was mentally tortured at home. “He threatened to kill us both,” says Brijesh.
Disregarding the threats, they decided to tie the knot, and on March 16, Brijesh came on 45-day leave. They had decided that after the marriage, Athira would join him in UP. Ahead of the wedding, Athira filed a complaint with police over harassment from her father.
Brijesh says that on March 17, police called him and Rajan to the local police station at Areekkodu in Malappuram. At the meeting, Rajan signed a written statement giving his consent to the March 23 wedding, and promising that he would not harass the couple.
Brijesh says that Athira, however, sensed danger, and told police she would not go back to her father before the wedding. Police reassured her, citing her father’s promise.
The investigating officer, Inspector Shaiju N B, admits calling the two parties for “reconciliation”, and says Rajan had agreed to the marriage in their presence.
While Brijesh’s family wanted the wedding to be held at a local temple in Koilandi, the ceremony was shifted to Athira’s locality in Areekkodu. The Inspector says Athira wanted this.
During the last week she was at home, Athira’s worries grew, Brijesh adds. “She was not allowed to even go to the medical college in Manjeri in Malappuram where she had started working. I have learned she made several distress calls to police. She even offered to elope with me.” However, the Inspector denies this. “The issue had been amicably settled during the meeting and Rajan had promised to do everything required for the marriage. We didn’t get any specific complaint from Athira against her father,” says Shaiju.
Talking of Rajan’s confession, the Inspector adds that the father had told them that on Thursday evening, he was drunk and had picked up a quarrel with Athira over the marriage. And that this had led to the murder. Rajan reportedly also said that local people had incited him, taunting him over the marriage.
Calling what had happened unfortunate, Athira’s cousin Abeesh Kumar says the family had tried its best to convince Rajan about the union. “But Rajan was very possessive about Athira. He could not think of his daughter getting married to a Dalit.” Ironically, Kumar adds, Rajan and Athira’s mother had had a love marriage.
Recalling Athira’s “determination”, Brijesh breaks down. “No one should suffer our fate. Do we Dalits have no right to love and live with persons of our choice?”