Knot of death

Controversy: A Hindu girl who married a Muslim dies in mysterious circumstances

Falling in love can be perilous. Bharti Barot, 19, and Salim Shaikh, 23, who lived in adjoining huts in Ranip suburb of Ahmedabad, had a five-year courtship before they dared to become man and wife. Within a month of her marrying the young Muslim butcher, Bharti lay dead in a Hindu Mahasabha office.

The marriage had been a secretive affair but perfect in the eyes of the law. After solemnising it at a mosque on July 11, they made the union watertight with a civil marriage the next day and sent copies of the document to their parents. Anticipating trouble, the newlyweds moved to another locality.

No sooner had the marriage become public knowledge in Ranip than the police began to harass Salim's mother, Kamrunissa. Bharti's fatherhad complained that Salim had abducted her and was keeping her against her wishes. "We then thought it prudent to present her before the police," says Salim's lawyer, Madhu Sharma.

Salim and Kamrunissa accompanied Bharti to the Sabarmati police station on August 6. The police pushed Salim and Kamrunissa out, before recording Bharti's statement that she wished to stay with her husband. Still, the police kept her waiting at the station on some pretext or the other. When Salim and his mother returned in the evening, some 200 Hindu activists had thronged the police station. The police then said that they feared for Bharti's safety and handed her over to Vikas Gruh, a government-run home for destitute women at Paldi in the heart of Ahmedabad.

The next day Salim and his mother went to see Bharti but authorities at Vikas Gruh refused permission. On August 8, a lawyer accompanied them and a woman employee there told them that Bharti had been shifted to Nari Kendra in Odhav, on the city's outskirts. But she was no longer there when they went to meet her.

Some time later, possibly on the night of August 8, Bharti was taken to the Gujarat Pradesh Hindu Mahasabha office in Ahmedabad. According to her parents, Kanubhai and Kantaben, the next day she was asked to bathe and get ready for religious rituals to 'purify her soul', to reconvert her to Hinduism. Bharti's parents and Mahasabha activists who were in the building later claimed that there was a burning smell from the bathroom. They said they broke open the door and found Bharti lying on the bathroom floor, burnt to death. They said she doused herself with kerosene and lit a match.

The police arrested the parents, her uncle Mangubhai, and Mahasabha organiser Dashrath Patel on charges of abetting suicide. Dashrath had tried to convince Bharti that marrying a Muslim was against the tenets of Hinduism.

There were gaping holes in the story, the most obvious being the handy presence of kerosene and a matchbox in the bathroom. "How does it matter now, the girl is gone," laments Kamrunissa. But she believes it was a case of murder involving Mahasabha activists who were forcing Bharti to give up her new identity as Firdous Bano and return to the Hindu fold.

Though yet to get over the shock, Salim has no doubts about it. "She had the guts to marry me," he says. "She often assured me, 'Whatever happens, I will remain with you.' I cannot believe she committed suicide." The Mahasabha office is in the bustling shopping area of Khadia. Yet, none of the neighbours or passersby noticed the burning or heard any cries on that busy Thursday afternoon.

The police have a lot to answer for, particularly to the Gujarat High Court, which is examining the role played by the cops at the Sabarmati station. "We had approached the High Court on August 6, the day the police took Bharti away, and expressed our apprehension that a communal colour was being given to a simple case of marriage," says Madhu.

On the fateful day, Madhu had requested the court to order the police to produce Bharti before it. Hours later, the government pleader told the court that Bharti had killed herself.

Salim alleges that some people had threatened to kill him as well, and Madhu accuses Dashrath and BJP corporator Yogesh Makwana of trying to intimidate her. She says the police were active participants in the events leading to Bharti's death.

"On the first day when I told them to record Bharti's statement in her father's presence, the police refused to do so until the Hindu activists arrived," Madhu recalls.

The court ordered that a deputy commissioner of police conduct an inquiry into the events and an assistant commissioner investigate the death. "Prima facie, it looks like a case of suicide," Additional Police Commissioner Shivanand Jha told The Week. "Certain elements wanted the girl to return to Hinduism but she locked herself inside a bathroom and burnt herself. We are still awaiting postmortem and forensic reports."

Jha, however, could not explain why the police had detained a legally married woman late into the night, and shifted her to a women's home when she wished to be with her husband. "The matter is under inquiry," he said.

What transpired at the Mahasabha office on the fateful day is shrouded in mystery. Many questions remain unanswered. If Bharti had locked herself inside the bathroom, how did her mother suffer burns? Was Bharti given immediate medical attention? When were the police informed and when did they arrive? Was any attempt made to get a dying declaration?

Bharti's parents and Dashrath should know the answers, but they could not be contacted. The Mahasabha office has remained locked since the incident. But the death does not mean that the fundamentalists' campaign against Hindu girls eloping with Muslim boys will end.

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Referred by: Benjamin P Kaila
Published on:24 Aug 2001
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