As the Women's Reservation Bill rings in the centennial year of Women's Day on a celebratory note, 25-year-old Sushma Tiwari's story tells of an inspirational fight-back against a brutal form of patriarchy and caste oppression.

It has been a six-year legal battle for Sushma against the horrific ‘honour killing' by her brother of almost her entire marital family: husband Prabhu Nochil, her father-in-law and two minors in their home near Mumbai, all to avenge her marriage into a family of a ‘lower' caste. Sushma is from a Brahmin family of UP, and Prabhu, an Ezhava from Kerala.

Although the fast track sessions court in Maharashtra, and later the Bombay High Court, awarded the death penalty to Sushma's brother Dilip Tiwari and his accomplices, the Supreme Court in December 2009 reduced the sentence to 25-year imprisonment.

This February, Sushma filed a review petition questioning the decision to let off the perpetrators of this heinous crime.

In 2004, seven months after the couple got married, Dilip and his associates massacred four members of the Nochil family, and grievously injured two others. A pregnant Sushma luckily escaped as she was visiting a relative.

The Supreme Court, explaining its decision to revoke the death sentence, said: “It is a common experience that when the younger sister commits something unusual and in this case it was an inter-caste, intercommunity marriage out of [a] secret love affair, then in society it is the elder brother who justifiably or otherwise is held responsible for not stopping such [an] affair.”

It added: “If he became the victim of his wrong but genuine caste considerations, it would not justify the death sentence... The vicious grip of the caste, community, religion, though totally unjustified, is a stark reality.”

“Totally illegal”

Sushma has challenged this reasoning, stating this perception “is wrong and totally illegal under our Constitution and various laws of the land like the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989” and “can never be made a ground for lessening a sentence. In fact, these feelings of caste hatred are themselves criminal…”

Her petition states: “In fact, mass killings based on the concept of ‘honour' must be viewed by this Hon'ble Court as murders which must be given the highest deterrent sentence.”

In Bangalore recently to attend the National Young Women's convention organised by the All India Democratic Women's Association (AIDWA), this resolute young woman told The Hindu that by reducing the sentence, the highest court of the land has sent out a wrong message to all those who wished to marry out of caste. “Even if not for my own safety or that of my five-year-old daughter Trishna, the death sentence must be upheld for the sake of humanity.”