Telangana

Ground Zero | Killing love with caste pride

Avanthi Reddy, whose husband Hemanth Kumar was killed by assassins hired by her family, waits outside the Osmania General Hospital mortuary in Hyderabad.   | Photo Credit: Nagara Gopal

On June 10, 2020, Avanthi Reddy stepped into the sunlight, ready to run away from home and be reunited with her lover. While most people feared leaving their homes in the midst of a raging pandemic, sunlight meant freedom and a new beginning for the 23-year-old. Seven months earlier, Avanthi’s family had forced her to quit her job, seized her mobile phone, and locked her up in a room in her own home. She had finally managed to escape that day. Within two hours of eloping, she and her boyfriend Chinta Yoga Hemanth Kumar, 28, got married in a Santoshimata temple in Nalagandla.

But just over three months later, tragedy struck the young couple. On September 24, Hemanth was kidnapped and murdered, and his body thrown into a clump of bushes by the roadside in the neighbouring Sangareddy district of Telangana. According to Avanthi’s statement to the Cyberabad police, the murder was committed at the behest of her father, Donthireddy Laxma Reddy, and other family members. They were furious that their young daughter, who belonged to a family of nouveau riche landowners, had chosen as her husband a man from the Vysya community of traders. Unable to convince her to stay away from Hemanth, they hatched a plot to kill him.

Also read | ‘What did you gain by killing him?’ asks Hemanth’s widow

The news about Hemanth’s death broke when Amrutha Varshini, 21, was beginning her 140-km journey from Miryalaguda to Hyderabad. The discussions on TV of yet another ‘honour killing’ vividly brought to Amrutha’s mind the gruesome details of her husband’s death two years earlier at the hands of killers hired by her father. Amrutha is from the Vysya community; her husband Pranay was a Dalit.

Amrutha, then five months pregnant, was walking with Pranay and her mother-in-law Premalatha towards their car parked outside a hospital gate when the assailant struck. Amrutha heard a loud thud. “I turned and I could not find Pranay for a moment. An unidentified killer who had approached us from behind hit my husband with a machete on his neck,” she recalls. The CCTV footage showed the two women screaming for help even as the killer, a tall man in a safari suit, inflicted a second blow on Pranay bringing him to the ground in a pool of blood. He died before he could be given emergency care. That fateful day was September 14, 2018.

“It was shocking that some people from my community cursed me for marrying Pranay even after he was murdered. They even formed a ‘fans association’ in the name of my father, Maruthi Rao,” she says. Rallies were taken out in support of Rao, a top builder. Rao and the hired assassin were later arrested by the police.

Ground Zero | Killing love with caste pride
 

The police as counsellors

Caste-related killings are not new in Telangana. Citing the incidence of such crimes in Telangana and Uttar Pradesh, even before Hemanth and Pranay were murdered, Jharna Das Baidya, a Member of Parliament of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), made an impassioned plea in Parliament in 2017 for a special law to curb such crimes. According to the National Crime Records Bureau, there were 28 ‘honour killings’ in 2014, 251 in 2015, and 77 in 2016 across India.

Comment | Of love and honour killings

The 242nd Law Commission Report, too, sought a new law on ‘prevention of interference with the freedom of matrimonial alliances’. Following the Supreme Court ruling on March 27, 2018 in Shakti Vahini v. Union of India laying down preventive, punitive and remedial measures to stem such crimes, the Ministry of Home Affairs issued an advisory to all the States. It ordered the States to create special cells in “every district comprising the Superintendent of Police, the District Social Welfare Officer, and District Adi-Dravidar Welfare Officer to receive petitions/complaints of harassment of and threat to couples of inter-caste marriage”. The advisory stated that these special cells should create a 24-hour helpline to aid couples in distress. In Hyderabad, the helpline is called ‘Bharosa (trust)’.

However, instead of protecting young couples, the police is reportedly counselling them. Hemanth’s killing could have been averted, says Avanthi. “If the police official had not slammed the phone down when I called him up less than a month into my marriage, Hemanth would have been alive today. They refused to acknowledge the letter submitted by us about our safety (a few days after the marriage),” she says.

Comment | Honour killings are a separate horror

Avanthi says the police often summoned the family for counselling. She narrates the time she was called to the Chandanagar police station along with her in-laws on June 17. “There were more than 50 people from my parents’ side. They came in batches of 10, fell at my feet, spoke about ‘honour’ and asked me to come back home. This went on for five hours. Finally, close to midnight, I spoke to the police and left the station,” she recalls. Avanthi is now at her in-laws’ place. Her parental home is just a short distance away.

“It isn’t just about caste. My family spoke of differences in financial status too, but that’s also not much (between our families). They kept telling me about paruvu (Telugu for ‘pride’ or ‘honour’),” says Avanthi.

Avanthi Reddy sits next to her husband's photograph at her in-laws’ house in Chandanagar, Hyderabad.

Avanthi Reddy sits next to her husband's photograph at her in-laws’ house in Chandanagar, Hyderabad.   | Photo Credit: Nagara Gopal

 

About 50 km from Hyderabad is Gomaram, the ancestral village of Donthireddy Laxma Reddy. Dalits say they are not allowed to enter the temples of Shiva and Hanuman there. “We are not allowed into the temples,” says Errala Seenu who lives in the basti nearby. Reddy’s house is adjacent to the temple. It is this caste pride that Reddy brought to Hyderabad and embossed in large letters on his three-storeyed mansion.

Comment | Killing love with violence and politics

Tricked into stepping out

On September 24, Avanthi was about to open the refrigerator to plan lunch for the day when she heard a loud knock on the door. Her relatives stood outside, pleading with her to go home with them. They tried to persuade her to meet her parents. After 40 minutes of cajoling, they finally convinced Avanthi to meet her parents. But she insisted that Hemanth accompany her. Hemanth called his parents too. “My aunts and cousins were so anguished that I felt they were reaching out to us,” says Avanthi.

The couple got dressed for the visit. When they were about to get into their vehicle, Avanthi’s relatives forced them to get into the vehicles they had come in. “They were rough with us,” she says showing a bruise on her forearm.

Hemanth’s parents reached just in time to see the cars leaving the house. When Hemanth tried to wave to them to get their attention, Avanthi’s cousins pulled his hand into the car. But Hemanth’s parents saw him and tried to follow the vehicles. However, they were unable to tail the cars that zoomed away. Suspecting foul play, they alerted the police.

Pranay’s mother Premalatha weeps next to her son’s body at Miryalaguda in Nalgonda district. Pranay, a Dalit, was killed for marrying Amrutha, who is from the Vysya community, by a killer hired by her father.

Pranay’s mother Premalatha weeps next to her son’s body at Miryalaguda in Nalgonda district. Pranay, a Dalit, was killed for marrying Amrutha, who is from the Vysya community, by a killer hired by her father.   | Photo Credit: Singam Venkataramana

 

Meanwhile, fear gripped Avanthi when the cars turned towards the Nehru Outer Ring Road instead of turning towards her parents’ house. She asked Hemanth to jump out of the car, and they both did. Avanthi held Hemanth’s hand and ran barefoot shouting for help. But the passers-by and commuters at the Gopanpally Tanda crossroads turned out to be mute spectators. In the chase that ensued, her maternal uncle Yugandhar Reddy grabbed Hemanth and pushed him into the car with the hired killers. The car sped away on the Outer Ring Road. Avanthi sat by the roadside wailing for help, but no one came forward. When her in-laws arrived, the family rushed to the Cyberabad Commissionerate. There they were instructed to go to the nearby Gachibowli police station since this was a case of kidnapping. Losing precious time, Avanthi rushed to the Gachibowli police station to file a complaint. In less than an hour, about 10 of her relatives were detained and brought to the police station, but it was too late to save Hemanth. His body was discovered a few hours later; he had been strangled.

The police could have prevented the murder as most of the accused were in their custody in less than an hour of the kidnapping, says Avanthi. “They had enough time to save Hemanth, but they couldn’t.”

Also read | Seeing honour killings through the gender lens

A tragic love story

Avanthi and Hemanth dated for eight years. She got to know him when his family moved from Guntur to Hyderabad to the same area that she lived in: Chandanagar. In 2013, when Avanthi was in Class 11, a lecturer informed Avanthi’s father about her relationship with Hemanth. Her father warned her against meeting him. When she completed her engineering degree, Donthireddy Laxma Reddy gifted his daughter an iPhone.

Avanthi joined an educational firm as a marketing coordinator in June 2019. The job entailed visits to schools in Hyderabad and its neighbouring districts. “During that time, Hemanth and I used to travel together. It was the only time we got to spend together. He used to pick me up and drop me at the sites,” she says.

But their happiness was short-lived. On November 27, 2019, a ‘stranger’ photographed the couple while they were together and sent it to Donthireddy Laxma Reddy. “That day, when I returned home at 8.30 p.m., I saw my whole family gathered at home. They began quizzing me about our relationship. They snatched my mobile phone to check my messages and calls, but found none. I used to delete messages and call logs after every conversation. But they stumbled upon Snapchat, where they found our photographs,” says Avanthi.

Also read | Caste hegemony to the fore

That was her last day of freedom. Avanthi’s family forced her to resign and stay at home. They took away her mobile phone and confined her to a room for seven months and six days before she managed to escape and get married. “I was under house arrest. Whenever my cousins visited us, I would secretly take their phones and call Hemanth. We never spoke for more than 20 seconds,” she says.

While Avanthi was confined at home, Hemanth, who owned an interior painting company, approached several astrologers with their horoscopes. The books he had read on astrology lie beside his garlanded photograph at home.

In the first week of June, three months after she last spoke to him, Avanthi called Hemanth and asked him if he was interested in marrying her. She proposed three possible dates: June 5, June 6 or June 10.

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“As June 5 was my parents’ wedding anniversary, I did not want to ruin their day. So, I stayed at home. The next day, everyone was at home. Finally, on June 10, I left a letter at home and somehow sneaked out and called Hemanth. We rushed to the Santoshimata temple in Nalagandla and got married within an hour. We had rented a house at TNGOs Colony the previous day, so we went there,” says Avanthi.

On discovering that their daughter was missing, Avanthi’s parents lodged a kidnapping case against Hemanth. His parents were called in for questioning. The police asked Hemanth’s father Murali Krishna to surrender his phone.

On June 12, the newly-wed couple met Cyberabad Commissioner of Police, V.C. Sajjanar, who in turn told the Chandanagar police to close the case as both of them were consenting adults. Following this visit, the police counselled the families and sent them away. Later, Avanthi’s parents demanded that three properties which were registered under her name be transferred back to them.

Avanthi thought that her parents had reconciled to the marriage. However, her parents were now plotting Hemanth’s murder with the help of her uncle Yugandhar Reddy. Assassins were allegedly hired for ₹10 lakh and were paid ₹1 lakh in advance.

Editorial | Crime in the name of honour

“As a part of their plan, they did a recce of the area for more than two weeks. On September 24, they kidnapped Hemanth and strangled him,” says Madhapur in-charge Deputy Commissioner of Police, M. Venkateshwarlu.

Reconstructing the crime, Venkateshwarlu says Yugandhar Reddy and the three hired assassins kidnapped Hemanth and drove him all the way to Zaheerabad, which is more than 100 km from Hyderabad. While returning to Hyderabad, they strangled him inside the car and dumped the body in the bushes.

An inconsolable Avanthi told her father later that he may have “succeeded” in taking away her husband physically from her, but he cannot take away her love for him or annul the marriage. “All your money could not buy my husband’s love for me,” she said sobbing. “You lost your daughter as well.”

Awaiting trial

The state is directly supporting people indulging in such heinous acts, says Lakshmaiah, convener of the All India Struggle Association for Annihilation of Caste Inequalities. To illustrate his claim, he gives the example of the murder of a young Dalit woman, K. Sushrutha, and her four-month-old son, Devarsh, by her husband M. Ramesh, who belongs to a backward community, in Ghatkesar. The incident was reported on February 9, 2019.

Also read | PIL filed for SIT to probe ‘honour killings’ in Telangana

Sushrutha and Ramesh fell in love and got married in 2015 against Ramesh’s parents’ wishes. Police records suggest that Ramesh, influenced by his family members who disapproved of his marriage with a Dalit woman, began distancing himself from his wife. The couple applied for divorce. But after giving birth to Devarsh, Sushrutha tried to reunite with her husband.

In the second week of February 2019, Ramesh called his wife and said they could try and sort out their issues. Sushrutha, who was living with her mother, agreed to meet him. Her brother dropped her and her son at Uppal on the outskirts of Hyderabad. Ramesh picked them up from there and took them to a secluded place in Ghatkesar. Police say following an argument between the couple, Ramesh throttled his wife and son to death and burnt their bodies with petrol.

Also read | ‘Honour killing’ of youth triggers protests in Kerala

Following the incident, Sushrutha’s family members approached the government seeking appointment of a special public prosecutor to argue the case under the provisions of the Scheduled Castes and Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989. The government appointed lawyer V. Raghunath as the special public prosecutor in the case. “After examining the charge sheet filed by the police, I found that the investigation was not done properly. I suggested to the Rachakonda Police Commissioner that a further probe be done,” Raghunath says.

Interestingly, the accused moved the High Court saying Raghunath was actively associated with organisations supporting the victim and therefore cannot be their lawyer. The High Court gave an interim order suspending his appointment. Though the writ petition was pending final adjudication, the government issued an order revoking Raghunath’s appointment.

“If this is not an example of the state supporting the accused in murders driven by caste hatred, what is,” asks Lakshmaiah. The state’s biased approach can also be seen in the arrest of four of Sushrutha’s family members for carrying out hunger strikes in front of Ramesh’s house, he says. After demonstrating for 150 consecutive days, the four family members were arrested and lodged in Warangal prison for a week.

Sandhya, president of the Progressive Organisation of Women, who is fighting for the rights of women, feels it is inaccurate to describe killings related to inter-caste marriages as ‘honour killings’, as is the norm in India. The very term ‘honour killings’ means we are accepting the killers’ intentions and actions. “These murders are driven by class, caste and patriarchal hegemony,” she says.

Charge sheets have been filed in the murder cases of Pranay, Sushrutha and Naresh, but trials are yet to begin.

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Printable version | May 16, 2021 8:54:03 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/telangana/killing-love-with-caste-pride/article32816162.ece

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