Telangana honour killing | Faith, caste, patriarchy, and murder 

On the night of January 30 this year, Syed Ashrin Sulthana left home to marry Billipuram Nagaraju, the man she loved. Just over three months later, Nagaraju was killed by her relatives. Marri Ramu chronicles how a poignant inter-faith romance ended in tragedy

May 21, 2022 02:07 am | Updated 01:19 pm IST

Syed Ashrin Sultana at her husband Billipuram Nagaraju’s family home at Marpally in Telangana’s Vikarabad district.

Syed Ashrin Sultana at her husband Billipuram Nagaraju’s family home at Marpally in Telangana’s Vikarabad district. | Photo Credit: G. RAMAKRISHNA

On the sultry evening of May 4, Nagaraju picked up his wife, Ashrin, from the house of his relative, Lingam, where he had dropped her in the afternoon. Waving goodbye to Lingam and promising to meet him soon, Nagaraju, a car showroom employee, rode his bike from Panjala Anil Kumar colony towards the couple’s rented home in the nearby Brindavan colony. That was the last time Lingam saw him.

The Kothapet-Victoria Memorial Home road in Saroornagar in Hyderabad was bustling at 8.45 p.m. Not too far from Panjala Anil Kumar colony, Nagaraju had to turn right to head home. On reaching the turn, he halted for a moment, waiting for the traffic to slow down.

Suddenly, two men riding a scooter intercepted the newly married couple. They jumped off their vehicle, rushed towards Nagaraju and Ashrin, and pushed them off the bike. Nagaraju’s helmet slipped off his head. One of the assailants hit him on the head with a steel rod. By the time Ashrin got up, the assailant had “hit Nagaraju’s head with the rod two to three times,” according to the First Information Report (FIR) issued by the Saroornagar police, filed on the complaint of Nagaraju’s relative, Talari Danaiah. The attacker then handed the rod to his associate, brandished a knife and tried to stab Nagaraju. Ashrin began screaming for help. “I pleaded with onlookers and passers-by with folded hands to save my husband, but no one responded,” she later said in interviews with the media.

As the knife somehow got bent, the first assailant again rushed towards Nagaraju, who was now lying motionless on the road, with the rod. Ashrin tried to block his way and hold his hands. She was in for a shock. “That is when I identified him as my elder brother Mobin,” she was quoted as saying by the police. As Ashrin resisted him, Syed Mobin Ahmed pushed her and repeatedly hit Nagaraju’s head with the rod, videos of the murder showed.

“I even pleaded with Mobin not to kill Nagaraju, saying I would return to the family with him, but he continued to attack Nagaraju,” Ashrin told the police.

Some bystanders tried to help the couple. Video clips in the public domain show one bystander throwing a helmet at the attackers and some hurling stones at them. “After confirming that Nagaraju was dead, Mobin and his acquaintance, identified as Ashrin’s elder sister’s husband, Mohammed Masood, fled the spot,” the complainant said.

Ashrin collapsed before Nagaraju’s body, crying inconsolably. The couple’s seven-year-old love story and 92-day-old inter-faith marriage had come to a gruesome, tragic end.

Within minutes, reports of “a Hindu being murdered by Muslims” spread. Some people staged a protest on the road demanding “justice for the victim’s family” and the “death penalty for the killers”. The police asked the protesters to leave and promised action as per the law.

The beginning and the end

Syed Ashrin Sulthana and Billipuram Nagaraju were students of the Government Junior College in Marpally in Vikarabad district, 90 km from Hyderabad. The village of nearly 2,000 homes has a mixed population of Hindus and Muslims. Nagaraju, 25, belonged to the Mala Scheduled Caste. He was the first of the two children of agricultural labourers Anasuya and Srinivas, who live in Ambedkar Colony.

The Government Junior College at Marpally in Telangana’s Vikarabad district where Nagaraju and Ashrin studied.

The Government Junior College at Marpally in Telangana’s Vikarabad district where Nagaraju and Ashrin studied. | Photo Credit: G. RAMAKRISHNA

Ashrin’s family earlier lived in Ghanapuram village, 8 km from Marpally. Ashrin’s father was a daily-wage earner; her mother is a homemaker. Apart from Mobin, the oldest among the siblings, Ashrin has two older sisters and one younger brother.

Ashrin and Nagaraju were friends in college; the friendship soon turned into romance. “We knew they were in love, but we were not sure if they would tie the knot since they belonged to different religions,” said Ramesh, Nagaraju’s senior and a close friend.

On completing the intermediate course, Nagaraju joined a mechanics course in an Industrial Training Institute in Hyderabad. Ashrin’s family also shifted to IDPL colony of Balanagar in Hyderabad city. She graduated from a private college and began working in the private sector. As her father was not keeping well, Mobin had to run the household. He began selling fruits on pushcarts and organised the marriage of two sisters with his meagre earnings.After their father passed away four years ago, Mobin began looking for a partner for Ashrin. He planned to get married after Ashrin’s nikah.

But Ashrin had decided to marry Nagaraju, and informed her family about it. Mobin made it clear that he disapproved. “But Nagaraj and I were determined to get married,” she told the media.

Ashrin repeatedly tried to persuade Mobin to agree to the marriage. “My brother is an aggressive man. He vehemently opposed the idea,” she said.

Realising that Mobin was not going to relent, Ashrin decided to leave home. On the night of January 30 this year, she left her mobile phone in the house before stepping out. She called Nagaraju from another person’s phone and met him at Miyapur, northwest of Hyderabad.

The next day, Nagaraju tied the knot with Ashrin in an Arya Samaj wedding, with Hindu rites. She changed her name to Pallavi. Hours later, she called an aunt and informed her that she had married Nagaraju.

Nagaraju and Ashrin on their wedding day.

Nagaraju and Ashrin on their wedding day. | Photo Credit: SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

On hearing the news, Mobin and his friends rushed to Marpally looking for his sister. The search was fruitless and Mobin returned to the city. He approached the Balanagar police to register a complaint about her disappearance. The police registered a case of missing person. Their analysis of Nagaraju’s mobile phone call detail record showed that he frequently phoned his friend Raju. The police summoned Raju for questioning. He told the Balanagar Inspector, Waheeduddin, that the couple had got legally married.

In the FIR too, the complainant, Danaiah, said that the couple feared they would get into trouble if they went to the Balanagar police station in whose jurisdiction Ashrin’s family lived. “On the night of January 30, Mobin beat up Ashrin when she had once again raised the subject of marrying Nagaraju. It seems like that compelled her to leave the house,” Waheeduddin said.

Also read | Barely a fortnight after Nagaraju murder, another killing over suspected hate for inter-caste marriage

Unwilling to appear before the Balanagar police, the newly married couple met Vikarabad Superintendent of Police N. Koti Reddy at his office. They told him that they were both of marriageable age and had got married willingly. “They did not speak of any threat to their lives. As a precautionary measure, I directed the Mominpet Inspector to speak to the couple and their respective family heads,” Koti Reddy said.

The Mominpet police informed the Balanagar police probing the missing person case that the woman they were searching for had got married. “But Mobin insisted that he wanted to see his sister and confirm that she was safe. So, he and two family members were taken to the Mominpet police station on February 15,” Inspector Waheeduddin said.

The couple and Nagaraju’s family members were also asked to come there. In the presence of the police of Mominpet and Balanagar, members of both families met the couple in the police station.

“There were emotional outbursts from Mobin and his family, but Ashrin firmly said she wanted to be with her husband,” said police officers who were present there. Nagaraju and Ashrin gave written statements to the police reiterating that they had got married of their own free will. Mobin too gave a written statement that he had met his missing sister and had heard her version. Since no case could be made on Mobin’s complaint, the matter was closed.

Police officers maintained that they did not see any serious threat to Nagaraju’s life from Ashrin’s family then.

Nagaraju, however, had remained cautious. He did not disclose his whereabouts after he got married. Even his close friends from Marpally village were not sure where he and his wife lived. “In fact, many of us knew about his marriage only when the two families were summoned to Mominpet police station for counselling,” his friends said.

He may have wanted to remain private or he may have been worried about possible offensive moves by his in-laws, said a police officer of Rachakonda involved in the investigation. “He not only changed his mobile phone but secured a new SIM card. Apparently, he did not want to be tracked,” said the officer, on condition of anonymity.

A few days before he was murdered, Nagaraju told Ashrin that he spotted Masood, her brother-in-law, moving outside his workplace. Nagaraju worked in a car service centre in Malakpet. Ashrin did not see anything amiss in that. “Going by Masood’s earlier reaction to my marriage proposal, I did not foresee any danger from him,” Ashrin said.

She would later regret it. “Maybe Nagaraju would have been alive had Ashrin explored the possible motive behind Masood’s movements at his workplace,” said Nagaraju’s family members at Marpally.

Within hours of the murder, Mobin and Masood were caught by the police.

Ramadevi, Nagaraju’s younger sister who lives with her parents, was at a relative’s house in Ambedkar Colony, over 110 km from the murder spot, when she got a phone call from Ashrin. She rushed to Hyderabad with her parents. After the painful formalities of the autopsy, her distraught parents returned home. They laid their only son’s body to rest at a local graveyard. “All these years we lived fearlessly here. With my brother murdered, how can we be sure that someone will not emerge from the dark at night and assault us,” asked Ramadevi.

Anasuya, Nagaraju’s mother, at her house in Marpally days after her son was killed.

Anasuya, Nagaraju’s mother, at her house in Marpally days after her son was killed. | Photo Credit: G. RAMAKRISHNA

Tracing Nagaraju

Ashrin was perplexed by how Masood knew of Nagaraju’s whereabouts. “Interestingly, it is not Masood but Mobin who tracked Nagaraju,” said an interrogator who grilled the duo after nabbing them.

Mobin wanted to trace Nagaraju and take vengeance for marrying his sister. He spoke to Nagaraju’s acquaintances and tried to contact his friends. All these efforts yielded no results. Searches in areas where he thought the couple could be living were futile too.

But Mobin did not give up. He tried to trace Nagaraju’s mobile phone. Mobin, a high school graduate, is reportedly not tech-savvy. When he had lost an Android smartphone a couple of years ago, someone suggested that he use ‘Find My Device’, a Google app that helps locate lost, misplaced or stolen mobile phones. There are two ways of tracing a phone through the app: one, by keying in the person’s email id and two, their phone number. The officers, who told Ashrin not to mention their names, informed her that among the possibilities they were investigating is that Mobin used the app to close in on her husband.

But how did Mobin trace Nagaraju if he had a new phone and SIM card, Ashrin asked the police officers who met her at Marpally.

The first way of tracing a phone location through the ‘Find My Device’ app is by entering the email id with which the Android phone was set up. The police said it is likely that Mobin, who did not have Nagaraju’s email id, typed out Nagaraju’s old phone number on the Truecaller app and got Nagaraju’s email id from there. Nagaraju, they believe, used the same email id to set up his new phone. It is crucial to note that the ‘Find My Device’ app helps a person track all the mobile phones set up with the same email id.

Once the email id is available, the next crucial piece of information that a tracker needs is the phone password. “It seems that Nagaraju used his old phone number as his password for his email. When Mobin randomly typed that number, the app showed Nagaraju’s phone location,” his family members were heard discussing at their home in Marpally.

Had Nagaraju set up his new phone with a different email id or changed his password, it would not have been possible for anyone to locate him through these apps.

The graveyard where Nagaraju’s body was laid to rest.

The graveyard where Nagaraju’s body was laid to rest. | Photo Credit: G. RAMAKRISHNA

During interrogation, Mobin reportedly admitted that he and Masood conducted a reconnaissance of Nagaraju’s workplace to attack him. The police are examining the footage of surveillance cameras in the vicinity of Nagaraju’s workplace to ascertain if Mobin and Masood really did a recce of the area with a plan to attack him. “It seems they initially wanted to kill him at his workplace, but changed the place as they anticipated resistance by the customers and employees there,” a senior police officer of Rachakonda said.

The motive

On the fateful night of May 4, Nagaraju started from his workplace around 8.15 p.m. in Malakpet to Lingam’s house to pick up his wife. Mobin and Masood followed him on their scooter. They turned on the app, said the officer of Rachakonda.

On reaching the colony, Nagaraju disappeared inside a lane. The attackers, who were following him and moving in the same direction on Kothapet main road, lost track of him for a while. But the app led them to the right spot and the couple and their attackers came face to face at the turn. Within minutes, Nagaraju was dead.

The Saroornagar police registered a case under Section 302 (murder) of the Indian Penal Code read with Section 34 (common intention), and Section 3(2) (v) of the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act. The Dalit youth’s murder had brought the issues of family or hate killings to the centre stage yet again.

Nagaraju’s younger sister Ramadevi outside their house in Marpally.

Nagaraju’s younger sister Ramadevi outside their house in Marpally. | Photo Credit: G. RAMAKRISHNA

G. Laxman, a retired university professor who is with the Civil Liberties Committee, refused to describe the murder as a consequence of an inter-faith marriage. “This is more a case of caste hatred. More than religion, it was the perception of feeling humiliated that a woman had married a Dalit that led to this,” he said. He recalled the murder of Pranay, by hired assassins, in 2018 in Nalgonda, 100 km from Hyderabad. The killers were allegedly hired by an upper caste Vysya businessman, Maruthi Rao, whose daughter, Amrutha, had married Pranay, a Dalit. Similarly, in 2020, the family members of Avanthi Reddy, who had married an interior designer belonging to the Vysya community, Hemanth, are alleged to have hired assassins to kill him in Hyderabad’s upscale Gachibowli area.

“Despite the uproar over Pranay’s murder, the State failed to initiate specific steps to check such murders in the name of honour. Can’t the government have helplines that can come to the rescue of youngsters marrying outside their caste or religion,” the retired professor asked. The government has failed to send out a clear message that such crimes would be dealt with severely, he said.

“The state should at least ensure that these cases are not dragged on for years together,” said Telangana High Court lawyer Raghunath Verose. Pranay’s murder trial is a classic example, he said. Amrutha was pregnant when hired assassins killed Pranay in front of her eyes. The child is three years and four months now. “Delayed justice in such crimes is one of the factors emboldening the killers,” Amrutha said. She hoped that the trial of the case will be over at least by the end of this year.

‘His family is my family now’

Political parties were quick to condemn Nagaraju’s murder. All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen president and Hyderabad Member of Parliament (MP) Asaduddin Owaisi said that marriage is a matter of choice and right, and murder is the worst crime in Islam. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) said the murder showed intolerance towards a Hindu boy marrying a Muslim girl. Telangana BJP president and Karimnagar MP Bandi Sanjay sought to know why the “secularists” who had raised their voice against Pranay’s murder were not responding with equal vigour when a Muslim girl’s family members had murdered a Hindu. Former Indian Police Service officer and Bahujan Samaj Party Telangana president R.S. Praveen Kumar said he does not believe Nagaraju was killed only because he was a Dalit. Kumar believes Mobin was angry that his sister had dared to defy the family by marrying a person outside the religion.

A poster of Nagaraju is hung at the site where he was murdered on Saroornagar main road in Hyderabad.

A poster of Nagaraju is hung at the site where he was murdered on Saroornagar main road in Hyderabad. | Photo Credit: G. RAMAKRISHNA

Politicians, social activists and voluntary organisations have all been visiting Ashrin, who now lives with her in-laws in their small house in Ambedkar Nagar. Utensils, clothes and their whole world is contained in one room. The family uses a bathroom ‘constructed’ with old clothes wrapped around four wooden sticks. When asked if she will join her ageing mother now that Mobin is in prison, Ashrin said her late husband’s family is her family now. “My mother may need me, but Nagaraju’s family needs my support more,” she said.

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