Amid ‘love jihad’ claims, Lakhimpur Kheri victim’s family waits for justice

The police deny a religious motive behind the teenager’s murder.

Amid ‘love jihad’ claims, Lakhimpur Kheri victim’s family waits for justice
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A poster of the 1990s Bollywood star Divya Bharti was still stuck to the wall. Neha had bought it a few days before her engagement ceremony when she decorated the front porch of her house. Festoons made of crêpe paper hung from the ceiling and the wall. Neha’s engagement had taken place in Asadh, in June-July, and her family was gearing up for her wedding next year.

But, like Bharti, Neha, 18, too died suddenly. On August 25, her body was found some 500 metres from her house in Neemgaon in Uttar Pradesh’s Lakhimpur Kheri. She had been murdered and allegedly raped.

The same day, Mohammad Dilshad, 18, a tailor in Neemgaon’s Behjam block was arrested. The Hindu supremacist ecosystem promptly alleged that Neha’s death was an outcome of “love jihad”, a Hindutva bogey that projects Muslim men as predators on the prowl for gullible Hindu women.

“This is a case of love jihad,” the Bharatiya Janata Party MLA from Lakhimpur Kheri, Saurabh Singh Sonu, told Newslaundry.

The police categorically ruled out a religious motive.

Neha’s wasn’t the only death in Lakhimpur Kheri that month. A few weeks earlier, a minor had been allegedly raped and killed. The authorities ignored the girl’s death until after Neha’s body was found and Dilshad arrested. Mritunjay Kumar, the chief advisor to chief minister Adityanath, tweeted that the state government would take “strict action” regarding “atrocities on Hindu daughters on the pretext of marriage”.

The government also mulled passing an ordinance to prevent “religious conversions in the name of love”.

We visited Neemgaon on September 22. Here's what we found.

A broken family

Outside Neha’s house, an old woman sieved groundnuts and a few children played around. An old man squatted on the floor, holding his head. His eyes were fixed on a bicycle opposite him, propped against a brick wall. “That’s Kishen,” a villager said, pointing at the man. “He has been sitting like this ever since his daughter died.”

Nearly a month earlier, Kishen had desperately ridden the same bicycle around the village, searching for Neha. He would find her in a field near their home, her throat slit.

Kishen, his wife, and their four children — three daughters and a son — lived a quiet life in Neemgaon. Kishen worked on a sugarcane plantation nearby, and occasionally found work as a labourer. The family belongs to the Dhobi community, listed as a scheduled caste in Uttar Pradesh.

Neha's parents in their home.

Neha's parents in their home.

Neha's mother and sister.

Neha's mother and sister.

At 10 am on August 25, Neha wore her mother’s slippers and left home for the Neemgaon market. She needed to find an internet cafe, she told her parents, to fill out an online application for a scholarship.

“My daughter was very good at studies,” Kishen said. “Even four days before the incident, she had gone to Neemgaon. But she usually came back in an hour or so.”

At 11.30 am, Neha’s mother Rama phoned her but got no response. When Kishen came home for lunch at around 1 pm, he called Neha’s phone again. Neha did not answer.

As the day passed, Kishen grew worried. He took his bicycle out and went looking for his daughter.

“First, I went around the village calling out for her and asking people if they had seen her,” he said. “Then I came back and I couldn’t rest so I went for another three rounds. At 7.30 pm, I finally went to the police station. From there, I cycled to a neighbouring village to see if she was there. My entire day passed riding the bicycle, looking for my child.”

Kishen met with the village pradhan and told him that Neha was missing. She might have gone away of her own will, the pradhan replied, and would call if she wanted to return. The police, meanwhile, told Kishen they had traced Neha’s phone at around 9 pm and concluded that she was still in the village.

Sri Shitanshu Kumar, the superintendent of police who is investigating Neha’s death, told Newslaundry that the phone was switched off later that night and they could no longer trace it.

Her family spent the entire night searching for Neha. At 4 am, fellow villagers and relatives joined in. At around 7 am, a boy from a neighbouring village told Kishen they had found Neha, lying in a dry pond.

Kishen’s is the first house on the way from the neighbouring village. The pond is just a few metres away.

Kishen ran to the dry pond, in a small clearing in a sugarcane field. He had passed it several times during his search, he recalled, but the standing crop shielded his view.

“I found her body there. Somebody had raped and killed her. Her throat was slit. She was bleeding,” Kishen said, his voice breaking off.

‘Tomorrow it could be us’

Neha’s parents huddled in the small courtyard of their house, the festoons hanging above them. Big posters of Hindu gods lined the wall alongside pictures of women in fashion and jewellery ads cut from magazines. The decorations reminded Kishen and Rama of their daughter.

“She was so happy during her engagement,” Rama said. “She did all the cooking and decorating. She managed everything on her own. Even the day she died, she cooked food for us and left.”

Neha had decorated the house for her engagement in June-July.

Neha had decorated the house for her engagement in June-July.

Neha's father Kishen.

Neha's father Kishen.

Neha’s wedding was scheduled to take place during Fagun, between March and February next year. Her fiancé lives in the neighbouring village of Hardoi, where he works in a factory. “He’s a nice boy,” Kishen said, “and still keeps in touch with us.”

Kishen described Neha as his “son”, not his daughter. He hasn’t been able to leave the house since that day. “It doesn’t feel safe to leave my wife and children anymore,” he said. “Neha was my strength. She was my boy. I always went out confident that she could handle things at home. She never took anything lying down.”

As he spoke, his younger daughter, Neeti, 13, listened from a corner. Neeti was unable to talk about the sister with whom she would share a charpoy every night. Quiet tears streamed down her face as she whispered, “I don’t want to go to school anymore. I do not want to go anywhere. I am too scared to step outside.”

Scared of what? As Neeti struggled to find the words, a girl of similar age who stood nearby said, “Tomorrow it could be us, right?”

The postmortem

The sugarcane field where Neha was found dead hadn’t been sealed off by the police as a crime scene should be. Neha’s parents walked us to the pond with steady steps. It was the first time they were going near it since their daughter’s body was found. They fell silent before Kishen began speaking feverishly. “This is where she was lying,” he said, pointing in one direction, “and this is where her mobile phone was,” pointing in another.

Neha had left home with all the money she had been given by the boy’s family at her engagement, her parents said. She had a purse with her bank papers, ID cards, and a few books. The phone had been gifted to her by her fiancé. All this material is now with the police.

“It was raining by the time we found her,” Kishen added.

He had barely finished speaking when Rama began sobbing quietly. “She would have been married by now. She was killed so close to our house and we didn’t even know.”

Her husband broke down as well. “I passed this place a few times that night searching for her. By the time we found her, it was raining and some animal had bitten off parts of her leg. Will people like us ever get justice?”

Neha’s autopsy was done at 4.30 pm on August 25, on camera at the Lakhimpur Kheri district hospital. The autopsy report concluded that her “death was due to shock and haemorrhage as a result of antemortem injury”.

The report, accessed by Newslaundry, indicated an injury to the neck that was infested by a maggot. It added: “Inner surface of left thigh and outer surface of left leg muscle eaten by wild animal.”

The autopsy found no injuries to the genital area, but noted a “torn and lacerated” hymen. Abrasions were noted on her right buttock and the back of her left elbow. Neha’s clothes, vaginal swabs and samples of nail scratchings were sent to Lucknow’s Forensics Science Laboratory to examine for the presence of sperm.

A knife collected from the crime scene was also sent for forensic examination, said Shitanshu Kumar, the deputy superintendent of police, Mithauli. He claimed that the forensic reports usually take “six months to come” and are crucial for rape conviction. “There are so many cases in Uttar Pradesh and a huge caseload, so it takes time,” he explained.

Kishen stayed at the police station while his brother and nephew were at the hospital during the postmortem. Kishen only received the postmortem report two weeks later after a lot of running around, he said.

“First, I went to the police chowki. Then I went to the station where the Mithauli circle officer told me I’d get it from Behjam police station. But they didn’t give it to me either,” he said. “Then I went back to the circle officer and he finally gave it to me.”

Shitanshu said he gave Kishen the postmortem report “out of mercy” after seeing him run around so much. Why wasn’t the family given a copy of the report earlier? The family had not followed due process while “applying” for the copy, Shitanshu said.

Usman Ghani Khan, a Supreme Court advocate, told Newslaundry that the family “should have been supplied with the report beforehand”. “The foul play is quite evident,” he said.

Neha's parents walking towards the dry pond where she was found.

Neha's parents walking towards the dry pond where she was found.

The postmortem report.

The postmortem report.

Dilshad’s arrest

At 1.21 pm on August 25, five hours after Neha was found dead, an FIR was filed against an unknown person for murder under Section 302 of the Indian Penal Code. Subsequently sections for rape and charges under the Scheduled Castes and Tribes Prevention of Atrocities Act were added.

In the evening on August 25, eight hours later, Dilshad was arrested from his home in Behjam. His uncle Haneef Ali runs a small tailoring shop with five sewing machines in the Neemgaon market.

Dilshad dropped out of school after Class 6. His mother died when he was very young. His father remarried around nine years ago and lives elsewhere. Dilshad lived with his younger sister and worked at his uncle’s shop. He knew Neha and Kishen, Haneef said, since they would often come to the shop to get clothes stitched.

Shitanshu Kumar told Newslaundry that Dilshad and Neha had been “chatting quite a lot and exchanging photos”.

“It looks like they were in a romantic relationship,” Shitanshu claimed. Irrelevantly, he added, “In fact, this girl had been talking to many boys, not just Dilshad. In most cases, the girl was approaching the men. The first calls were always going from her side.”

Haneef told Newslaundry that Neha had called Dilshad many times, but it was about tailoring orders. “At the time of the incident, Dilshad was at home,” he said, weeping.

The same evening, the police took away Haneef’s brother-in-law from neighbouring Mirzapur village. They had apparently checked Neha’s phone and identified Dilshad’s number. Dilshad shared the phone with Haneef’s sister, who would use it to talk to her husband. Dilshad would use it to talk to Neha and other customers.

So, the police went to Haneef’s brother-in-law first. They then visited Haneef at home and asked where Dilshad was.

Dilshad was arrested at 10 pm from his home, where he had been “cutting cloth for stitching”, Haneef said.

Shitanshu Kumar told Newslaundry Dilshad had been arrested based on “electronic media evidence”, including WhatsApp chats, social media posts, and call data records.

Since Dilshad’s arrest, Haneef said he had received fewer orders at his shop. “I can’t even afford the rent. Where will I get a lawyer from?”

On August 27, Adityanath said the National Security Act must be invoked against those involved in Neha’s murder. The draconian law allows the police to detain a person for up to 10 days without explanation, and waives basic rights, like being produced before a magistrate and getting legal counsel.

This year alone, Uttar Pradesh has invoked the NSA against 139 people as of September 11.

Dilshad, though, was produced before a magistrate, Shitanshu said, but added that he “cannot divulge those details yet”.

On October 20, two months after Neha’s death, Shitanshu said the chargesheet had been filed “around 20 days ago”. He said the NSA was used as a deterrent against growing crime against women. Did he think it was an effective approach? “No, but we have been instructed to invoke it,” he replied.

Advocate Usman Ghani Khan said it was “unheard of” for the NSA to be used in such cases. “Why has the NSA not been invoked against the accused in the Hathras case?” he asked.

‘Love jihad’ angle produced out of thin air

Three days after Neha’s death, Adityanath directed his officials to draw up a proposal to stop incidents of “love jihad” in Uttar Pradesh. “Love jihad” isn’t defined under any law; it’s a conspiracy theory that Muslim men “target” Hindu women to convert them. Yet, the state’s additional chief secretary, Awaneesh Kumar Awasthi, told the Indian Express that “love jihad” was a “social issue” and that the government needed to be “harsh”.

Sonu, the BJP legislator, alleged that Neha’s death was a “result of love jihad”. “He changed his name, his religion, seduced her and forced her to marry him,” he alleged, referring to Dilshad. “When she found out his real identity and refused to marry him, he commited the crime.”

What was his evidence for making such allegations? Sonu said his information was “based on police investigation and anyway these are very common”.

However, Shitanshu Kumar told Newslaundry, “As per our investigation, there is no love jihad angle in this case. This is purely a media projection.”

We returned to Sonu and told him the police had clearly ruled out the “love jihad” angle. He said: “Actually, we’re calling this love jihad because such incidents have happened before. This is the truth.”

'I just want justice'

Kishen felt the police were not conducting the investigation properly. On August 30, he wrote to Shitanshu Kumar saying that when he had found Neha’s body face-down, the surrounding grass or plants weren’t disturbed or destroyed. This suggested that the crime had taken place elsewhere.

The tailoring shop where Dilshad worked.

The tailoring shop where Dilshad worked.

The letter Kishen sent to Shitanshu Kumar.

The letter Kishen sent to Shitanshu Kumar.

“If a death sentence is not given, then we will hang ourselves,” he said. “The guilty must feel the pain my daughter endured. Poor people like me need justice.”

He paused for a moment and added, “Is there really no one for people like us?”

For Kishen, the criminal justice system is alien. The police had made him sign a paper some time ago, he told Newslaundry on October 20, but he didn’t know what it was about. In the two months since Neha’s death, not much had changed, he explained.

Kishen felt his pleas for justice were falling on deaf ears. “I just want justice. My younger daughter is probably going to drop out of school. She’s too scared to go anywhere even now. I just want justice."

With inputs from Anil Verma, Riya Agarwal, and Monica Dhanraj.

Names of the victim and her family members have been changed to protect their identities.

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