Srinagar: Madiha and Naqida are busy playing outside their maternal house in Ishbar, Nishat. The young siblings seem unaware of the people gathered inside. But it is the fifth day of mourning for their mother Mehjabeena, 32, who was set ablaze by her in-laws on Eid-ul-Azha.
Madiha has been living in her maternal home since her birth, always subjected to indifference by her father and his family, who live in Khanyar. The reason for the indifference: her gender. “The moment my late sister gave birth to Madiha,” says Mehjabeena’s younger brother, Javeed A Wani, “She faced the worst treatment from her in-laws, as if she had sinned.”
Mehjabeena was even given “an option”: either stay with her parents along with her daughter, or return to her husband’s home alone. “It was too cruel on their part,” Wani continues, sobbing. “It simply shattered my sister. To save her marriage, though, we adopted her daughter and sent her back to her in-laws anticipating that things will get better.” But the hopes were misplaced.
By the time she gave birth to another girl child, her in-laws became even more furious. Mehjabeena then lived with her parents for two years. “No one from her in-laws turned up during those two years,” says Mehjabeena’s uncle, Ghulam Mohammad Wani. “They never treated her like a human.” Her family then asked her to file for a divorce, which she declined, perhaps hoping against hope. After losing her father to a mine blast in 1991, she didn’t want to lose her husband.
By 2013, the Falah Behbood Committee of Khanyar got involved. After learning about the bad history of the marriage, the committee sought a written assurance from her in-laws. But the criminal treatment of her in-laws continued unabated.
During all this, Mehjabeena’s husband, Rafiq A Sofi, running a public call office in Jawahar Nagar, remained an indifferent man. “He is a nasty man always looking for an opportunity to milk his cow,” says Javeed Wani, his brother-in-law. For Sofi, continues Wani, Mehjabeena was always a cow, “whom he would force to meet his family’s never-ending dowry demands”. Wani says Sofi never bothered to take care of Mehjabeena. “She would often turn to her mother or sister for help whenever she needed medicines or had some other expenses.”
Sofi never visited Mehjabeena’s home until the floods last year forced him to come with a ‘begging bowl’. “After last year’s floods,” Wani says, “he visited us for the first time in five years, complaining about the damage his shop had suffered.” The motive behind Sofi’s visit, Wani and his family realised, was to get some financial help.
A day before Eid, and her murder, Mehjabeena visited her home. Her sister recalls that she was totally out of sorts. “But no matter how much I asked,” says Mehjabeena’s sister, “she remained quiet. She was wise enough not to spoil other’s joy with her grief.”
On Eid, Mehjabeena called her elder brother Nazir A Wani, pleading to be taken home as she was “sniffing a murder”.
“I assured her,” says Nazir Wani, “not to worry, ‘they won’t kill you’. But I heard her screaming “Bhaijana, yem ha maaran mey! Mey bachaav ta!’ (Brother, they will kill me! Please save me!).” In panic, Nazir told his terrified sister to call her neighbours until he got there. He decided to quickly pray before going to Khanyar. But the moment he finished his prayers, he received word in the masjid itself that his sister had been set ablaze. The news had reached Mehjabeena’s home through their neighbour, married into a family in Khanyar.
By the time Nazir reached Khanyar, Mehjabeena had been shifted to SMHS hospital by her neighbours with 96% burn injuries. The doctors treating Mehjabeena told police that she had only 20% chances of survival. “We were present when she recorded her statement,” Nazir says, holding back his tears. “She said her sister-in-law Jameela burnt her.”
But SHO Khanyar Police Station, Rafiq Ahmad, says, “We recorded Mehjabeena’s statement in which she said ‘I put kerosene on my body after facing frequent harassment from my in-laws’.” Police have charged four persons – Mehjabeena’s mother-in-law, her two sisters-in-law and her husband – under an FIR vide no 63/2015 under section 306, 309, 498A. All the accused have been locked up in Khanyar police station.
But the locals aren’t buying the police version of Mehjabeena’s “self-immolation”. All of Kawa Mohalla holds the Sofi family guilty for “murdering” their “innocent” daughter-in-law.
A local, Mehraj-ud-din Lone, who lives close by, says his wife broke the news to him when she spotted sparks coming from Sofi house. “We both rushed there, thinking their house is on fire. But we were shocked to see Mehjabeena lying on the ground, burning, screaming for help. The door was open. Her mother-in-law and two sisters-in-law were watching her burning without helping her.” The Lones then called out to neighbours, who shifted Mehjabeena to the hospital.
Locals even tried to set the Sofi house afire in their rage. But the police arrived on the spot and forced them to retreat. “Her death was a conspiracy hatched by her in-laws,” says Imran, a local grocer. “Even her husband was involved.”
Bashir A Rather, who also lives close by, says Mehjabeena was being forced into an argument since the morning on the fateful day. “I went inside and pleaded with her mother-in-law to stop the fight on Eid at least. Her two daughters were also there, assaulting her.”
The State Women Commission, headed by broadcaster-turned-politician, Nayeema Mehjoor is yet to examine the case. “We will look into the matter and work on this case as per the procedure,” she says.
In fact, the Commission has recorded 113 cases of violence against women from January 2015 to September 2015 in Jammu and Kashmir. As per the Crime Branch report (2014), five dowry deaths were reported in J&K last year, while 468 cases of ‘cruelty by a husband’ were recorded during the same time.