Married for a decade, inter-caste couple still faces harassment in J&K’s Udhampur

Udhampur: An inter-caste couple in Jammu and Kashmir’s Udhampur has been at the receiving end of caste hate crimes from the husband’s family for the past 12 years.

Ashwani Sharma and Lakshmi Devi have been at the receiving end of Sharma’s father and his paternal aunt’s wrath for the sole reason that Lakshmi is a Dalit woman. As reported by The Wire, Ashwani is from an ‘upper caste’ Brahmin community and has been married to Lakshmi, who is from the Dalit community, since 2009.

Although the couple has been together for over a decade now, Ashwani’s family continues to reject Lakshmi and threaten Ashwani with dire consequences if he insists on staying with her.

In June 2020, Ashwani’s aunt is alleged to have poisoned him. This is alleged to be the first attempt to harm him. As Ashwani remarks to The Wire, ‘I knew I had been poisoned because I started vomiting blood.” He went to the district hospital where he confirmed his suspicions but claims that the medical records of his visit to the hospital have been misplaced.

Discussing the second attempt on his life, Ashwani remarked that on January 13, 2021, Sat Pal allegedly invited Ashwani to his home for “Lohri celebrations”.

“As my father and I discussed some property-related matters, my aunt poured kerosene oil on my body and threw a matchstick towards my father. As my father set me ablaze, my aunt and grandmother ran to their room and watched from the doorway.”

Ashwani saved himself by running out of the house and rolling on the ground to douse the flames and was then taken by locals to the hospital. From the district hospital in Udhampur, Ashwani was referred to Shri Maharaja Gulab Singh Hospital in Jammu for “advanced treatment”. For the next fortnight, he underwent treatment at the Jammu hospital and then states that he ran away when he was left with no money.

Sat Pal however claims his son had attempted to take his own life and the burns were self-inflicted. “I tried to convince him not to do it but he set himself on fire,” alleged Sat Pal.

Although instances like these recur regularly, Jammu and Kashmir had had only one honour killing in that period – in 2019, according to data from the National Crime Record Bureau (NCRB). However, as Dalit rights activist Manmohan Thappa who has been aiding the couple remarks, honour crimes of this nature are common in the Union territory.

On August 20, 2020, Lakshmi had filed an FIR against eight people including Sat Pal, Ram Pyari and Ashwani’s uncle Puran Chand, who is a local councillor from the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), but the case had been abruptly closed by the police who claimed that the matter was settled out of court despite the couple alleging otherwise.

“Neither he nor his wife had signed the compromise document and still have not done so even today,” added Thappa.

According to Ashwani, the Udhampur police did not register an FIR against his family members till May 2021, about four months after the crime was committed in January.

“After my burns healed, I filed a complaint with the police in Udhampur and then visited the police station every day for about two and a half months to request the then station house officer to register an FIR against my father and two of my aunts. But I was told to come back the next day,” said Ashwani.

He alleged that the police had been stalling the registration of the FIR at the behest of his uncle Puran Chand, a local BJP leader who is close to senior BJP leaders in Jammu and Kashmir and New Delhi.

Eventually, although Ashwani and Lakshmi could not afford a lawyer, they persuaded an advocate named Gulshan Singh to take on the case pro bono.

The FIR charges his father Sat Pal Sharma, aunt Ram Pyari and grandmother Maya Devi with crimes under sections 307 (attempt to murder) and 156 (liability of agent of owner or occupier for whose benefit riot is committed) of the Indian Penal Code.

When The Wire asked Sargun Shukla, the senior superintendent of police at Udhampur, why the police had taken four months to register an FIR, he said: “I cannot comment on this without ascertaining all the facts.”

Given the fact that the police took so long to file the FIR, Ashwani and Lakshmi have now pinned their hope for justice on the judiciary.

However, Ashwani’s lawyer Gulshan Singh is not very hopeful. “The Udhampur police have not made any arrests in this case so far,” Singh told The Wire. “They’re not even interested in proceeding with the investigation. They’re definitely doing this at the behest of some influential people to shield the accused.”