Ah, Set Afire

With conflict dominating the discourse, the ugly side of Kashmir’s routine is consigned to individual memory. To this was added a mother of two daughters last week, whose smouldering pyre was not extinguished even by her husband, Durdana Bhat reports

The room was packed with mourners. Occasional cries broke the disturbing silence. Everyone was shocked, except a six-year-old girl in a bright pink dress. Sitting close to her grandmother, Madheeha was too engrossed to grasp that she has lost her mother, Mehjabeena (32), forever to human savagery.

In other room, Madheeha’s younger sibling, Akeeta (4) was sleeping after inconsolably crying for hours for her mother. She hadn’t seen her mother for last eight days.

Eight days before, it was Eid. The family putting up at Ishbar Nishat had been receiving phone calls from their terrified daughter married in Khanyar’s Kawa Mohalla. “My husband slapped me in the morning,” Mehjabeena told her sister on the day of great joy. Such calls never stopped.

Around 2:30 pm that day, another call came. This time, Mehjabeena told her sister that she was ruthlessly beaten by her sister-in-law, Jameela. The sister advised her to stay out of the spat. The sobbing sister hung the phone only to redial it at 4 pm. This time, she told her family back home, “My in-laws are about to kill me! Please save me!”

Her family told her to wait outside her house till they reach there. As they were about to leave for Kawa Mohalla, another call came. This time, it wasn’t Mahjabeena, but their neighbour married in a family in Khanyar. “They have set afire Mahjabeena!” The shockwaves drove them mad towards Khanyar, crying and lamenting.

Just minutes before the incident, Kawa Mohalla was reverberating with the merrymakings by children, dressed for the big day. Animal sacrifice was keeping the elders busy. Since early morning, the close-door neighbours in this neighbourhood known for the maze of houses and alleys heard habitual arguments coming from the Mohammad Rafiq Sofi’s house.

Some neighbours in a good spirit had approached the family and asked them to quit quarrelling for the day. But like always, the family chose to ignore their neighbours and went on to grill their daughter-in-law.

Around 4:30 pm, some of the neighbours saw smoke billowing out of the Sofi house. Among them was Ali Mohammad Sofi. He rushed to the spot and saw Mehjabeena burning on the floor. Her mother-in-law and two sisters-in-law were standing nearby watching her burn. Their inaction made Sofi to realise that they wanted Mehjabeena dead. But the immediate task for the locals was to hospitalise her first than to seek explanation from the culprit family. The locals rushed her to Khanyar Police Station before shifting her to SMHS hospital. On way to the hospital, the neighbours heard her saying: “I was burnt by my sister-in-law, Jameela!”

Once the medical treatment began, the doctors treating her informed the locals and the police that she had sustained 90 percent burns. “There are only 20 percent chances of her survival,” the doctors sounded unsure told them. By then, her family had arrived. They were crying their heart out for Mehjabeena who told her, “They (her in-laws) are responsible for this!” By 11:10 that night, the young mother was no more.

Eight years ago, the young bride from Ishbar Nishat was married to Mohammad Rafiq Sofi of Kawa Mohalla running a provisional store near DAV School, Jawahar Nagar. The family never proved smooth for her. She would often complain how her in-laws would demand dowry, torture her all the time. The ill-treatment only worsened after she gave birth to their first girl child. “Her in-laws wanted son and blamed her when she gave birth to a daughter,” says her uncle.

Such was the bitterness of her in-laws that they neither came asking for her nor her daughter, Madheeha after her birth. Later, they sent a word for her: “Come home, but without your daughter!” It was a ‘brutal’ decision, which Mehjabeena obliged. “Behind her sacrifice was her insecurity,” her uncle says. “She had lost her father in childhood to a mine blast. She didn’t want to lose husband as well.”

After she returned to her in-laws, the things didn’t become better. The old complaining tone of her mother-in-law and two sisters-in-laws remained troubling. “She regularly faced torture,” says Nazir Wani, Mehjabeena’s brother. “By the time she gave birth to her second daughter, her in-laws almost disowned her.” To escape the reprisal, Mehjabeena stayed with her family for almost two years. During that time, her husband never visited his daughters.

Two years later, Mehjabeena’s family approached the Falah Behbood Committee of Khanyar. The members had a series of meetings before finally seeking a written assurance from her in-laws that they wouldn’t bother her again. But old habits never changed.

Along with her mother-in-law, her two sisters-in-laws repeatedly tormented her. Her two daughters were thought as a bad omen by her family. It made them to treat her like a culprit, beating her all the time. And when all this was happening, her brother says, her husband never bothered to act, or come to rescue.

On Eid, Rafiq Sofi, her husband continued to be an indifferent man. That day, Mehjabeena questioned his indifference, not towards her, but towards her daughters. Sofi had bought clothes for his sisters’ children, but not for her daughters. This made Mahjabeena mad. She asked him and in return, he fought.

By the morning of Eid, Jameela, Rafiq’s sister had visited home with the intention to fight. For questioning indifference towards her daughters, Mehjabeena was subjected to torture. Amid the row, Rafiq suddenly took Akeeta out, leaving behind his wife at mercy of his irate mother and sisters-in-law. The neighbours saw him returning home half-an-hour later the episode. “Her husband was the part of the dirty ploy,” says Nazir. “He knew what was happening in his home and yet he is terming it a self immolation act.”

Even police “seem buying” the version of the accused family. Presently lodged in Khanyar Police Station, the four accused – her husband, mother-in-law and two sisters-in-law – are pleading for their innocence. The SHO, Rafiq Ahmad, says the police recorded the statement of the deceased in which she said, “I ended my life after facing repeated dowry harassments from my in-laws.” The accused four have been booked under FIR-vide no 63/2015 under section 306, 309 and 498-A.

But her family and neighbours at Kawa Mohalla term it a clear case of “murder”. While predic ting the outcome of the case, the locals say the accused will walk free sooner or later. But whenever it will happen, the whole locality will lock their house and send them into social exile, they say. “We must do it to prevent our daughters meeting Mehjabeena’s fate.”

Whether the accused family meet that fate or not, but Mehjabeena’s two daughters have already met their charred fate!


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