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Why Did Rizwanur Rehman Have to Die?

The manner in which the Kolkata police handled the Rizwanur-Priyanka case smacks of their class, social and communal bias in making marriages made out of personal choice look like illegal activity. Against the backdrop of the Supreme Court judgment of July 2006, which demands the protection of inter-caste and inter-religious marriages, this article exposes the role of the police as a source of harassment.

Why Did RizwanurRehman Have to Die?

The manner in which the Kolkata police handled the Rizwanur-Priyanka case smacks of their class, social and communal bias in making marriages made out of personal choice look like illegal activity. Against the backdrop of the Supreme Court judgment of July 2006, which demands the protection of inter-caste and inter-religious marriages, this article exposes the role of the police as a source of harassment.

RAJASHRI DASGUPTA

W
hen Rizwanur Rehman and Priyanka Todi got married, they knew they were treading on thin ice. Instead of sending out invitations to friends and family to celebrate their marriage on August 18, they wrote numerous petitions to inform the police that they had married under the Special Marriage Act. This strange measure was to ensure police protection against the wrath of the Todi family, which was enraged with their daughter’s choice of husband. Their fear was not baseless. On the morning of September 21, Rizwanur was found dead on the railway tracks in the heart of Kolkata city.

The information that emerged over the next few days has revealed shocking details of the nexus between the Todi family and top police officials. Instead of providing the couple protection against the harassment by the Todi family, the police took over the function of harassment. They interfered in the private lives of two consenting adults, threatened the couple and tried to break up the marriage.

Infuriated by Rizwanur’s death, people in his neighbourhood blocked roads and vented their fury. In recent weeks, Rizwanur’s students, human rights groups, women activists, the city’s intellectual community, his colleagues and batch mates and various citizens’ groups have held demonstrations, marches and candle light vigils to protest Rizwanur’s death while questioning the role of the police hierarchy in the entire episode. Since September 21, almost every day, news of the investigation into Rizwanur’s death has made it to the headlines in the front pages of both the English and Bengali newspapers. It is a tribute to the people of Kolkata that the agitations never took on a communal hue, and that people across different religious beliefs remained steadfast in seeking justice for Rizwanur and his love.

Rizwanur-Priyanka’s relationship had transgressed all social taboos. Thirty-yearold Rizwanur, a young Muslim who struggled from the slums of Tiljala in Kolkata to train as a graphics designer, and was teaching in a multimedia institute, where he met his wife, 23-year-old Priyanka Todi, a Hindu who belonged to a family that owned the Rs 200 crore-plus Lux inner wear hosiery business.

Stung by the public outcry, the chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharya quickly declared a CID inquiry. People protested as how the police that were implicated in the case could be investigated by its own brethren. Seven days later, as Rizwanur’s death snowballed into a major controversy with the role of the police becoming clearer, the chief minister ordered a judicial enquiry. This too did not go

Economic and Political Weekly October 20, 2007 down well with the people given the past experience of the 24 commissions in the state in the last 30 years since the Left Front government came to power; most have not seen the light of day.

The chief minister later admitted to the media, “The incident has touched people’s hearts. I am not defending any (police) officer. You have seen the social impact and there are several dimensions to this case. There is money power and there is also a communal angle. The government will not compromise.”

Challenging Norms and Rules

Rizwanur-Priyanka’s tragic story is about the assertion of choice in relationships and marriage, which is invariably seen as a direct threat to patriarchy, parental authority and community norms. Young lovers find themselves caught between their love for each other, the rights guaranteed by the law and their socio-cultural reality. In retaliation, the family, community and state agencies like the police and the law courts treat love as a criminal activity and young lovers as criminals in order to control and destroy them.

Rizwanur-Priyanka’s tale is not an exception. The display of romantic desire and love by couple is seen to bring “shame” on “family honour”. Since marriage is the only socially sanctioned sexual relationship, it is arranged by the family strictly adhering to rules of class, religion and caste. It is a social act, argues feminist historian Uma Chakravarti, rather than an individual one, where the individual’s needs, desire and love are separated from the institution of marriage, an alliance of two families often involving material transaction.

As a result, child marriage, early marriage and forced marriage are widely practised to maintain the status quo of social power, family hierarchy, dominance and control over women’s “deviant behaviour”. Those who “breach” the social arrangement face disapproval, stiff resistance, violence – and even death – if, when and whom they choose and decide to marry.

So severe is the malaise that on July 7, 2006 the Supreme Court asked the administration and police to protect couples of inter-caste and inter-religious marriages; it ruled that anyone who harasses, threatens or subjects such a couple to acts of violence would be prosecuted. The Supreme Court had delivered this landmark judgment in Lata Singh’s case who, though a major and had an inter-caste marriage, faced extreme harassment in the hands of the criminal justice delivery system. The court observes that “this is a free and democratic country, and once a person becomes a major, he or she can marry whomsoever he/she likes”. If the parents of the boy or girl do not approve, stated the apex court, the maximum they can do is to cut off their social relations. They cannot harass, threaten or commit or instigate acts of violence against couples.

Family Authority and Control

But the Todis were determined to do exactly that. Aware of the Todis’ increasing grip on the social and financial circuit in Kolkata, Rizwanur and Priyanka were afraid that the family could create trouble for them. On August 30, Priyanka and Rizwanur had photocopied their marriage and birth certificates and along with a covering letter seeking police protection, submitted them to the police commissioner, four local police stations and the Human Rights Commission. The letter stated, Ashok Todi (Priyanka’s father) “may threaten us with dire consequences or create pressure or can send anti-social elements or goondas to kidnap us. In view of this, we hope to get protection from your end if required”.

In the next few days the Todis created tremendous pressure on the couple. Priyanka faced emotional blackmail at the hands of her family and pressure from the police to leave her husband to return home. On August 31, when Priyanka moved into her in-law’s home and informed her father about her marriage, his immediate reaction was that Rizwanur would have to convert to Hinduism; Rizwanur was willing – for love.

Despite this, Todi and his family tried to pressurise Priyanka to leave Rizwanur and return to them. Todi’s design did not stop at that. The family raked up an old love affair of Rizwanur’s that had ended amicably way back in 2004 and which Priyanka was well aware of. The fact that the affair was raised at this juncture was to paint the young man undependable and “loose” and to sow suspicion in Priyanka’s mind about the reliability of her husband.

When family pressure and emotional blackmail failed, the Todis used their social and business networks to reach the top echelons of the police hierarchy to hound the couple.

Policing People’s Lives

Over the years, the man with the sharp business acumen had assiduously cozied up to the police hierarchy. Recently, the ‘andar ki baat’ in the nexus between the police and the Todi family was revealed through a small incident of a “gift”; the Todis had presented Cozi T shirts to the police for an anti-drug rally on June 26. Perhaps, the gift would have gone unnoticed, if a top police officer had not issued a recall of the T shirts raising eyebrows. The Todis knew such gestures to the police would be advantageous some day.

When the news of his daughter’s marriage broke, the Todis again approached their close business associate Snehasis Ganguly, elder brother of former skipper Sourav Ganguly, to get access this time to the Kolkata police commissioner, Prasun Mukerjee. The choice of contact was perfect; since as an assistant secretary

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Economic and Political Weekly October 20, 2007

of the Cricket Association Board (CAB), Snehasis was the perfect link between Todi and the police commissioner who is also the CAB president. A Left Front minister even lashed out at how the Todis had helped fund the CAB elections.

Though Rizwanur and Priyanka had acted as two law-abiding citizens, they were pitched against a system that was unequal and favoured links with the rich and powerful. The police were fully aware that the two were adults and had married with mutual consent under the Special Marriage Act; they had even appealed to them for protection against the harassment of the Todis. Instead of providing protection, the police repeatedly summoned them to the police headquarters, harassed them and issued threats of arrest against Rizwanur and his family to browbeat the couple and break up the marriage. Police officials later told the CID team investigating the case that they were “following instructions of their seniors”.

The manner in which the top police officers tried to legitimise the role of the police in this case and support the Todis was shameful. On September 23, two days after Rizwanur was found dead, the police commissioner called a press conference where he claimed Rizwanur’s death was a “simple case of suicide” – this even before the post-mortem report was complete. He justified the resistance of the Todis to their daughter’s marriage as “natural’ and questioned the desirability of relationships in which “financial and social status” do not match. He ended the press conference by asserting that the police had always handled similar cases in the “same manner” and will do so even in the future.

The “manner” in which the Kolkata police handled the Rizwanur-Priyanka case smacks of their class, social and communal bias in making marriages made out of personal choice look like illegal acti vity. Events developed fast between September 1 and 8 when the couple were repeatedly summoned to the Lalbazar police headquarters and pressurised. The first time when the assistant commissioner, anti-rowdy section (ARS) told Priyanka to return to her family, she refused. The second time, when deputy commissioner, Gyanwant Singh of the anti-narcotics cell called the couple to Lalbazar to persuade Priyanka to return home, Priyanka told the senior officer that her parents were mentally torturing her.

Despite Priyanka’s refusal, on September 8, for the third time the police summoned the couple, Rizwanur’s brother and two uncles went with them. Bluntly, the ARS officer, Ajoy Kumar told the couple that they had two options:

(a) Priyanka must visit her parents for seven days, and (b) if she refused, then on the basis of a complaint filed by Todi against Rizwanur for abduction and stealing valuables he would be arrested and she would be handed over to her parents. Knowing fully well the charges against Rizwanur were false, instead of punishing the Todis, the police threatened the young man.

Rizwanur’s family was in a dilemma and under tremendous pressure. Believing that his wife would return after seven days, Rizwanur “agreed”. On a blank sheet of paper, Priyanka’s uncle, Anil Sarogi wrote that he was taking her to her parents’ home for seven days. The police was the mute witness to the final act of betrayal.

That was the last time the couple saw each other. In the ensuing days, the couple spoke to each other when Priyanka would call; the last was on September 11. From September 16, the end of the official day of separation, Rizwanur tried many times to call his wife and send messages to the different cellphone numbers Priyanka had called from; each time it was curtly switched off. It was at this juncture, with Priyanka under his grip, the Todis tried first to malign Rizwanur about his past affair. When that failed, the police repeatedly threatened a witness to the couple’s wedding with the intention of proving the marriage was performed under duress.

A Suicide Too Perfect

On October 4, the CID submitted an “inconclusive” cause of death in the interim report hinting at suicide. Perhaps, Rizwanur’s death would have been shrugged off as a “simple case of suicide” as the police commissioner had maintained from the beginning. But Sujato Bhadra, a human rights activist of Association of Protection of Democratic Rights (APDR) whom Rizwanur had contacted for help, was experienced enough to sense something amiss and immediately went to the media. (On October 17, the Kolkata High Court ordered an enquiry by the Central Bureau of Investigation because it was unhappy with the CID investigation.)

In the morning of September 21, the day Rizwanur was found dead, at 10.11 am, Rizwanur had called Sujato on his cellphone to fix an appointment to meet him at 2.30 pm at the gates of the police headquarters with more documents. By 10.30 am he was found dead on the railway tracks near Dum Dum, far from his home. Also, the previous night Rukbanur, Rizwanur’s elder brother had found Rizwanur in a combative mood preparing a dossier to fight a legal battle. Kolkata citizens refuse to believe that the man who had confirmed an appointment a few minutes ago and was determined to fight a legal battle to get his wife back had committed suicide.

Earlier, on the same day at 8.30 am, Rizwanur had rushed out from the house after he received a phone call telling his sister-in-law he would be back for breakfast.

REVIEW OF LABOUR May 26, 2007
Economic Liberalisation, Work and Democracy: Industrial Decline and Urban Politics in Kolkata – Nandini Gooptu
Optional or Imposed? An Ex Post Evaluation of Voluntary Retirement Scheme in BALCO – Babu P Ramesh
Labour and Closure of a Mill: Lives of Workers of a Closed Factory in Kanpur – Manali Chakrabarti
Accounting for ‘Us’ and ‘Them’: Indian and UK Customer Service Workers’ Reflections on Offshoring – Laurie Cohen,Amal El-Sawad
Disinterring the Report of National Commission on Labour:A Marxist Perspective – Anjan Chakrabarti, Byasdeb Dasgupta
For copies write to: Circulation Manager Economic and Political Weekly

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Economic and Political Weekly October 20, 2007

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    Economic and Political Weekly October 20, 2007

    The call was from a PCO in Lake Town, 15-20 minutes away, from where his body was found. According to media reports, the driver of the train that was supposed to have run over Rizwanur told investigators that he merely saw the body lying by the side of the tracks and that his engine had not knocked him down. This lent further credence that Rizwanur was murdered and his body dumped on the tracks.

    The railway police superintendent, who has seen many bodies hit by trains, does not remember any case where there has been only a single wound on the body. The impact of a moving train on a person has a violent impact on the body, he maintained. But Rizwanur was found lying straight at right angles from the tracks with his hands folded neatly on his chest. Rukbanur insists that except for a slash in the neck and a smashed head there was no injury on his body. No CID official had examined the body, which had been buried by the time the case was handed over to the department.

    There are huge gaps in the interim report that remain unanswered. The CID officials visited the spot where Rizwanur was found dead only four days after the incident when all visible traces of blood had been wiped away by the trains. According to Upen Biswas, the former additional director of CBI, in sensitive cases the post-mortem process is ideally captured in video and the doctor who conducts the post-mortem should be interviewed for his observations. None of that was done, despite the fact that the police were aware that Rizwanur’s death was a “sensitive” case since it had immediately sparked off angry protests between demonstrators and the police.

    What is touching is the meticulously written documents submitted by Rizwanur to APDR; it reveals his unflinching faith in the police system from whom he sought protection for himself and his wife. The documents are also damning. They contain a methodical, date-by-date sequence of events since August 31, when Priyanka moved in with him and the role of the police in trying to destroy their lives. A man who was willing to fight the system for his love, was drawing up legal strategies and fixing appointments was an unlikely candidate to terminate his own life. Whatever “facts” the police may spew and place before the state government, in the eyes of the people they stand damned.

    EPW

    Email: rajashri_dasgupta@yahoo.com

    Economic and Political Weekly October 20, 2007

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