A smiling photograph of her elder son Nitish adorns the front wall of Neelam Katara's drawing room, at her quaint little railway bungalow on Chelmsford Road. It is nearly a decade since Nitish was murdered, and in the time since then she has endured much that should have wiped the smiles off her own face. But Mrs.Katara has sustained her will and determination through the years.
In the early hours of 17 February, 2002, Nitish was burned to death mercilessly by Vikas and Vishal Yadav - brothers of Bharti Yadav, the daughter of U.P politician D P Yadav. This was because the Yadav brothers disapproved of Bharti's relationship with Nitish. It was Neelam who identified her son's badly charred body, dumped in the bushes at Khurj, 80 kilometers from Kavi Nagar, the venue of the Ghaziabad wedding he had gone to attend on the preceding fateful night.
A plain reading of the facts of the case, and the prosecution will tell you that a protracted legal battle initiated by Nitish's spirited mother lasted eight years (and still counting), at the end of which the two accused, Vikas Yadav and his cousin Vishal Yadav were found guilty by the trial court of Nitish's gruesome murder, and each given a life sentence. But the proceedings and the verdict are only one side of the story; they do not adequately recount Neelam's experience with the justice system, and the things she endured while fighting this long battle for justice.
Neelam Katara is the daughter of a police officer from Muzaffarnagar in Uttar Pradesh. Her maternal grandfather was a judge, and her paternal grandfather was a public prosecutor. But she herself knew very little about the intricacies of law, and neither was she inquisitive to learn about the justice systems and its workings during her near-perfect and well-protected childhood and married life thereafter. Equally, she did not know that at the age of 50, her life would take a sharp turn that required her to understand the system's harsh realities.
Nitish didn't return home on the night of 16 February. At first, Neelam did not worry, thinking that the young man would be enjoying himself at his friend's wedding. But then she received a call from Bharti, who conveyed to Neelam her fear that "her brothers had taken Nitish away somewhere". After making several phone calls to Nitish's friends to trace his whereabouts, Neelam finally decided to head to Kavi Nagar (Ghaziabad, Uttar Pradesh) herself and lodge a complaint and an F.I.R with the police over there, in which she pin-pointed her suspicion towards Bharti's brothers.
"At this point, I didn't realise that it would have been better had I lodged this complaint at a police station in Delhi, that would have saved me the hassles of getting this case transferred from the Uttar Pradesh trial courts to the trial courts in Delhi - something which ultimately happened in August 2002 following my appeal to the Supreme Court. I appealed because after witnessing first-hand the amount of political clout and influence exerted by D P Yadav in Uttar Pradesh, it was apparent that the judges in those courts could be intimidated and influenced, something which I still stand by", recalls Mrs. Katara. This would be only the first of her many lessons from the trial.
In November 2002, hearings in the case began. Like many others, Neelam's impression of the courts was obtained from Bollywood depictions of courtrooms and their processes. In reality, of course, the courts are nothing like that. And after umpteen visits to all types of courts, Neelam now carries no illusion of how they look like ... "The actual courtrooms resemble nothing like the Bollywood dramas show them to be", she remarked.
Bharti Yadav and Nitish's 'honour killing'
Bharti Yadav's family was opposed to her romance with Nitish, because he wasn't from the same caste as theirs. But Neelam would never have guessed it would get them riled enough to kill him, in the name of their family honour. The Kataras are a well-educated family, and caste and creed were not important to them. Mrs. Katara says, "I never thought that Nitish would be killed, we never taught him to be speak loudly or distinguish amongst people on the basis of any caste or creed, we taught him to trust people and that is why perhaps despite knowing the fact that Bharti's brothers were disapproving of his relationship with her, he agreed to accompany them that night."
"I didn't realise that it would have been better had I lodged this complaint at a police station in Delhi, that would have saved me the hassles of getting this case transferred from the Uttar Pradesh trial courts to the trial courts in Delhi".
• Friday at the court "There has been a surge in the number of 'honour killings' of late, but these are nothing new," says Mrs. Katara. "They continue to happen in hordes in every small town in Uttar Pradesh every week and it is the caste-based segregation in the matrimonial adverts in our city's papers which is further adding to this divide in this country. Even educated people like us, who were previously unaware of their castes, are suddenly getting awakened to it ... and such 'honour killings' will only increase in days to come," she warns.
The prosecution was mundane, and didn't make full use of the information it could have obtained. And it took Neelam Katara a while to realise this. She now thinks that the Public Prosecutor and the judges should have done more - for instance, by directing the investigating authorise to exercise the power of the cyber laws and trace the password to Nitish's hotmail ID. The personal emails from Bharti in that account would have shed further light on this case. Even after Nitish's death, his younger brother received some mails from an account that was allegedly created by Bharti (although she later denied this). The print-outs of those mails were not considered healthy evidence in the court. Neelam, who now understands such things much better than she did at first, thinks that the investigative agencies should have made the effort to trace the IP address of the sender of those e-mails.
The political interference was also high. When the trial was entering a crucial phase in end 2003, the Uttar Pradesh Government suddenly withdrew the first public prosecutor given by them to Mrs. Katara in this case, the criminal law expert S K Saxena. Katara is certain this was done under pressure from the UP government, of which D P Yadav was then a part. Subsequently, for three years, D.P Yadav maintained before the courts that he did not know where his daughter lived (rendering the summons to her useless), although he had himself visited her in the UK during this time.
Even after the Yadavs were convicted in 2008, the political dealing has not stopped. The Mayawati Government in Uttar Pradesh has moved a special petition in the Ghaziabad Metropolitan Magistrate's court asking the court in public interest to 'drop all cases against D P Yadav thus far' apparently because the man has had a change in heart now and serves the people of the state with utmost dedication!
Does Mrs. Katara have any regrets, after all these years of the trials? "Yes," she answers. "One of them is that I wasn't allowed to be there when Nitish's friends were being examined as witnesses. One of the friends was a police officer's son, and the other was the son of a retired High Court judge ... both of them, in their respective statements, in front of the judge, feigned ignorance on the circumstances that may have led to Nitish's death. I wish I was there at those moments - to see them eye-to-eye, perhaps they would have felt ashamed if not regretful at letting a friend like Nitish down. I also regret not having hired a private lawyer in the initial days, as that left me completely wondering what was going on in the case when I was unable to attend the witness examinations initially."
"The other regret I have is that I trusted the Public Prosecutors blindly, and believed everything that they said or suggested till it became too apparent that the new Special Public Prosecutor K K Singh given to us in January 2004 was not on our side. Insensitively, he just kept on telling me, ham appko bhi London lekar chalenge, and the first thing he did after being appointed our PP was that he moved a petition to the judge asking the court 'to drop Bharti Yadav as a witness in this case' - which was unacceptable to me, as her testimony was of crucial significance in this case and that's the day I started running around to find an able private lawyer who could pursue this case on my behalf. But hiring a private lawyer also meant spending a lot of money as every hearing requires me to pay the lawyer appearing on my behalf."
Using the law against justice
As I heard Mrs. Katara speak, I wondered why it takes so long to finish a case in India, despite the initial statements given to the police - the Yadav brothers confessed to murdering Nitish, and even Bharti Yadav had confessed to her relationship with Nitish. All of whom back tracked when it came to speaking up in front of the magistrate, but why were their statements not admissible in the court as evidence, I wondered? The answer - under Section 161 of the Indian Criminal Procedure Code, though the police has the power to examine witnesses and record statements in writing, the same is not acknowledged as evidence in the court of laws, based on the view that the police can force anyone to make any statement and it is only a statement made by the witness/accused in front of a judge that counts as admissible court evidence (Section 164 of CrPC).
This makes me wonder whether the police should examine witnesses in the first place if nothing they do counts in the courts!
The system is also easy to exploit, and quite blatantly too. If an accused person is wealthy, then he holds the power to prolong the case as much as he wishes, simply by relying on 'adjournments'. The lawyers on the side of the accused, as in this case, get umpteen numbers of court hearings adjourned simply by exploiting this clause ad coming up with the most mundane 'manufactured' excuses - like sometimes the accused's lawyers would ask for an adjournment to attend to his sick daughter in the absence of his wife or to attend to his home since a gas cylinder had burst in there! The judges have plenty of discretion in deciding whether to tolerate such delays, but in many cases, especially where political influence is always lurking, they turn away.
Also, a witness can delay the case as much as they want by refusing to turn up and be examined. In this case, it took over three years (from July 2003 to November 2006) for the courts to bring Bharti Yadav back to India from the UK and examine her as a key witness in this case.
Victims, even beyond the murder
In these eight long years, not only did Neelam lose her young son and her ailing husband, but she has also had to endure much more. Her determination to fight until justice is done to ensure Nitish's killers got their due punishment has required her to make many more sacrifices - financial, professional as well as on the health front. She has lost out on many promotions as a result of the extended breaks she had to take from work (she works as an Education Officer with Kendriya Vidyalayas). Stress has led her to put on weight, and has also cause related BP-induced problems. Hiring a private lawyer after the Public Prosecutor ditched her has led her to spend most if not all of her husband's retirement benefits on the same.
Does she consider herself to be the victim of the judicial system? "Every victim's family that approaches the courts to seek justice ends up being a victim," she sighs, adding "Under Indian law, the onus of proving the accused guilty of the crime rests on the complainant and the public prosecutor. This means that the accused in quite free during the trial to carry on with his life, and only the victim must exert all the energy for justice. The results is that the complainant faces utmost harassment and victimisation during the case trial, as opposed to the accused who enjoys all benefits. The court conjectured that Bharti's brothers were entitled to 'perform their social duties and obligations' under the law - and gave them leaves extending from 2-3 weeks to attend their sisters' marriages or to attend to their parents' ill health. Didn't Nitish have responsibilities on his shoulders he was also an elder brother and an elder son?"
Vishal Yadav has also been allowed by the prison authorities to get treated for Tuberculosis (during the course of his imprisonment) at Batra Hospital instead of AIIMS, against the general protocol. "In India, if you want justice from the judicial system, you have to be willing to make sacrifices and fight your case on YOUR own feet; no one else will fight it for you! The rest are just waiting for you to give up the fight, so that the accused can be bailed out with ease," emphasises Neelam.
• Friday at the court Despite all that she has endured, Neelam Katara remains a picture of stoic determination and motherly affection, who advises young people not to get cynical of the way things work in India. She advises everyone to speak up against injustice and not give up so easily. "Every time I go to the courts, I realise that I am more fortunate than millions in this country who don't have the financial resources or the mental strength to bear through these long judicial trials. In their fear to not lose all wealth and all of their peace of mind during the course of fighting protracted long legal battles, most people give up. I am glad I did not," she says.
I can't help but ask what has kept her going all these years to sustain her fight? "I don't know," she said. "The moment I saw Nitish's badly burned body in those bushes, I had made up my mind that the people who committed this should not go unpunished. I am doing just that. Every day I wake up to the thought of 'what if' the Yadav brothers get bailed out, and thus, my battle for justice continues ...", she concluded. By her side, in spirit and support are her 80-year old parents, her younger son Nitin and her trusted legal counsel Kamini Jaiswal.
Her perseverance is a sign of her enduring love for the child who was cruelly snatched from her. But for Neelam Katara, this legal battle is no longer just about the court case around her son. Seeing justice done in this instance has become a mission that sustains her life.