The anger is palpable. Many in the village and those assembled for visits talk about the murder in terms of ‘us vs them’ — Hindu vs Muslim.

Nagaraju's sister Ramadevi on the left, his wife Sultana on the right. In the middle is a banner demanding justice for Nagaraju, who was killed for his inter-faith, inter-caste wedding with Sultana.Nagaraju's sister Ramadevi and wife Sultana with a poster demanding justice for Nagaraju. Photo by arrangement.
news Crime Wednesday, May 11, 2022 - 13:40

“They only come to the Dalit villages when one of us is killed, or to seek votes,” says a resident of Marpalle, a Dalit settlement of 135 households, about two hours away from Hyderabad. This time, it’s a murder that brought dozens of political activists to Marpalle. A resident of Marpalle, Billipuram Nagaraju (26) was attacked and killed on the streets of the state capital on May 4, following his inter-faith marriage to Syed Ashrin Sultana. The Hyderabad police arrested two of the accused: Sultana's brother Syed Mobin Ahmed, and brother-in-law Mohammed Masood Ahmed, for the brutal murder.

“The ‘flower party’ people told us to stay away from Muslims," says one of the Dalit women observing the commotion in Marpalle from a distance, referring to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

Rallies and candle-light vigils are ongoing in Marpalle and elsewhere in Telangana demanding justice for Nagaraju. Nagaraju’s family has received an endless stream of visitors since May 5. Pitched outside the victim’s family home are two tents stuffed with politicians, reporters and activists; there’s also a steady police presence. While the family is receiving much-needed support, including immediate monetary help and assurances, the village is also witnessing communally charged conversations.

The polarising campaigns following the murder has left people hesitant to identify themselves when speaking to reporters. The BJP and other right-wing organisations are calling on Hindus to unite, with the sometimes said and sometimes unsaid subtext: ‘against the Muslims.’

“Meluko Hindu Samajama” –– Wake up Hindus –– was one of the calls at a vigil held in Vikarabad demanding justice for Nagaraju. Images sourced by special arrangement.

Milling among the crowds outside the family home, we speak to a mysterious twenty-something man. He claims to have travelled two-and-a-half hours from a village in Medak district after hearing about Nagaraju’s killing. “If this had happened in Karnataka or Maharashtra, it would have been different,” he says, uttering several communally charged expletives about Muslims. “I am a self-employed person. I am not associated with any party,” he says when this reporter probes further. He is one of many visitors in the village, unfamiliar to the locals, unidentified to reporters.

‘Kulam’ or ‘Matam’?

Among those discussing and condemning the murder in both online and offline spaces, there was an urgency to ascribe it to either caste or religion, while largely overlooking how Sultana being a woman was a contributing factor too.

The debate over whether Nagaraju was murdered due to his caste (Mala) or religion (Hindu) gets varied responses in Marpalle too. “We are wearing bottu, no? We are Hindus,” one angry neighbour responds when asked about the debate. Others, who knew of Nagaraju and Sultana’s relationship, have a more rounded take on the issue. They think that even as the inter-faith marriage was a huge issue for Sultana’s family, Nagaraju belonging to the Mala (Dalit) caste angered her brother further. She belongs to a family of upper caste Muslims. Sultana has spoken about how Nagaraju’s religion angered her brother.

"Had our people [Hindus] treated us Dalits equally, our situation wouldn't have come to this. There is no unity among Hindus," says another neighbour of Nagaraju. He appears to know the family closely but doesn’t wish to be identified. B Srinivas, Nagaraju’s father, also comments on caste among Hindus, “We are divided by so many castes. If only we were united!” One of Nagaraju’s friends, a Dalit man, says, “Had they decided to live among us, we could have at least protected them.” Nagaraju and Sultana had been living in Hyderabad after their wedding in January this year.

Other attempts to talk about the kulam (caste) aspect are snubbed by some people, reiterating that matam (religion) was the problem. Whether they belong to the village or are outsiders cannot be discerned.

BJP leaders are finding ways to work with both the Dalit and the Hindu identities. In Marpalle, MLA from Goshamahal T Raja Singh said, "If someone born as a Hindu, born in an SC (Dalit) community, marries a Muslim, will you kill them for that?"

The anger is palpable. Many in the village and those assembled for visits talk about the murder in ‘us vs them’ terms. “Whatever they [Muslims] do is legal in this country," says a youngster from the crowd.

Aiding the divisions are misinformation campaigns spearheaded by right wing organisations that are bent on furthering a ‘justice is being delayed’ narrative. At least some of the visitors and villagers are responding to campaigns by the BJP and right wing organisations in the state. The campaigns, designed to promote anger towards Muslims, also attempt to politicise the murder by levelling allegations against Telangana Rashtra Samithi (TRS) and All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (AIMIM).

"Out of the four people involved in the murder, only two have been arrested. Two others belong to TRS and AIMIM,” alleged BJP leader Vivek Venkataswamy in one of the many press meets, “Why are they not being arrested?"


Screenshot from Twitter: Telangana State BJP President Bandi Sanjay Kumar alleging that AIMIM is involved in Nagaraju murder.


BJP leader Vivek Venkataswamy meets Nagaraju's family at Marpalle.

On May 8, BJP MLA Raja Singh visited Marpalle to meet Sultana and Nagaraju's family and said, "According to the information we have, some people from the old city helped them (murderers) plan it." Since the murder, Singh has made multiple attempts to create hostility towards Hyderabad’s Muslims and old city — where a large number of Muslims live — by invoking Nagaraju’s death.

Local leaders and politicians from other parties, including those from the ruling TRS, the Left, and several progressive Dalit parties, have been visiting Sultana and Nagaraju's parents and extended family. Prominent civil society members from all faiths have also been visiting Marpalle. Padmaja Shaw, an academic, media critic and activist based in Hyderabad, visited Marpalle the same day as some BJP leaders. Padmaja notes that anti-Muslim feelings are being spread in a village with no history of communal disharmony.

“None of these politicians have stood in support of Dalits and condemned the violent casteism of upper castes before now. Some marched in support of murderers in some cases. Back then, it was termed a ‘private family crime’. The moment a Muslim is involved, it is being framed to stain the entire community," Padmaja says, referring to the 2018 caste killing of Pranay Kumar, a Dalit man, for marrying Amrutha Varshini from the forward caste Vaishya. The prime accused, Amrutha’s father Maruthi Rao, received support from several among the Arya Vaishya community.

‘Why did nobody help me save my Raju?’

At the centre of this maelstrom is Sultana, angry and distraught. Currently, she lives with Nagaraju’s family, comprising his parents Srinivas and Anasuya, sister Ramadevi, and grandparents, in their two-room house in Marpalle. Each day, all of them are exposed to seemingly never-ending attention from reporters and politicians alike.

Each day, Sultana and Nagaraju’s parents meet dozens of visitors, answering questions. Their grief has been pushed to the back burner. Visibly traumatised, Sultana patiently repeats what happened on the day of the murder, how she met Nagaraju, how they fell in love, their subsequent wedding, and the hopes they had, now set to be eternally unfulfilled.

Sultana married Nagaraju in January 2022, in an Arya Samaj ritual. Their wedding required her to convert to Hinduism, for which she took the moniker ‘Pallavi’; but she continues to practice Islam. She fasted during the month of Ramzan and celebrated Eid with Nagaraju, the remnants of Henna on her hands still visible.

The anger in Sultana’s voice is evident when she asks, "Why did nobody help me save my Raju? When will I be allowed to speak to my brother? I will kill him, or I will die."

Nagaraju's mother Anasuya and wife Sultana at their home in Marpalle.

Nagaraju’s parents are distraught, broken by the knowledge that they outlived their son — a nightmare they never imagined. “The last time I spoke to my son was on the eve of Ramzan. He asked if we were well and I enquired if they were well. The next call informed me of his murder,” says Srinivas, Nagaraju’s father.

Everyone breaks into tears every so often.

Sultana has been over the events over half-a-dozen times just this afternoon, and countless more times in the many interviews since her husband’s killing. The response to her pleas of “why did nobody help?” vary from visitor to visitor.

P Shankar and others from the Dalit Bahujan Front try to calm Sultana down and explain that arrests had been made and "justice will be served in due time." In the wake of Sultana’s lament, several leaders from the right wing fold have hinted at "quick justice" to "restore law and order” in the state.

Sultana says she doesn’t know how to live in a world that doesn’t have her Raju in it. But she also wants to make sure Nagaraju’s family is taken care of.

“My brother was abusive, but my mother and I loved each other dearly. She raised me with so much care. She used to cook for me when I was working. But I loved my Raju so much that I left all that for him. How should I live now?” Sultana asks.

Reassurance from the state awaited

After the tragedy, the family has been promised monetary compensation and employment from the government — a gesture that has launched a wave of insecurity within Nagaraju’s extended family. “Nagaraju’s parents are daily-wage labourers. Nagaraju was the sole hope of the family. What if the woman (Sultana) gets the government job and leaves? Who will take care of them?” asks a relative, while making a case for Nagaraju’s divorced sister to receive the promised job.

A neighbour waits outside with an empty bank account form in hand. “Someone had asked for the bank account details of the woman (Sultana) so we are creating an account,” he says.

But who is giving them money? Nobody knows for sure.

“Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) asked,” someone standing next to the neighbour says. Another interrupts, “No no, it is Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP) from Delhi.” A third person thinks it is the state government. They fuss for a brief bit about who actually asked for bank details and move on to discussing something else.



Social Democratic Forum fact-finding team at Nagaraju's residence.

While assurances have been given by the Municipal Administration and Urban Development Minister KT Rama Rao, a visit would allay the confusion and fears, civil society members believe.

"The government should give jobs to Sultana and to Nagaraju's sister Ramadevi. Monetary compensation should also be provided to Nagaraju's parents and his wife. All benefits mentioned in the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act should also be sanctioned without delay," says Sujatha Surepally, convener of Bahujan Prathighata Vedika.

Sujatha Surepally, former IAS officer Akunuri Murali, retired High Court judge Nimma Narayana and others visited Marpalle as part of the Social Democratic Forum fact-finding team. They urged the government, in a press statement, to step in to protect Sultana and Nagaraju’s parents, sister, and relatives, and to ensure that the murder is not viewed through a communal lens.

After endless interactions with the media, politicians and activists, Sultana and her in-laws are visibly exhausted. It is now well past noon, and they have not even had the chance to eat anything since morning. “Can you not leave her alone to at least eat a little? Will you follow us to the bathroom next?" an angry aunt says as she shuts the door, in hopes of a brief respite before it begins all over again.

Ayesha Minhaz is an independent journalist writing from Andhra Pradesh and Telangana.

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