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Love That Was More Than Love: How Nagaraju & Sultana Transcended Caste and Faith

Billipuram Nagaraju, a Dalit, was allegedly killed in Hyderabad for marrying a Muslim woman, Syed Ashrin Sultana.

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6 min read
Love That Was More Than Love: How Nagaraju & Sultana Transcended Caste and Faith
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Billipuram Nagaraju used to wear a bottu, a vermilion mark, which is a common Hindu religious symbol. He stopped wearing it a few months before he was brutally murdered at Saroornagar in Hyderabad on 4 May. Why?

He wanted to marry Syed Ashrin Sultana, his childhood sweetheart. Nagaraju, a 26-year-old Dalit man, gave up his religious mark to make his Muslim bride comfortable. “Raju was even ready to remove his bottu for me. I never asked him to do that but he did it anyway,” Sultana told The Quint, as she painfully recalled the love she shared with Nagaraju, whom she still calls Raju.

Nagaraju and Sultana got married at an Arya Samaj temple on 31 January 2022.

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At the marriage ceremony, it was Sultana’s turn to make a change for Nagaraju’s sake. She allowed the marriage to be solemnised as per the Arya Samaj’s Hindu tradition, where interfaith marriages happen only after non-Hindus adopt Hinduism. On a certificate issued by Arya Samaj, Ashrin Sultana assumed the name Pallavi. “I did it for him. I did it to get married, that’s all,” she said.

In a way, the relationship between Nagaraju and Sultana was based on mutual understanding, that transcended the differences imposed by both religion and caste. They both tried to accommodate the other for love. This is their story.

A photo of Nagaraju at a village function.

(Photo: Accessed by The Quint)

Sultana’s brother Syed Mobin Ahmed and her relative Mohammed Masood Ahmed allegedly beat and stabbed Nagaraju to death in full public view because they were opposed to the marriage. Mobin Ahmed allegedly did not want her to marry a Dalit Hindu. Sultana was a witness to the murder, and a video captured from the spot showed her pleading for Nagaraju’s life.

A Quiet Romance and Daily Phone Calls

Still traumatised by the tragedy, Sultana spoke of the day they met at a Government Intermediate College in Marpally, a village located about 100 kilometres from Hyderabad. Both were students at the college a decade ago.

“I met him when he was with a group of friends. We briefly spoke but I got to know him only later,” Sultana said. Sultana was a bright student and a college topper. She was popular. Nagaraju was a shy young man.

“He always used to think twice before talking to anyone. He was very soft spoken and always kind. We kept running into each other,” she said. Though shy, it was Nagaraju who first expressed his love just months before the final year intermediate (Class XII) examinations. Sultana accepted the proposal. They exchanged numbers.

Nagaraju's photographs along with that of his family members, at his home in Marpally.

(Photo: Nikhila Henry/The Quint)

“Since then, not a day went by without us talking on the phone. I used to call him at least three times a day. I used to eat only after he has eaten,” she said. The couple used to plan their future over the phone, each endearingly calling the other ‘jaanu.’

Did caste not matter to Sultana? “What is there in it? I never thought about it,” she said. While Sultana had earlier told The Quint that her family seemingly realised that Nagaraju was of Mala caste, classified under Scheduled Castes in India, she did not elaborate further. “It just did not matter to me,” she said. On the other hand, Nagaraju gradually got interested in knowing about Islam as Sultana was a practicing Muslim.

After college, the two moved to different places for further studies.

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Through Thick and Thin

Sultana was always the good child at her home; the youngest of five siblings. She went on to study Commerce (BCom) in a Hyderabad college, as her family had by then moved from Ganapur in Vikarabad to Hyderabad. Nagaraju who was in search of a job went on to do a course at an Industrial Training Institute in Hyderabad.

They met up in the city whenever possible and chatted on phone when they could. Nagaraju did not speak of Sultana at home. Even his closest cousins did not know about the relationship till much later.

Syed Ashrin Sultana at Nagaraju's home, after his death.

(Photo: Nikhila Henry/The Quint)

Life seemed to have worked out for the two, till Sultana’s father Shakeel Ahmed died in 2018. Her brother, Mobin Ahmed, took over the reins of the household.

“My brother was kind till then. He changed after my father died. He was growing angry at everyone,” Sultana said. Mobin Ahmed was a fruit vendor who struggled to provide for the family. At night, Sultana continued to talk to Nagaraju on the phone as they gave each other company virtually.

While Nagaraju did odd jobs in the city’s service sector, Sultana got a job in the accounts wing of a private bank after completing her under graduation.

Alleged Abuse at Home and a Hurried Marriage

The couple had very few common friends who were in the know of their relationship. “We did not share much with others,” Sultana said, describing her relationship with Nagaraju as a private world of their own. The couple used to meet up after work in Hyderabad. They, however, did not think of marriage till October 2021. “At my home they were getting ready to marry me off. I kept dissuading them,” she said.

Sultana’s disinterest in marriage and frequent dismissal of marriage proposals raised suspicions. She had to introduce Nagaraju to her family. He went to meet her family with an open heart, she said.

“He even said he will adopt Islam. But they did not agree.” Why? Sultana said her family did not want a “convert” as their son-in-law.

The family also did some background checks on Nagaraju. His caste, Mala, stared back at them. For her family, that ended all discussion about his proposal.

Sultana, however, refused to marry another. Her brother Mobin Ahmed grew violent in response. “One day he wanted my Raju’s cellphone number. I refused to share it and he said he will kill me if I don’t,” she said. Ahmed allegedly beat Sultana for a whole day. “He kicked me, stamped on my chest, pulled my hair and banged my head on the wall,” she said. She left home in January to meet Nagaraju. The couple decided to get married and approached the Arya Samaj. The ceremony was done on 31 January.

Nagaraju at the car showroom where he used to work.

(Photo: Accessed by The Quint)

They moved into a house in Brundavan colony, Saroornagar where they began to make a life for themselves. “We were happy. But we were also scared,” she said.

The couple approached two police stations in Hyderabad, Mominpet and Vikarabad to report threat to Nagaraju’s life. The police seem to not have taken any preventive action. But the couple were relieved as Sultana’s family kept away during the initial months. “We thought all was over. My Raju even insisted that after a year my family would forget the bitterness and embrace us,” she said. They remained hopeful till the fatal day.

The couple were travelling from Nagaraju’s cousin’s home to their rented apartment when they were stopped and attacked.

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‘This Shouldn’t Happen to Anyone Else’

Sultana was the prime witness to the murder. She told Hyderabad police on 4 May that her brother killed Nagaraju because he was Hindu and Dalit. “I do not wish this to happen to anyone. Love is not bad. Taking someone’s life because they loved, is wrong,” she insisted.

Sultana said she wants families to accept the life choices their loved ones make. “People fall in love. Others should not stand in the way,” she said.

Syed Ashrin Sultana still has last Eid's mehndi on her plams.

(Photo: Nikhila Henry/The Quint)

As political leaders of all hues came to visit her, she kept asking for justice. “All of them keep speaking to me. But has anything come out of it? Nothing,” she said.

What hurts Sultana the most was the silence of the large number of bystanders at the Saroornagar traffic junction. “I kept pleading for help. No one came to save my Raju. I don’t understand why they did not help. Even those who were just looking on without helping us, should be penalised,” she insisted, her voice turning hoarse due to her anguish. On her palms the recent Eid’s mehndi was still visible, just a shade faded.

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