In December 2019, I met Sneha and her husband Mahesh at the 12th All India Democratic Women’s Association conference in Mumbai. The anti-CAA protests were at their peak, and my mind had been swirling with equal parts fury and fear. Sneha’s almost withdrawn narration of the attempt to murder her and Mahesh presented a visible receptacle to pour my unanchored anxiety into.
Her practised manner of narration reminded me of how we too had acclimatised to the increasing violence. The unauthorised entry of the Delhi Police into the Jamia Millia Islamia campus, and the ensuing attacks on the students was still fresh, having taken place only days prior to our meeting.
‘Mahesh Only Expressed...So I Decided To Marry Him’
Sneha is of the Yadav caste (OBC) and Mahesh is a Dalit from the Mala community (SC). They lived in the same village in Yerpedu, Chittoor, Andhra Pradesh, where houses are organised along caste-lines. I had asked about their relationship cautiously, adding that there was no compulsion to share if she felt shy. She had thrown her head back and laughed, “I don’t feel shy.”
Sneha had a dangerously disarming manner about her, something I would experience the full extent of in the few hours we would spend together.
They had met four years ago. Sneha continued, “We were friends, not like lovers, et cetera. Only one year back, we...”, and trailed off smiling. I added, “So one year back you expressed your love” –– but was interrupted by a quick “Mahesh only expressed, not me, so I decided to marry him.”
And they smiled at each other. Their lightness around each other was unreal.
They had been outed to her parents by a friend of her brother’s who had wanted to marry her. He had found out about them by checking her phone, the first in a series of denials of agency. She was scolded, beaten, and pleaded with to end the relationship. Her parents pressed upon her the ‘goodness of this other man’ for wanting to marry her despite her relationship with a so-called ‘lower-caste’ man. Arrangements were made –– a hall was booked and dowry was discussed. Before they could proceed, Sneha’s mother called off the wedding, worried about how her relationship with Mahesh could be weaponised against her, post-marriage.
How Sneha & Mahesh Were Attacked By An Armed Mob, In A Conspiracy To Split Up The Couple
On 2 October 2019, Sneha told her family that she was going to college. When she did not return by her usual hour, they put together the possibilities and filed a missing persons report. By the afternoon of 3 October, Sneha and Mahesh were married.
They immediately went to the Tirupati police station asking for protection, but were denied. From 12 to 9 PM, family, extended relatives, and neighbours, all pressured Sneha in a bid to change her mind. Sneha admitted to me later that in those gruelling hours, for a moment, she was ready to give up. The little support provided by the police involved escorting her back to Mahesh’s house after this ordeal.
The next evening, they were attacked at Mahesh’s home by a weapon-wielding mob of almost 200, led by her brother. Sneha and Mahesh had locked themselves in the bedroom, having been tipped off about the attack by one of Mahesh’s friends. After much placation by Mahesh’s family, the mob retreated. They stood guard outside the house the entire night. When the couple went to lodge an FIR at the Tirupati police station the next morning, the police tried to dissuade them, saying they would arrest the accused within 24 hours.
How This Inter-Caste Couple Managed To Escape Further Harm
It was only when pressure mounted from Jai Bharat, a Hyderabad-based social movement organisation, that an FIR was filed. According to an article published by Jahnavi Reddy in The News Minute on 7 October 2019, the FIR names 14 of Sneha’s relatives under the SC/ST Prevention of Atrocities Act, as well as Section 307 (attempt to murder). Arrests were not made until five days after the attack; the police claimed that none of the accused could be found.
Jai Bharat offered protection to the couple and Sneha and Mahesh stayed with them in Hyderabad for a few days during which her brother and some others named in the FIR were arrested. Towards November-end, they moved to Hyderabad permanently. A few days after this, their attackers were released on bail.
Sneha tells me how lucky she feels to have gained Mahesh’s loving family in the wake of losing her own. They have a reassuring, settling companionship, unencumbered by the chaos of this strange city. We ended our second and last day together at Bandstand in Bandra.
Sneha talked about Hemavathi and Chandana, two women also from Chittoor, who were killed for marrying Dalit men. Hemavathi’s father murdered her not long before Sneha married Mahesh, while Chandana’s father would take her life a few days after. In all three cases, the attack was perpetrated by a male member of the girls’ families for marrying not only outside but also ‘below their caste’, attempting to overthrow the casteist and patriarchal order cemented by the Manusmriti over centuries.
How Men Control Women’s Bodies & Agency
Women have been murdered even for marrying ‘above’ their caste by their own families, fearing retaliation by the privileged castes. Such is our society’s need to ensure there is always someone to oppress at the bottom of the pyramid.
Sneha and Mahesh had not only subverted the order but also miraculously survived the consequences of doing so, and were now sitting with me watching the waves crash upon the shore. Their extraordinary resilience formed a secret bubble around them, glowing only in my eyes.
Sneha asked me many questions about my life while we had walked around Bandra. Her shock upon learning of my age, 27, made me laugh. She asked me in a very concerned, maternal tone, if I had ‘someone’ in my life. Sneha is only 20.
She revealed to me casually that her brother was himself in love with a girl from a privileged caste, and planned to propose marriage once he got a job. I was momentarily stunned but recovered quickly. It had always been in plain sight, an unquestionable, unmoving truth we had all ingrained growing up –– a man controlling a woman’s romantic and sexual agency, a brother denying his sister the ability to challenge caste hierarchy, believing it solely to be a man’s right. Both casteism and patriarchy are quite transparent in their dependency on the control and domination of female bodies.
The Only Way To Love
We went our separate ways around sunset. I asked them to stay in touch with me, already feeling very protective of them, and told her about my plans to write about their story. I had fervently hoped that the responsibility of sharing their story would wrench my mind out of the muddled chaos it had been in for months. It was a message from her a few months later that sent me scrambling out of bed to finish this piece.
“What about your journalism? Have you completed our story?”
I hope that in reading this, more people feel the lightness that I did in their company, and are reminded of the battles that we must fight just as regularly as we eat, work, and live. I still think about something that she had said when I had asked where she had found the strength to stand so firmly, “I am loving him, no?”.
This expression of love as a constant act disentangled something in me. Isn’t that the only way to love? Not through volatile expressions that imply a sense of ownership, but as an extension of a bodily activity that is not questioned, as involuntary and gentle as breathing.
(Prachi Adesara is a freelance writer and photographer currently based in Ahmedabad. She is drawn to human interest stories, especially those that revolt against entrenched notions of caste, gender, sexuality, and what is considered ‘normal’. This is a personal blog, and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)