Last week, body of a woman was found hanging at her husband’s house in Kotma city of Anuppur district in Madhya Pradesh. Poonam Singh had left her first husband, Umesh, to marry his friend Mohammad Istaak alias Katanni in December 2021.
Her decision was not accepted by her family, who cut off all ties with her. After her death, however, they are accusing Istaak of murdering her and of ‘love jihad’.
This correspondent visited Poonam’s parents this week, to find out the developments that led to her second marriage and her eventual death. Below is an account of the parents’ struggle in pursuing a legal case against Istaak and their version of the interfaith affair.
Kotma is located on the border of Madhya Pradesh adjoining Chhattisgarh. It is known for its coal mines and, along with Bijuri and Khongapani, contributes the maximum amount of coal to the state. Kotma is well connected to other parts of the state by rail and road.
From Kotma bus stand, I took an autorickshaw to reach the Kotma tehsil building, from where a brother of Poonam named Raj ferried me to his house.
The house is located in a forest area, and the way is a narrow passage through the woods. Only two-wheelers can pass the stretch. We reached the house after a walk of about 15 minutes.
At Poonam’s house
Poonam’s father Santosh is sitting in the verandah on a plastic chair. A wooden bed without a mattress is placed near him, and a cage carrying two birds is hung nearby. Raj comes with a glass of water. Santosh explains that his wife Kalawati has gone to a temple, along with Poonam’s son Rudra, for a Shiva Abhishek ritual.
This correspondent asked them if that was not unusual for a family that had lost a member, given that Hindus in the area do not indulge in any religious activity for at least 13 days after a death.
Santosh said the family had considered Poonam dead in December itself.
“After she left her home with that Muslim man, she was dead for us. We disassociated from her. How could we not? We are Gonds, we stay attached to our culture. We are Hindus, but she went on to become Mohammedan,” he says.
Santosh continues, “That Katanni and his family buried her after her death. They did not let us perform any of our customs. So how can you say we lost a family member?”.
Raj does not speak. Santosh goes on to say that Poonam faced consequences of her actions and ignored all his warnings and pleas.
Asked to narrate her story, Santosh sighs but agrees.
In 2017, when Poonam had just turned 18, he fixed her marriage to a man named Umesh from within their Gond jaati. She went on to give birth to two children. The elder, Rudra, is now four while the younger, Saadhna, is one year old.
Santosh describes her marriage with Umesh as a “happy” one.
On 9 May 2020, he received a call from his son-in-law Umesh that Poonam had left his house after a quarrel and was untraceable.
She was found with Umesh’s friend Istaak the same night. Santosh says her hands and feet were tied.
Poonam filed a police case against Istaak the next day, accusing him of abduction and rape, and he was arrested and jailed.
The FIR against Istaak in 2020
Before continuing with Santosh’s version, below are the contents of the first information report (FIR) filed in that case, which this correspondent has accessed. The FIR (number 174/2020) was registered at Kotma police station of Anuppur district on 10 May 2020.
The statement of Poonam recorded in the FIR says that on 9 May 2020, she and her husband Umesh had a small fight, so around 8.30 in the night, she left the house to go to her parents’ home.
On her way, she borrowed a person’s mobile phone and called up “Katanni Mussalman”, asking him to drop her at her parents’ home. He reached the spot on a bike and they both headed towards her house. On the way, he stopped his bike in front of an empty quarter (room) near Govinda colony.
He took her inside and tied her hands and legs with a rope. He raped her that night. Around midnight, her mother-in-law Kaushalya Bai, her mother Kalawati, her father Santosh and her husband Umesh reached the quarter and found her. They opened the rope and brought her home.
They held Katanni and tied him with the same rope, and began taking him to the police station. However, he escaped on the way. He left his mobile phone with the family. They gave the mobile phone to the police as evidence of the crime.
The statement further says that Katanni had raped her several times at her house on gunpoint, threatening her to kill her husband and children if she told anyone. So Poonam did not tell anyone in her family about Katanni.
At the time of the crime, she was five months pregnant and Katanni knew that.
Poonam’s statement concludes with her appealing for strict action against Katanni.
Istaak was chargesheeted and jailed
Santosh says that Istaak was arrested on 11 May 2020 from his house. He showed a copy of the police chargesheet filed in the case by the police.
The chargesheet says,
-That Manish Dwivedi, a resident of Govinda Nagar Ward number 12, confirmed that Poonam was abducted by Katanni and raped on the night of 9 May 2020 as he lived nearby.
-That the police searched the spot and found pieces of broken bangles which suggest force on the part of Istaak
-That Poonam underwent detailed medical tests and her statement under section 164 of the CrPC was also recorded by the police, where she stood by her allegations
-That it was evident from the investigation that the accused Istaak raped a pregnant woman.
The chargesheet shows that the police charged Istaak under IPC sections 376 (Rape), 376 2(n)(committing rape repeatedly), 376 (2)(h) (gangrape), 506 (criminal intimidation) and sections 3(2(va)) of the Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe Prevention of Atrocities Act along with sections of the Motor Vehicles Act, 1988.
The Gond jaati comes under Scheduled Tribes in the state.
The website of the district court shows details of the hearings in the case held so far. A copy of the case status is attached below. It says the last hearing in the case was held on 28 July 2022.
Poonam became Istaak’s second wife
Istaak spent eleven months in jail before being granted bail in April 2021. He contacted Poonam again. While the family offers little insight into what transpired, but they confirm that Poonam left Umesh’s house in December 2021 and went with Istaak to live with him, as his second wife.
After she left, Umesh gave a written complaint to the police. However, no case was filed and no action was taken as Poonam owned up to the decision in front of the police.
Below are the contents of Umesh’s letter, as shared by Santosh with this correspondent.
The letter says that Katanni owned a brick kiln and supplied bricks in the areas nearby. Umesh worked as a labourer and thus remained out of his house for most part of the day. Umesh’s mother was employed at Katanni’s kiln and thus, he visit his house on the pretext of payments. Katanni had earlier abducted his wife and he raped her, and has done so again. Thus, he is asking help from the administration.
Santosh says Poonam did not return to Umesh’s house after she left in December.
Istaak was already married when he was pursuing Poonam. She duly converted to Islam, changed her name to Fatima, and married Istaak, to live with him as his second wife, says Santosh.
“Her daughter was six-months-old when she started seeing Istaak again,” he says.
Santosh says that it would always remain to mystery to them if Poonam was under any kind of pressure from Istaak to take those decisions.
Poonam had left without her children. Her son was handed to Santosh’s family while the daughter remained at her father’s house – an arrangement maintained till date.
Umesh’s house is about two kilometres from Santosh, while Istaak lives in Lehsui, a village near Kotma that is four kilometres from Umesh’s house.
Poonam’s mother was in contact with her
At this point, Kalawati arrives from the temple. She says Poonam’s elopement came as a great shock to her. “We never sensed anything wrong between them [Poonam and Umesh]. She never told me anything.”
Kalawati says Poonam studied till Class 10 and dropped out of school. She had a problem in her vision from childhood. They married her to Umesh as they had known him for many years. Umesh sells vegetables for a living.
“Poonam approved of the match. It was only after consultation with her that we went ahead with the wedding,” she says.
Asked to describe the night she was found with Istaak at the quarter, Kalawati says Poonam was indeed tied up with ropes. “I questioned her why she had called Katanni to drop her. She said she did not know anybody other than him who could be of help. I was suspicious and warned her against any affair with Katanni. She then revealed he had been visiting her at her house and making physical relations with her. She told me she was too afraid to say no and he threatened her to kill her children,” says Kalawati.
The mother further says that on her advice, Poonam chose her husband and children and filed a case against Istaak so he can be jailed and kept away from her.
Asked if Poonam was happy with Umesh, Kalawati is more forthcoming than her husband. She says Poonam would spent most of her days at her parents’ house rather than Umesh’s.
Kalawati says that after she went with Istaak, all family members including Umesh cut off ties with her. However, Kalawati established contact with her a few weeks later.
“Poonam was unhappy with Katanni,” says Kalawati. “She was his second wife. He would beat her a lot. I always felt he was taking revenge from her for filing that police case.”
She adds, “That monster killed her and hanged her at his house to seek revenge.”
When Poonam’s dead body was found
Santosh narrates the events on 18 July 2022 when Poonam died.
Some villagers from Lehsui Informed Santosh that his daughter was dead and her body was hanging from the ceiling at Katanni’s house. He went to the police and, with some cops, reached the government hospital as they were informed that the body had been taken there.
Istaak’s father Mohammed Mushtaq had informed the police already.
Local media reported that Mushtaq was tending to his agricultural field while Fatima alias Poonam was home with her sister in-law. It was only when Mushtaq returned home that the family saw the body hanging from the ceiling. They called the police, saying she had committed suicide.
When Santosh and his family reached the government hospital, they loudly accused Istaak and his family of murdering Poonam.
“She had marks on her body. There was patches of red and green on her body,” he says.
Santosh says he refuses to believe it was suicide. He complains that the police are not investigating the case for murder.
He says that villagers in Lehsui told him that his daughters had “turned mad” in the past few months as she was constantly harassed at Istaak’s house.
At this point, Kalawati expresses regret that whenever Poonam shared her ordeal with her over the phone, she would rebuff her saying she was paying for her sins. “I could have saved her. I could have brought her home. But the situation was such that she was no more a part of our family. Everybody and boycotted her,” she says.
Kalawati says that Poonam would cry over the phone saying she missed her children dearly. Kalawati would reply to her every time that she had lost her children forever.
She says her Gond community does not take kindly to people leaving the jaati. The community worship “Shambhu Deo” and call him with another popular name, “Bara Deo”. They also worship “Nagoba” (snake) as their deity.
Santosh is less regretful than his wife. He says his daughter fell victim to “love jihad”. He admits it’s a word he had picked up of late from the media and activists who visited this house after the incident.
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