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Dispatch

Revolver Rani With a Difference

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It was reported as a shotgun wedding in an Uttar Pradesh village. Omkar Khandekar searches for the truth

ON MAY 15TH, a young woman from Banda, Uttar Pradesh, stormed into the wedding of her long- term boyfriend in the neighbouring Hamirpur district. She carried a gun, an eyewitness recalled. Actually, she carried two, said another. One she placed on the groom’s temple, another on her own. “This man loves me,” she told the guests. “Now he is betraying me. I will not allow this to happen.” She then bundled him into an SUV and drove off.

That night, they said, life imitated art. The flimsiest, filmiest of all. “It was a shotgun wedding with a twist,” The Times of India sniggered. Aaj Tak invoked Shakespeare: “Agar koi Juliet hathiyaaron ke dum par apne Romeo ko hi utha le jaye, toh koi kya kare (What do you do when Juliet abducts Romeo at gunpoint)?” The kidnapper hadn’t been identified yet, so they started calling her ‘Revolver Rani’. It seemed to fit. In the 2014 movie, the eponymous gangster forces her lover to marry her under duress.

The search operation lasted 48 hours. The police finally caught up with Varsha Sahu at her residence in Banda. The dreaded kidnapper was rolling chapattis for her family. Ashok Yadav was found in his house in the neighbouring Mohanpurva. He appeared unharmed.

At the police station, cops displayed their catch as journalists clamoured, cameramen elbowed and onlookers climbed on trees. By now, the wedding had been called off. Ashok wept. Varsha, the media reported, remained “dabangg”. They had been in a relationship for several years, she told the journalists. There were no death threats, no revolver. Only the right place and the right time.

They didn’t believe her. Nor the couple’s respective parents. Or the police. This had started off as a story of love, betrayal and a crime-infested Uttar Pradesh. It had already made headlines worldwide as that. They aired her denial and continued calling her ‘Revolver Rani’.

By the next day, in a fresh twist, Ashok had agreed to marry his captor. Was this one of the most potent strains of Stockholm Syndrome ever seen? Or will this real-life story end as the movie did, with the loverboy pulling the trigger on his so-called Revolver Rani?

On May 21st, I flew to Lucknow, boarded a bus to the industrial hub Kanpur, nearly missed an overcrowded train to Maudaha, shared a six-seater auto-rickshaw with 13 others and reached the town’s police station located next to a noisy vegetable market. Inside the police compound, a few cows had plonked themselves under a tree for respite from the blistering heat. Sharing the shade was a group of men waiting for their turn with the station in-charge.

I queued up with the aggrieved locals. Each had a garden variety of assaults and domestic disputes. A man was harassing his ex and squatting on some of her possessions. Another had roughed up his sister’s husband because the couple belonged to different castes. Yet another had thrashed a friend after the latter refused to lend him money to buy alcohol.

Mornings, an officer explained, are the busiest. They look after 52 villages in two districts, Hamirpur and Banda, spread across 300 sq km. The residents work through the day, drink in the evening, fight at night and show up in the morning with broken noses and bloody lips. “It all comes down to poverty, illiteracy and alcoholism,” he said.

At police inspector AK Singh’s court, justice is served at breakneck speed. Victims are counselled, culprits given warnings and rest of the work is delegated. Only the sinister make their way into the official registers. The teenager sitting on my left, with a swollen eye, doesn’t even get noticed. Singh’s assistant has had to ask us about him: “Kiska mooh tutiya hai? (Who’s the one with a broken face?)”

It’s noon by the time my turn comes. Singh seems pleased to hear that I have travelled from Mumbai to cover this story. He’s a jovial sort who, thanks to his two smartphones, can’t hold an uninterrupted conversation for more than a couple of minutes. He buys me spiced buttermilk and introduces me to the irritable woman he’s been talking to before I entered.

Santosh Kumari Sahu is Varsha’s mother. If Singh inviting me in was a hint for her to leave, it hasn’t worked. She tells me she’s annoyed with her daughter for gatecrashing Ashok’s wedding, the ‘eyewitnesses’ for fabricating stories of her carrying a revolver, and most of all, the media for blowing the story out of proportion. Hers is now a marked family. Her husband has had to abandon his thriving kulfi business to attend to this nonsense. Her sons refuse to step out of the house even to get groceries. How will she ever get her other daughter married?

We are in a fix too, the inspector tells her. The previous day, Bharti Yadav, the bride, announced that she will commit suicide if the police let off her almost-husband Ashok. Her father then submitted a complaint against him under IPC 420: Cheating and Dishonesty. But the police are trying to resolve matters. They’ve asked the groom’s family to compensate the bride’s for their wedding expenses. Perhaps that might get them to withdraw the complaint against Ashok. Then he can go right ahead and get married to Varsha.

Ashok might as well say he’s ready to marry her daughter, the mother balks, but how does she know for sure?

Singh asks his assistant to fetch Ashok Yadav. The constable returns with a timid-looking man with a three- day stubble. He bows his head and reeks of sweat.

“Write me a letter saying that you will get married [to Varsha],” the inspector says. He hands him a pen, paper and dictates the contents: he, Ashok, would marry Varsha within the next 15 days, and that he makes this declaration sober and without any duress.

Ashok signs it and hands it over to Singh, who reads it and hands it to the mother. The mother seems placated.

“Pay [the bride] off and get it done with, okay?” the inspector tells him.

“Yes sir.”

“Look at him,” Singh chuckles. “He looks so sad.”

“He’s getting married, after all,” his assistant says. They laugh.

Towards the evening, I find him sleeping on the floor of the police station. He has been there for four days now. The mehendi on his hands is fading, as is the gulaal on his feet. With his parents refusing to meet him, Inspector Singh had requested one of his uncles to sign in as his guarantor. It’s been three hours. “Looks like he too doesn’t want to see me,” Ashok told me.

He wanted to marry her but was afraid to tell his family. “Why?” I ask. “She’s a Sahu. I’m a Yadav.” Their conservative families would never have accepted an inter-caste marriage

His story has generated various conspiracy theories, especially among the tabloid press. A couple of days after he was ‘rescued’, India TV aired a special feature titled The Great Dulha (Groom) Kidnap Drama. In the eight-minute package, unidentified sources, unverified information, dramatic music and a Delhi-accent collaborated to make the big reveal: it was all an act. Ashok didn’t want to get married, so he staged his own kidnapping.

Ashok rubbishes such reports. When Varsha showed up at the wedding, it was his decision to flee with her. He loved her. He wanted to marry her but was afraid to tell his family.

“Why?” I ask.

“She’s a Sahu. I’m a Yadav.” Their conservative families would’ve never accepted an inter-caste marriage. Obviously.

A FEW YEARS ago, married women from 42,000 households across India were asked if their union was within their caste. The results, published as the Indian Human Development Survey in 2015, revealed that 94.6 per cent had said yes. That year, India recorded 251 cases of honour killing of those marrying outside religion, clan and caste. Victims in 131 cases belonged to Uttar Pradesh.

Mohanpurva is a remote village in southern UP. You’d be hard-pressed to be able to find it on most map apps. With its thatched huts, mud roads, open sewers and an erratic electricity connection, it seems stuck in a time-warp. Some elders still treat lower castes as untouchables. Others are refused entry in upper-caste kitchens. But such things don’t happen anymore, sarpanch Dipu Maharaj says. They do live in caste-clusters and yes, they still marry within the same communities, but in the last two panchayat elections, its majority groups, Varmas and Yadavs, have voted for minority castes like Maharaj. He’s a brahmin, the only one in his village. It’s their way of keeping each other at bay.

Like most of Mohanpurva’s residents, Ashok’s father is a farmer with a small land-holding. Given the lack of irrigation facilities in the region, the Yadavs barely make enough to sustain themselves. At 13, Ashok moved to Banda to work at a hospital and help fund his education. He graduated in sciences, got a job as a medical representative for a pharma firm and part-timed as a sales executive for a national bank. He sent part of his earnings home, helped his neighbours get jobs in the city, stayed off bidi, gutka or alcohol, and never harassed a girl. Back home, they called him a “seedha-sadha ladka”, a simple, sincere fellow.

When he was 16, Ashok’s grandmother was diagnosed with terminal cancer. She had wanted to see her grandchildren before dying. Ashok, eldest of three and ever so obedient, was decked up and married off. Theirs was a child-marriage; illegal, but not unusual. The bride belonged to the same caste and that’s what mattered more. They had two daughters before she died of a heart disease four years ago. She was 22.

One day, a year after his wife’s death, Ashok noticed a girl staying opposite his workplace staring at him. He looked away. She didn’t. Three days later, a kid came running to him and handed him a letter. Before long, they had forged a close bond. “Back then, I was very shy. I couldn’t make eye contact and always talked with my head bowed. If there was a girl around me, I wouldn’t be able to look at her,” he said. “[Varsha] taught me how. She made me want to live again.”

That Varsha belonged to a lower caste never bothered him. But Ashok knew it wouldn’t be the same with their parents. Varsha’s mother, a former member of the Hindu hardline outfit, Durga Vahini, had beaten her up previously after suspecting her of being in a relationship. Meanwhile, his own parents were insisting on his second marriage.

Ashok started making excuses. There’s not enough money, he told them. His family reaped a bumper crop last year. Let’s focus on his sister, he said. His family got her married this January. A man must get married as he wants, he said. They laughed.

Varsha and Ashok once considered hiring actors to play her parents. They’d introduce themselves as Yadavs and say they come from a distant town. It’d be a low-key wedding with a handful invitees. On her big day, Varsha would run away from her place and move in with her new in-laws.

“We had it all planned out. Then my parents said, baat ho chuki hai.” They had already picked out his bride: Bharti Yadav. Ashok was too meek to protest. With only a few days to go, he and Varsha had a fight.

“So you really are getting married?” she asked him.

“Yes.”

“I will find you.”

Petrified of a confrontation, Ashok hoped she wouldn’t. On the night of the wedding, Varsha put on a shirt, trousers and sunglasses, and asked a mutual friend to take her to her spineless boyfriend.

It was around midnight. Guests were having dinner at the mandap. At the bride’s place some distance away, the parents were busy with the chadhawa ceremony. Varsha spotted Ashok in the bridal car alone. As she confronted him, people started whispering. Why was Ashok with this strange girl disguised as a boy? Why was she saying things like, “Tumse matlab nahi main jiyu ya maru (You don’t care whether I live or die).” When the mob swelled to a threatening number, the two shut themselves in the car and drove away as fast as possible.

Half an hour later, they stood in front of the Simariya Mata temple. He took a pinch of the holy ash and applied it in the parting of Varsha’s hair. The newly-weds joined hands, bowed their heads and prayed for deliverance. Perhaps they would get away with it. The newspapers had said that nobody recognised the kidnapper. Varsha only had to return to her residence and lie low. Meanwhile, Ashok switched off his cellphone and hid in the jungle on the outskirts of Banda.

But by now, police teams from two districts were on the prowl. Within two days, they had found and detained Ashok, Varsha and their mutual friend. As their castes and confessions emerged, the couple’s families disowned them. “Had I known earlier, I’d have married her off to someone of our caste,” Varsha’s mother told me. So long as they reach a consensus over compensation, his almost in-laws are welcome to sue his son, Ashok’s father tells me. “After all, your son isn’t everything. The society also matters.”

Before the first press conference, the bride’s family said they will press charges, Ashok claims. So when the cameras started rolling, he started weeping and blaming Varsha. “I was afraid of landing up in jail. But now I’m telling you the truth. Had [Varsha] not showed up, the wedding would have gone right ahead. I’d be miserable for the rest of my life.”

A couple of days after Varsha was found, Ashok’s family withdrew the complaint. The police moved her to a safehouse in Banda to shield her from the prying media. When I called her, she had had enough of the attention. “I’ll talk to you once it’s all over,” she told me and hung up. I haven’t been able to get through to her since.

Had Varsha ever used a revolver? Where did she even get it from? Are her denials, and that of the parents and the police, an attempt at a cover-up? The journalists who broke the story seem unsure, but not bothered. “We were only doing our jobs,” said a correspondent from a leading Hindi daily, airily. “Some said there were guns. We just reported that.”

In none of the coverage has caste bias been identified as the tipping point. Their explanation is far too simplistic. “These young men like to marry someone and have an affair with someone else,” Inspector Singh summed it up. “You know how it is.”

I steer the conversation to identity politics in the region. Before BJP consolidated the Hindu votebank in the 2017 state assembly elections, its leading political outfits, Samajwadi Party and Bahujan Samaj Party, had for decades divided its electorate on caste lines. Consequently, caste-based discrimination had festered. “I remember when nobody would dine with those from the lower caste,” the journalist told me. “They were expected to take off their footwear when passing an upper caste house. But not any more. I often visit their houses and eat meals with them. In spite of being a brahmin.”

“Do your folks know about it?” his friend asks.

“I don’t tell them.”

“Just as well,” the friend whispers to me. “Or they would ask him to take a bath first.”

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