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‘Love-jihad’ has a new territory. With Jharkhand murder, it has entered the tribal belt

Rebika Pahadin, a tribal Christian from Jharkhand, was allegedly strangled and chopped into 18 pieces by her Muslim partner's family.

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Rebika Pahadin, a Christian from the Paharia community in Sahibganj, Jharkhand—a Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Group or PVTG—was strangled to death, her body chopped into 18 pieces. Police suspect the 23-year-old was murdered on 16 December and have arrested her Muslim partner.

A similar murder-chop-dispose modus operandi—the Shraddha Walker case— rocked Delhi. Bel Tola village in Sahibganj is 1,384 kilometres from the capital, and the two cases roughly eight weeks apart. But the outcome is similar—a political war cry against ‘love jihad’.

“We are constantly working to spread awareness in society that tribal women should not fall into the clutches of these people. They trap these girls by taking advantage of poverty and illiteracy,” says Simon Malto, a Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) member from the same tribe as the victim.

The murder and the subsequent arrests of her Muslim partner, his parents and seven others is pulling at the fragile social fabric of tribal communities and has exposed fault lines between the Christian tribals and Muslim communities in Sahibganj. The tragedy threatens to bring tribal social mores closer to religious tensions even as local political leaders accuse the Hemant Soren government of appeasement and Muslim boys of luring and trapping tribal women.

Tribal residents seethe in rage

Over 48 hours, and after a massive search operation through hilly terrain, cops retrieved all body parts strewn in remote areas near Bel Tola village: Parts of a jaw, limbs, and hands with neatly painted nails that Rebika’s sister, Sheela Pahadin, immediately recognised.

Sheela, sister of 23-year-old Rebika, who was allegedly murdered by Dildar Ansari's family | Praveen Jain, ThePrint
Sheela, sister of 23-year-old Rebika, who was allegedly murdered by Dildar Ansari’s family | Praveen Jain, ThePrint

In Bel Tola village, where the accused, 27-year-old Dildar Ansari, lived, the 250-odd residents are tense and uneasy. The young man had brought home an outsider and set her up in a house close to where he lived with his parents, wife and child.

Meanwhile,  in a small hamlet in Goda hill, barely 12 kilometres from Bel Tola village, Rebika’s family and at least 30 other households are demanding justice—and compensation. Murmurs of ‘love jihad’ are growing louder.

But  Jharkhand Mukti Morcha (JMM) MP Vijay Hansdak and even Chief Minister Soren pointed out that such attacks are not limited to Jharkhand alone, citing instances in other states as well.

Protesters ran amok in August 2022 after a Muslim youth from Dumka district allegedly set fire to a Hindu schoolgirl who rejected his romantic overtures. The girl succumbed to her injuries, sparking allegations of police negligence. Now that emotions are running as high, police sources fear a similar outburst.

But this time, the Boria police—under whose jurisdiction the incident took place—has been quick to make arrests under sections 302 (murder), 201 (disappearance of evidence of offence), 120B (criminal conspiracy), and 34 (criminal act by several persons in furtherance of common intention) of the Indian Penal Code.

Apart from Rebika’s partner Dildar, the Boria police have arrested his father, Mustkim Ansari, his mother, Maryam Khatoon, and his wife, Sareja Khatoon. Ten people have been arrested and sent to jail so far. However, the main accused, Dildar’s maternal uncle Mainul Ansari, is absconding. His wife, Zarina Khatoon, is also among the 10 people sent to prison.

Also read: Not Ram Mandir, the ‘love jihad’ laws are the foundation of Hindu Rashtra

An ill-fated love story

Rebika’s house is located on Goda hill. One must climb rocky mountainous terrain for about three kilometres to reach it. Most people either walk the arduous stretch or drive up on a motorcycle. Dildar and Rebika met at a local Boria market, just down the hill and 12 km from Goda. “It’s where most of the girls meet the boys and fall in love,” said one villager.

Adivasi women on the Goda hill | Praveen Jain, ThePrint
Adivasi women on the Goda hill | Praveen Jain, ThePrint

But the relationship between Dildar and Rebika was star-crossed: Dildar was married with a son and Rebika, too, had a five-year-old daughter from a previous relationship.

Both their families were vehemently opposed to their relationship and were unhappy when the couple decided that Rebika would leave her hamlet to live in Bel Tola. “Rebika’s relationship with Dildar was recent. We tried hard to separate the two, but they were inseparable,” said Rebika’s sister, Sheela, while sitting in the courtyard of her kutcha house.

“I recognised her fingers, the nail paint, and the rings. She was my little sister. I recognised everything. She was wearing that Kurti, the one we bought together,” she recalled. Rebika’s family claims theirrelationship was doomed from the beginning. “He [Dildar] said that he loved her. But he did not belong to our community. That’s why we all refused to accept their relationship,” Sheela added.

Dildar did not allow Rebika to live in his house with his parents and wife. Instead, he set her up in a small one-room hut in the same village.

Rebika’s family members were unhappy that he was not “treating their daughter with respect”. Earlier this month, they approached the Boria police and sought their intervention. Under pressure, Dildar took Rebika home. A few days later, the police recovered her body parts. Rebika’s family said that Dildar was the first to alert them that she was missing. The police, who had launched a search operation, received a tip-off on Saturday and recovered a limb behind an Anganwadi. It was Dildar who identified it.

Also read: India needs more and more inter-faith marriages, and laws need to facilitate that

Investigation so far

Rebika’s body was badly mutilated in a likely bid to prevent identification. “Her face was crushed. Only the jaw and a tuft of hair were found,” said a police officer.

Though police have arrested Dildar, they are yet to shed light on his role in the murder. It was the young man who alerted her family that she was missing. He used to do scrap work and was reportedly inWest Bengal for work purposes on the day Rebika was killed.

Police sources said they suspect Dildar’s mother of conspiring to kill Rebika and his maternal uncle, Mainul Ansari, of cutting her body into pieces. “All the arrested family members were questioned,” said a police source.  According to the FIR, Dildar’s mother, Maryam, took Rebika to her brother Mainul Ansari’s home in the Fazil hamlet, 500 metres from the Boria police station. It was here that she was murdered, it states. Maryam allegedly gave Rs 20,000 to Mainul to get rid of the body.

“Mainul Ansari, the main accused in the case, is absconding. Raids are being conducted, and efforts are on to trace him. There could be more revelations once the search is over,” a senior police official said.

Rebika last spoke to her sister on the morning of 16 December. They talked at length about their mother’s health. The first part of her body was found behind the Anganwadi at the Momin hamlet of Boria Santhali village. After this, most dismembered parts were found in a vacant house about 100 meters away.“This house has been empty for the last two-three years,” said a villager. Now, the locked doors and the brown police tape keep curious villagers away.

The empty where maxium parts of Rebika's body were found | Praveen Jain, ThePrint
The empty house where maxium parts of Rebika’s body were found | Praveen Jain, ThePrint

Also read: We should be free to live, free to love & free to marry — that is the real idea of India

Tribals resent scrutiny

Tribal community members are unhappy with the nation’s gaze on their way of life. Most tribal couples don’t get married—they simply live together. While it’s a cultural norm, Rebika’s death has prompted villagers to become more guarded about their way of life. “In tribal communities, it is common for girls to live with their lovers without marriage and have children. But disputes happen when a girl falls in love with a boy from another community or caste. They are mostly resolved through mutual consent. But this is the first time that a girl has been murdered so brutally over such a relationship,” said a local resident on the condition of anonymity.

BJP’s Simon Malto has a different view. He sees what happened to Rebika as a planned move by “boys of a particular community” to lure women into their trap.

“Police sent the girl to Dildar’s house despite knowing about the presence of his first wife,” he said. There are growing demands for answers, compensation, and punishment. People are conducting regular ‘morchas’ (protest marches) with the support of opposition party members. Along with this, clamour for a government job for an eligible member of Rebika’s family is growing. ”Leaders of all parties come here, talk, and go away. But we don’t know if and when we will get justice,” said Sudhanshu, Rebika’s uncle.

Sudhanshu claims that they were given police protection for two-three days, but it was quickly withdrawn. “It’s been seven-eight days since the murder, and we don’t have any information related to the case. We don’t trust the government at all,” he added.

Malto is organising an ‘awareness campaign’ for the community. “The government has become completely insensitive to such matters. Such incidents are causing resentment,” he said.

If severe punishments were given in earlier incidents, “people would think a thousand times before taking such drastic steps. The government of Hemant Soren is working to save a particular community and is doing politics of appeasement,” said Malto while referring to the Dumka case

Father Suraj Pahadiya looks at the blue wall where he put pictures of his daughter | Praveen Jain, ThePrint
Father Suraj Pahadiya looks at the blue wall where he put pictures of his daughter | Praveen Jain, ThePrint

Malto believes that after he left the victim’s house, JMM MP Vijay Hansdak came and gave a compensation cheque to the victim’s family.  When contacted, Hansdak said Rs 5,000 was given to the bereaved family on behalf of JMM. “Another Rs 10,000 was given from my side. We will also ensure that Rebika’s daughter gets a proper education. We are taking active steps to fulfil the rest of their demands as well,” he told ThePrint.

Sheela shows Rebika's favourite blue dress | Praveen Jain, ThePrint
Sheela shows Rebika’s favourite blue dress | Praveen Jain, ThePrint

He dismissed Malto’s allegations of women being lured into traps or that the murder had communal undertones. “This is not a habitual incident, and this is not a communal problem. These incidents are happening all over India. We need social awareness… as a society, we need to be careful,” said Hansdak.

On the blue wall of her kutcha house, two laminated pictures of Rebika hang precariously. Visitors look at these pictures and talk about her beauty.  “My sister was very fond of taking photographs. Sometimes, she tried to make videos on Facebook. Rebika had studied till Class IX,” said her brother, Maisa. She also loved nail paint, he added. While all of Rebika’s belongings have been buried with her as per tribal customs, her favourite blue gown remains at home. Her family forgot to bury it with her. Blue was her favourite colour, along with black.

(Edited by Zoya Bhatti)

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