Kerala Dalit woman dies after dowry harassment, cops wait 42 days to arrest accused

Sangeetha’s husband even forced her parents to part with the money they received as aid from the Department of Scheduled Caste Development for weddings of women in SC families.

By Maria Teresa Raju / The News Minute

A week before Sangeetha, a 22-year-old Dalit woman, was found hanging under suspicious circumstances in her home, a stone’s throw away from the High Court in Kochi, Kerala cheered a verdict in which a man was convicted for driving his wife to suicide. The woman, Vismaya Nair, too was a 22-year-old like Sangeetha, and harassed in the name of dowry.

It took the police 42 days after Sangeetha’s death to record arrests in the case, that too after protests and media reports critical of their alleged inaction. Sections related due to harassment over dowry and the Dalit atrocities Act were added only after pressure mounted. Sangeetha died allegedly by suicide on June 1, 2022, in the family’s home built on poramboke near Ernakulam Old Railway Station, where a line of buildings known as ERG Colony stands. The home is hardly 100m away from the Kerala High Court.

Her parents Sajeevan, a former headload worker, and Sheeba, a domestic worker, and siblings Salina and Sajina, allege that Sangeetha was driven to suicide due to the constant abuse in the name of dowry and her Scheduled Caste status at the hands of her husband Sumesh and his family.

Sangeetha, a member of the Pulaya caste, married Sumesh, 33, a member of the Ezhava community, from Aruvayi in Kunnamkulam of Thrissur district, on September 6, 2020. The couple met on Facebook and Sumesh approached her family asking her hand in marriage. The wedding date had initially been fixed for April 26, 2020, and invitation cards had been printed. It was postponed as the family asked for some time to arrange the three sovereigns of gold Sumesh demanded in dowry.

Salina says Sangeetha’s miseries began on the day of the wedding. Manisha, Sumesh’s elder brother Sujeesh’s wife, had treated them with revulsion for using a comb and towel from her room. After the marriage, the couple rented a house in Ernakulam. During the time, Sumesh worked as an autorickshaw driver and Sangeetha worked as a sales girl. The autorickshaw was bought with Sangeetha’s savings and the money she borrowed.

Sangeetha suffered a miscarriage in August 2021, on the day she returned to Ernakulam from Sumesh’s house in Thrissur, where they spend Onam holidays. She was taken to Kalamassery Medical College, where foetal death was diagnosed. “We requested assistance from his family for burying the foetus, but they refused saying that it was fortunate the Pulaya child had not been born into their family,” alleges Salina. She also said that no one from Sumesh’s family visited Sangeetha while she was convalescing after foetal demise, which happened during the fifth month of her pregnancy.  The family suspects that Sangeetha was subjected to physical violence in Sumesh’s home. They have solid reasons to suspect this since Sumesh has used physical violence against Sangeetha in front of the family many times. Salina also alleges that Sumesh and his relatives used to throw casteist slurs at her sister and their family regularly.

The family later learned that whenever Sangeetha was at Sumesh’s house in Aruvayi in Thrissur, she was made to use a separate plate and glass and that she was not allowed to sit on a chair. Sumesh’s twin brother Suneesh as well as his mother Ramani were abusive and slut-shamed her. There were even instances where Sangeetha was locked out of the house at night by her in-laws. Once Sangeetha approached the Kunnankulam police, where the couple was advised to take counselling.

Sangeetha’s father Sajeevan had received Rs 50,000, offered by the Scheduled Caste Development of the Government of Kerala as aid when women belonging to Scheduled Caste communities get married. Sumesh constantly pressured Sangeetha to make her family hand over the amount to him. “It was Sangeetha who finally asked us to give him the money,” Salina said. Sajeevan says that he gave him the money, hoping the physical violence would end.

Instead, Sumesh started demanding divorce. Sangeetha was even taken to a lawyer in Ayyappankavu where she was asked to sign divorce papers. She refused to do this. She was later taken to a psychiatrist in City Hospital, Ernakulam, in the name of counselling. Sangeetha’s mother Sheeba, who accompanied her during the clinic visit, says that Sumesh had talked to the doctor before they arrived. “When we were called in, the doctor merely asked me if my daughter was stubborn by nature and prescribed some medicines,” Sheeba said. Sumesh took the prescription and returned two days later with Serentin tablets for ten days. Serentin is an antipsychotic drug commonly used in the treatment of schizophrenia.

Salina says her sister chose to suffer his abuses in the hope that things would get better. “I asked her to secretly record the abuses so that we could file a complaint with the Women’s Commission, but Sangeetha refused, saying that life with Sumesh would become worse”, she said.

When Sumesh continued to threaten her with divorce, Sangeetha approached the Ernakulam Central Police Station on May 31, 2022. Salina says that Sangeetha refused to report the abuses even then, only telling the police that her husband was pressing for divorce. They were asked to report at the station again the next day. The next day, June 1, 2022, Sangeetha went to the police station alone while her parents took Salina to a hospital as she complained of breathlessness. In the afternoon, Sheeba received a call from a neighbour informing them that Sumesh had said Sangeetha is threatening to take her life. He went absconding soon after the incident. When the family rushed back and broke into the house, Sangeetha was found hanging by the door in her room. The incident happened around 3.50pm.

Sangeetha’s father Sajeevan says Sumesh must have seen her hanging before he alerted a relative living four houses away. “The small window in her room had only been covered by a cloth that could have been easily moved. The front and back doors of the house, even though locked from within, would easily give in to a strong push. The fact that Sumesh neither tried to break into the house nor call their immediate neighbours for help is proof that he had no intention to prevent her death,” Sajeevan said.

Sangeetha suffered doubly due to her caste and her family’s financial state. Had she been from a well-off family that paid a high dowry, her caste would not have been as big a concern for Sumesh’s family, Salina feels. .

The family filed a complaint at the Ernakulam Central Police Station on June 2, 2022. Salina says that the police initially attempted to close it as a case of unnatural death. Provisions like  Section 304 B of the Indian Penal Code dealing with dowry deaths and the sections under Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of AtrocitiesAct, 1989, were added later. This happened after a direction from the Kerala State Commission for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes, after the family petitioned the body.

Police have named Sumesh, his twin brother Suneesh, Ramani, mother of Sumesh and Maneesha, wife of Sumesh’s brother Sujeesh as accused in the case. Sumesh, who was allegedly absconding, presented himself before the officers of the Central Police Station after Ramani and Maneesha were arrested by the police on July 12. Suneesh is yet to be arrested.

Dalit rights activist Mridhula Devi S, while drawing parallels between deaths of Vismaya, an Upper Caste woman who died by suicide in June 2021, and Sangeetha, feels financial affluence does not help erase caste-based oppression. “Both in Vismaya’s and Sangeetha’s cases, their identities as independent, adult women were never acknowledged. But in the case of Vismaya, caste never troubled her. She was never made to have her meals in a separate plate and glass”, she said. When asked about the delayed attention the case received, she said, “Even deaths have ratings in the media. Until the case acquired sensational value, the death of this Dalit woman did not hold any value for them”.

Social activists and political leaders came together last week to form the Justice for Sangeetha Action Committee. Mohammed Shameer, General Convenor of the Action Committee, said they will continue to petition various authorities like the Women’s Commission to ensure justice for Sangeetha.

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