‘honour’ killings: on the road with a female reporter in rural India
On a busy day of harvest earlier this month in Arjunpur, Uttar Pradesh, things took a dramatic turn just before noon, as the entire village stood around an unused well in a sugarcane field. One of the farm labourers had noticed a vile smell while cutting the crop and nearly fainted when he looked down into the well. Inside was the dead body of an adolescent girl, a dupatta (a scarf) tied around her face. Within an hour, the local police had identified her as Rina, a 13-year-old Dalit girl from a neighbouring village who was reported missing by her family two weeks earlier.
When she got the phone call, Shraddha Bhaskar was five kilometres away in Tiwaripur village, distributing copies of Khabar Lahariya (News Waves). It’s her third year working as a reporter for the Awadhi-language edition of the weekly paper, which is run by a collective of rural female journalists from marginalised communities.
Khabar Lahariya, which describes itself as a weapon of the weak, was founded in 2002 by Nirantar, a Delhi-based women’s rights organisation. It was set up to report local news from India’s notoriously patriarchal belt – covering Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and Bihar – through a feminist lens. The eight-page weekly now comes out in four regional dialects of Hindi and sells 6,000 copies across 600 villages. Seven hundred people in the Ambedkar district, where Shraddha reports from, have subscribed to the paper. Shraddha barely goes a kilometre on her bicycle without being stopped by locals wanting to give her leads on, say, ration shops hoarding subsidised food grains, or hospitals refusing to part with free medicine. Phone calls with news tip-offs are constant, too, especially of the kind that seldom gets out of the villages, such as instances of rape and “honour” killing.
“Of course, the girls at the receiving end in this area are always from the Dalit or Muslim communities. I have never come across a case of kidnap or murder involving a Hindu upper-caste woman,” says Shraddha, as we walk through the village of Katehri to distribute copies of that week’s edition. Earlier, she cycled 15km from her house in Surjapur to the market, peddling along in a flimsy sari with polka dots in blue, green and yellow, a cloth bag carrying newspaper copies tucked into the back seat. Rajputs, people of an upper caste, she says, dominate her village of nearly 50 households, with Dalit families like her own frequently punished for upsetting the social order.
“Are you girls OK with hitching a ride?” asks a man at the corner shop. In five minutes, he has flagged down a middle-aged man on a motorbike and we arrange ourselves across what is left of the seat, holding our breath to make space. The man on the bike starts a conversation: “It must be hard being a reporter, right? One of my sons worked as a journalist, but I made him leave that line because I was scared about him. It was very risky. I sent him to Bombay.”
Shraddha’s in-laws insisted that she interview for the position of regional correspondent when Khabar Lahariya advertised the opening in 2012. At the time, she was 24 and had a college degree in Hindi. She had been married for eight years and was mother to a one-and-a-half-year-old son. She was one of eight reporters selected from around 100 women who came for the interview. She took her child with her to the two-week training course at the newspaper’s bureau in Chitrakoot, half way across the state. Her son died in the middle of it. “I left the training and came back home, completely desolate, but my husband’s family pushed me to move on, to go back and give the job another try. So I went back to work after a few months,” she says.
For more than two years now, she has been working nine to five for 5,000 rupees (£54) every month. It’s not just about the money, of course. If she weren’t a reporter, she says, she would never have had the courage to answer back to upper-caste men. “Sometimes, when I’m riding out to work, the men stop me and ask me mockingly: ‘Madam reporter, what is the news of the day?’ I tell them they would have known it if they read the paper.”
There are only men on the streets in the area. Getting off the motorbike in Arjunpur, we come across a group of young men chatting away the dull afternoon. The police have already taken the dead body with them for postmortem, they inform us. “It was a gory sight, the girl’s body rotten beyond recognition. It’s from her clothes that her father identified her to the police,” says one of them, wearing only a cotton towel around his hips. He offers to lead us to the well. “Why don’t you borrow a motorbike and drive them around,” his friends tease him. “They are reporters, you know,” the young man says in reprimand. “Don’t you work for the ladies’ paper? I’ve seen you around,” he confirms with Shraddha. There seems little point staring into the well, however, so we head to Rina’s house in the next village, Manjhora, having hitched another ride with a man on a motorbike.
It was to relieve herself in the fields that Rina had left the house that evening two weeks ago, the girl’s mother, Kripali Devi, tells Shraddha, in between wailing. She is sitting outside the family’s mud hut, surrounded by Dalit women from all over the area. “Did she have a fight at home before she left?” Shraddha asks Devi, her big notebook open in her lap.The crowd arranges itself in a circle around the reporter now, offering bits and pieces of information. “She was a robust girl, you know, taller and more muscular than her older sisters,” says someone. “She had just finished kneading the dough to make rotis for the dinner before she left,” says another. “Do you suspect someone to be involved with this?”, Shraddha asks Devi.
“Maybe,” comes the reply, after some pondering. “After she was missing for three days, we found out that on the night she disappeared, she had gone and stayed with a friend, another Dalit girl, in a nearby village, Chakkorar, but that family is refusing to tell us what happened that night.”
Sometimes, men ask me mockingly: ‘Madam reporter, what is the news of the day?’
Off we go to Chakkorar, a short walk from Manjhora. Rina’s friend Kajol is sitting on the threshold of her house, another mud hut. An older sister is picking lice out of her knotty hair. “We don’t know anything,” says their mother, passing by with a sickle in her hand. “She came here next morning and not the evening before, as her family is alleging,” says Kajol’s sister. “She said she wanted to stay for a day, so we didn’t ask her any questions, and the next day my sister walked her back to the road leading to her house. How can we say where she went afterwards?” It is turning out to be a tricky story. “Perhaps you should also consider the possibility that the girl returned home, but the family was mad at her for having been away for two nights. Haven’t you heard of families punishing the daughters for such behaviour?” the sister adds, after considering Shraddha coldly for a few moments; Kajol, in the meantime, manages to get up and slip away.
There is nothing to do but wait for the postmortem report, Shraddha says as we start walking towards the district’s police station to get the official version of the incident. The police aren’t likely to tell her anything she hasn’t already gathered, but it is crucial to get all sides of the picture. The editorial meetings at the end of every week are brutal, the four young reporters at the bureau take every story apart while making a final selection for the paper.
The last walk is also the longest; the police station in Ahirolli is miles away from Chakkorar. But Shraddha’s village happens to be on the way and her husband is home on a long break from his job in Gujarat, where he works in a factory. In 10 minutes of her calling home, Shradda’s husband is speeding towards us on his bicycle, a younger cousin following him on another. Sitting behind him on the cycle, I ask him if he likes to help with her work. “I do whatever I can. We’re thinking of saving up and buying a scooter so she doesn’t have to sweat out on a bicycle all day,” he says, checking on his wife, who is seated behind the cousin, moving farther ahead of him with every second.