Print edition : August 14, 1999

FROM among the hundreds of cases of young and unsuspecting women who were either killed or driven to suicide by avaricious husbands and their families in Bangalore last year, the case of Fatimunissa Ashrafi, a young doctor of Unani medicine, stands out. There is a tragic poignancy to the story of a self-confident young woman who, just as she begins to savour the joys and satisfactions of a hard-earned career, finds her world going to pieces. She discovers that her right to live in safety becomes conditi onal on her ability to meet her husband's escalating demands for money.

Fatima was set on fire by her husband in a fit of drunken rage on December 5, 1998, according to her dying declaration and according to the complaint filed by her mother at the K.G. Halli police station the same day. Three FIRs (Crime No.589/98) were fil ed in this particular case: the first on December 5, 1998, the second on December 11 and the third on January 6, 1999.

Fatimunissa Ashrafi on her wedding day, on October 23, 1997.-BY SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

Fatima's case also stands out as a story of a remarkable mother's dogged search for justice, and her refusal to be cowed or discouraged by obstacles in her way - hostile policemen, inflexible and obscure legal procedures, poor health, meagre means and th e hostility of her son-in-law and family. Mariya Bai Ashrafi presented her case before the House Committee on Atrocities Against Women set up by the Karnataka Government under the chairpersonship of BJP MLA Pramila Nesargi.

Standing before the members of the Committee, Mariya Bai made a series of allegations against the policemen who investigated her case. She listed the names of the police persons she claimed had harassed her, and had even tried to bribe her. The final rep ort of the House Committee contains her testimony, the explanations sought by members of the House Committee from the City Police Commissioner and the Director-General of Police and their replies. The Police Commissioner was asked to inquire into the all egations made by Mariya Bai. He later told the Committee: "There is no fault in this case. Laymen have so much pain, they will tend to exaggerate things" (page 7 of the House Committee Report).

Sitting in the office of Vimochana, Mariya Bai, a small wiry, bespectacled woman in her late fifties, recounts the story of her only daughter's life and tragic end. She is articulate and emphatic and has a remarkable memory for names, dates and places. " My daughter always wanted to be a doctor and I came to Bangalore from Hyderabad in 1977 when she was six, mainly for her education," she says. A well-wisher gave her space in the City Civil Court premises where she set up a stamp-vending and typing shop. Here she worked from 1977 to 1995. Living frugally in a rented place in Wilson Garden, Mariya Bai saved up money, putting her daughter through school and college. Fatima sat for the medical entrance exams and got a seat in the Unani Medical College.

In Fatima's fourth year, Mariya fell seriously ill with meningitis. Fatima took leave from college and stayed at home treating her mother. During this time, S. Khajapeer, a young man who claimed to be a computer engineer moved into the house next door. K hajapeer and his parents befriended Mariya Bai and her daughter. The young couple decided, with the approval of their parents, to get married. The marriage took place on October 23, 1997 after Fatima completed her last exam. "I spent almost a lakh of rup ees on the wedding. In addition, I had kept jewellery for Fatima," recalls Mariya Bai. The married couple moved in with Mariya Bai.

Her husband S. Khajapeer, in a doctor's garb.-BY SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

According to Mariya Bai, Khajapeer stopped working soon after the marriage and demanded that a clinic be opened for his wife. The mother agreed and spent another Rs.50,000 on the clinic, but with the understanding that Fatima would give her a monthly upk eep of Rs.1,000. The clinic was opened in early January 1999. Khajapeer, according to Mariya Bai, resented the monthly payments Fatima made her. Fights started, he became abusive and physically violent, and frequently came home drunk.

"I threw him out of my house on March 19," says Mariya Bai. "They moved further away and opened a clinic where he posed as an MBBS doctor and started 'practice'." Fatima's visits became infrequent, and when she did visit, she would stay only for a short while. Her last visit to her mother - "she was upset and unhappy that day" - was on November 20. On December 5, Khajapeer came to Mariya Bai's house to tell her that Fatima was burnt in a stove-burst and had been admitted to hospital.

Fatima sustained 90 per cent burns and died in hospital on December 11. In her first dying declaration, she said that she was burnt in an accidental stove-burst. In the second declaration, she accused her husband of setting fire to her. She said that her husband had gone out of the house at 8 a.m. and returned drunk an hour later. She opened the door for him and then felt something cold on her back. Before she knew what had happened, he set her ablaze. He took her to the hospital only in the afternoon, after he had cleaned up the house. He instructed her to tell the police that she sustained burns in an accidental stove-burst.

Fatimunissa's mother Mariya Bai Ashrafi.-K. GOPINATHAN

Mariya Bai claims that valuable evidence of the murder was lost by the callousness of the K.G. Halli police. She claims that at 7 p.m. on the day of the incident, she went with the Sub-Inspector of Police, two constables and her son-in-law to her daughte r's house to find that the stove was intact and the house clean. The stove, she claims, was not confiscated. Her letter to the then Home Minister Roshan Baig resulted in the intervention of a senior police official in her case. According to her, it was o nly then that the case began to get the attention it deserved. A charge-sheet was filed (CC No. 24848/99) in the Criminal Court in Mayo Hall on June 21, 1999. Charges were framed under Sections 498(A) (cruelty against a woman for dowry, leading to her in jury or death) and 302 (punishment for murder) of the Indian Penal Code. Mariya Bai will depose before the Truth Commission in August 1999.

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