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This gutsy mother’s fight for justice for her deceased son, Nitish, finally came to fruition with the Supreme Court handing out a severe sentence to his killers 

By Karan Kaushik

The Supreme Court’s recent verdict should serve as a lesson for the high and mighty who flouts laws with impunity. It sentenced Vikas Yadav to at least 25 years in jail without remission for killing Nitish Katara in 2002 for having an affair with his sister, Bharti Yadav. Vikas’s accomplice, Sukhdev Pehlwan, was handed a jail term of a minimum 20 years. But above all, it gladdened the heart of Neelam Katara, the brave mother of Nitish, who fought a long and lonely battle for justice. The Supreme Court even stated that a woman’s “individual choice is her self-respect and creating a dent in it is akin to destroying her honor”.

India Legal caught up with Neelam in her quaint and lush green railway bungalow at Delhi’s Chelmsford Road, where she greeted us with warmth and a smile. Her jovial and spunky nature seemed at odds with the tumultuous time that she has faced. Her motherly affection was also evident in her concern for us getting drenched in the heavy rain outside.

When he didn’t return home on the night of February 16, Neelam wasn’t unduly worried as she thought he may be enjoying himself at the wedding. Soon, she received a call from Bharti saying that her brothers had taken him somewhere. When Nitish’s friends didn’t help much in tracing him, Neelam lodged an FIR with Kavi Nagar police station in Ghaziabad.

Her living room was a testimony to her beloved elder son, Nitish. While one wall had a big photo of him, the adjacent one had those taken by her late husband, Nishit. “He loved photography and travelling,” explained Neelam.

THE JOURNEY

It was on February 17, 2002, that Nitish was abducted and murdered by Vikas and Vishal Yadav for dating their sister, Bharti Yadav, the daughter of UP politician DP Yadav. Nitish’s charred body was later identified by Neelam at Khurj, 80 km from the venue of a wedding which Nitish had gone to attend that fateful night.

When he didn’t return home on the night of February 16, Neelam wasn’t unduly worried as she thought he may be enjoying himself at the wedding. Soon, she received a call from Bharti saying that her brothers had taken him somewhere. When Nitish’s friends didn’t help much in tracing him, Neelam lodged an FIR with Kavi Nagar police station in Ghaziabad.

When the trial of the case began in 2003, the political interference and fear psychosis were so high that the public prosecutor provided to Neelam, SK Saxena, was withdrawn from the case by the UP government. Neelam was advised by senior lawyer Kamini Jaiswal to get the case moved to Delhi.

“Had the case not shifted from UP to Delhi, there would have been no case. Even insiders in the Supreme Court said they were aware of the influence and political clout that the criminal family could have put on judges and police in UP,” recalled Neelam. “Filing the FIR in Ghaziabad was my first and biggest mistake.”

She added: “When I began the case in Ghaziabad, I couldn’t even ask about the family of those criminals. When I sent someone to deliver a letter to the police station, the rikshawala said he doesn’t know where it was. People were scared of the terror unleashed by these people.” And that is the reason that she is happy about the Supreme Court verdict—it sends out a message to the common man that nobody is above the law.

However, she believes that the punishment should have been more stringent. “What are you telling the people? That if they take a life, they just go in for 14 years or more and if they manage these years, then it’s a picnic? I think punishments need to be more stringent,” she said.

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So what has kept her going despite all odds? Neelam said: “I realized that if I gave up, then such people would continue their acts. So I didn’t look right or left as to whom I was fighting against.” It wasn’t easy. She had to face all kinds of pressures, including financial and physical. But she ploughed on. 

Even before Nitish’s gruesome murder, Neelam was having a hard time. Her husband, Nishit, a senior railway officer, was diagnosed with motor neuron disease. But she had her son Nitish to fall back on then. She recalled: “Once, I was upset when people said the disease was incurable. Nitish told me, ‘Look mom, I am going to fight this. If you don’t fight with me, I will fight alone but  I will think you are a very weak person.’ That stayed in my mind—that Nitish will think that I am a weak person.” Today, he would have been proud to see his Mother Courage put up such a valiant fight for him.  

Neelam’s life after Nitish’s death took a 360-degree-turn. A year after his death, Nishit passed away, leaving her alone to fight a lonely and harrowing battle. She was a simple person with a wonderful life—a good student with many friends, marrying the man she loved, working, travelling…. Little did she know how her life would turn topsy-turvy.  From not knowing a thing about legal matters, she was forced to do the rounds of courts and go for numerous hearings. Social functions were given the go-by.

Neelam recalled: “Even the way I talk changed. It made me negative. It made me aggressive. All my conversations revolved around crime and criminals, this RTI, that affidavit…. I will have learn to relax. There was a lot of stress. I still have a problem going to watch movies alone.”

The fight for justice was a learning experience for Neelam and made her more independent. “I was a pampered wife of a railway officer. I had three men in the house who wouldn’t even let me lift a handkerchief. I was never allowed to carry my luggage, but now I carry my own stuff and manage my accounts. Initially, it was very scary and when my husband died, I didn’t know where I was,” she said with mixed emotions.

HONOR KILLINGS

But the upside is that this case has sent a strong message on honor killings. Neelam said that there was an urgent need for the youth to raise its voice and NGOs and other groups to come together to ask for a law against it. “For a nation that doesn’t stop talking about vikas or development, honor killings are a cruel and regressive thing. On the one side you talk about LGBT rights and the rights of people in live-in relationships and on the other, you don’t have a law against honor killings,” added Neelam.

But the upside is that this case has sent a strong message on honor killings. Neelam said that there was an urgent need for the youth to raise its voice and NGOs and other groups to come together to ask for a law against it. “For a nation that doesn’t stop talking about vikas or development, honor killings are a cruel and regressive thing. On the one side you talk about LGBT rights and the rights of people in live-in relationships and on the other, you don’t have a law against honor killings,” added Neelam.

These killings are not about one’s respect, but about control and this patriarchal mindset needs to go, she added.

Further, she feels her son’s death would not have happened if DP Yadav was convicted and punished for the first crime he ever committed. Those accused of heinous crimes shouldn’t be allowed to contest elections and parties should just stop giving tickets to criminals, she stressed.

“How can you call yourself a developing and civilized nation if decriminalization of politics doesn’t happen?” Other fall-outs of this phenomenon were: no police reforms with criminals in politics and witnesses being threatened by these people. “In my case, the police was not sure that I would last out,” she said.

LEGAL FRAMEWORK

Neelam feels it’s imperative that children are taught law in addition to the usual subjects. “I was a student of political science and that’s why I knew what a habeas corpus meant, but that’s about it. People should be made aware about basic laws and laws relating to their career,” she said. “Awareness about legal rights is important for everybody. Then, nobody will be taken for a ride like I was. Going to courts is also expensive,” she added. 

To make the system more transparent, Neelam suggested that the Supreme Court could have video recordings of hearings similar to parliamentary proceedings being made public.

She also called the adjournment system cruel, irregular and erratic and given at the slightest pretext. A systematic approach towards these is needed, she said, where a checklist of the number of adjournments should be made and monitored.

(L-R) Slain Nitish Katara; politician DP Yadav; convict Vikas Yadav
(L-R) Slain Nitish Katara; politician DP Yadav; convict Vikas Yadav

She believes that adjournments are the biggest instrument for the rich and powerful. “They think if they keep taking adjournments, the other party would eventually give up and back out. If you find that in a particular case, adjournments are going haywire, it’s time to question why.”

LIFE AHEAD

Neelam’s next step is to raise awareness about motor neuron disease which her husband succumbed to and meet like-minded people from the medical fraternity to help her. She does not plan to open an NGO presently as she is nervous of the funding and other issues involved in it.

She has also been advising victims of heinous crimes and wants to raise awareness about honor killings. She hopes the youth won’t get cynical by reading news stories about honor killings and instead, raise their voice for their rights. Everybody has the right to fall in love with anybody and to choose their life partner, she said.

Unfortunately, she and her son paid a heavy price for this.

Lead picture: (L-R) Supreme Court; Neelam Katara persisted with the case despite tremendous pressure from various quarters. Photo: Bhavana Gaur

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