Mother of all battles
Sitting in her rented apartment in Delhi, Neelam Katara is finally at peace with herself. But fighting for 15 long years to get justice for her son Nitish has changed her as a person. ‘Crime makes me empathise with families at a much deeper level and I sleep better because I did not give up’, she tells SHALINI SAKSENA on Mother’s Day
It was time I moved from the Government accommodation. I was given permission to live there till the case was on. But now it is over so I had to vacate the house,” Neelam Katara tells you as she goes about righting a few things in her new house.
Righting things — that’s become a habit with her. After all, she fought doggedly for justice for her slain son Nitish, not once being bogged down by the clout of the killers or the defeating slowness of justice.
At her previous house on Chelmsford Road, Nitish’s life-size photograph used to be the centrepiece of her living room. It is conspicuously missing here. “That’s because the landlord has asked me not to put up any photographs as that will mess up the walls,” she says.
Meanwhile, she is settling in and waiting for the case to be finally over. “I thought that the case was over but Vikas and Pehalwan have appealed for a reduced sentence, from 30 to 25 years. The order says that the applicants can appeal. I am assuming Vishal too would want a reduced sentence, unless he is happy to be inside for 30 years. So the case is not over per se,” she tells you.
However, this mother is at peace with herself, having proved a point — that it is possible for a common person to take on power bags and win. The two big realities she wants people to take note of from her relentless struggle are that there is criminalisation of politics and honour killing exists at all levels.
It is not just the Khap panchayats or a few villagers carrying out a sentencing but a judge saying that since my family was well to do, how can Nitish’s killing be treated as an honour killing? “Of course later, it was deemed an honour killing but if this is the thinking of a senior judge, it is time we have a law to clearly define honour killing. It is not about caste or religion but about a patriarchal society — the soccha bhi kaise syndrome,” Katara opines.
At another level though, Katara is convinced that it is the men who are feeling threatened and hence rules like no jeans for girls. “That is what happened to Nitish. He was killed because agar pata chala toh log kya kahenge — that they couldn’t control a girl,” Katara says. Caste, she recalls, was a big issue for her mother but even she never demeaned anyone because of it.
“She was born way back in 1928 and had strict norms of right and wrong. She taught us to always tell the truth — and be prepared for punishments. The same was true for me. I never taught my children about caste. But I had to relearn this much later. My children were brought up in a cosmopolitan set-up and given basic values. For me, agar baccha accha hai, family background should not matter,” Katara says.
At 65, parenting isn’t over for her. After the conviction of her son’s killers in the session’s court, her mother told her it was time to go home. Her father, who is still alive, had ticked her off when she made Bharti’s (her son’s girlfriend and sister of the killers) emails public.
Katara was a timid child who found her teeth at the boarding school in Loreto Convent, Lucknow. “It gave me the fighting spirit. I was good at studies and made friends easily. I understood early in life that I needed to speak up for myself,” she says.
But making a point never meant yelling or screaming, a trait she tried to instil in her children. “On hindsight, I don’t know if what I told them was good. My husband never raised his hand on them. What happened to Nitish would have come as a shock to him. He felt that, at best, Bharti’s father would slap him for asking her hand in marriage. That he would be killed by her brothers never entered his head and that is why he went with them for a discussion over the issue (that’s when he was killed.) I now feel I made Nitish too righteous,” Katara says.
But it is different with her younger son Nitin who makes himself heard. “He knows how to speak and make space for himself, and be noticed,” she says.
Katara has been a victim of brutal crime, a mother whose son was killed by his girlfriend’s brothers. The rise in crime and its brutal face, she feels, varies from place to place. In Delhi, most people are from outside and the need to make space for themselves brings in aggression. In villages, the pattern is to either vote for the local known goon or an unknown goon. “This is why the law and order situation is so weak. The local dada is still the most respected person in a village. They vote for a goon, see him grow in power and emulate him — the seed of criminalisation of politics. The answer is pre-emptive policing. Rapes, hit and runs etc should not be in the DNA of society and the police should put the fear of God into such characters,” Katara opines.
She also has a blueprint for implementation of law. “The SHOs need to be empowered. If there is need for more lighting on the streets, stricter policing and more Intelligence gathering, they should draw a plan for it,” Katara says.
“We all know what happens once the case comes to court. I have full sympathy for the police. Why gun for them? The police should be given time to do their work. I have lived this and so I know how it works. How many people can actually manage to make it to the Supreme Court? I could do so because I was able to shift the case from Delhi (influence area of the killers) and even then it took me 15 years,” she points out.
Spending a lifetime in court, Katara would meet people from small towns waiting for a date, sitting with their children on the court’s steps and having lunch, scared even of their own lawyers. “Criminals know that they can come out on bail and stretch the case for years. Justice needs to be made more accessible. After all, only the very rich find their way to Supreme Court,” Katara says.
It is not just about getting justice. A criminal still has the right to be out on parole. She juggles between the parole-furlough-parole periods of her son’s murderers. The only time she could leave the city was when the courts were closed. The High Court had directed the police to inform her every time a parole request was put up by any of the three killers. If she was not in town, the message would go out that she was not interested.
This was not easy. Her entire service record was brought out, including the ad to which she had applied at Kendriya Vidyalaya. She was watched constantly. Queries were made if she was taking rent despite living in a Government accommodation, how many times she went abroad, who was she living with and many such. Her relatives suggested she shift but she knew that if she left things midway, she would not be able to sleep at night.
“The only reason I sleep well at night is because I know I did the right thing. There were days when I would get dejected. At that time, I would mentally make a bundle of all my worries and hand it over to God. I would tell him that it was His problem. Believe it or not, in a day or two I would get some good news related to the case,” Katara tells you.
But now, things are different and she sleeps even better if it were possible. She now has time for family and friends. She often visits her son in Europe. She advises people who are going through her kind of situation.
“I tell people I, too, was at sea about the nitty-gritty of law. But I was taught to ask questions and they should do too. Children should be taught law in schools. The public prosecutor told me I should not sit in court since I was a witness. Later, I was told I could have sat. If I had known, things would have been different. I didn’t have a personal lawyer for almost two years. It was only when the public prosecutor told me that he was dropping Bharti from the list of witnesses because she would not speak in their favour that I hired one,” Katara says.
Financially, it wasn’t easy either. The entire savings went into fighting the case. Her husband’s retirement benefits, after his death, went into paying sessions court lawyers. In 2012, Katara retired and all her benefits went into paying lawyers at the High Court. Though she did feel she was eating into Nitin’s share, he was clear his mother was doing the right thing fighting for justice.
“I could not leave my job as I had to run the house. So, while I was at work, or in the hospital tending to my husband, I would forget about the case. When I was in court, I would forget about everything else. I neglected Nitin to the extent that he was alone a lot. But the only time we had a bit of an argument was when after his engineering degree, he wanted to take up a job but I wanted him do MBA. You can imagine the anger of a 22-year-old losing his brother and then his father. But I put my foot down. So he joined MBA but was back soon and took up a job in Delhi for the next 10 years, till in 2011, he went for an internship with Interpol. Today, he fights organised crime,” Katara discloses.
Katara’s entire family supported her battle. As long as her husband was alive, it was the two of them. The case occupied so much of their time that even when her husband was in the ICU, he asked for a board to right on and wrote — ‘Chimpu (Nitish’s pet name) was a fool to go out with her’.
After her husband passed away, her family was her support as were strangers who would walk up to her and tell her she was a braveheart. Narrating an incident, she tells you: “The day Bharti was to return to India as a witness, a boy walked up to me and asked, ‘Bhai ko nyaya milega na? We are praying for your victory’.” Once, an Army officer’s wife walked up to her to say she understood the importance of life after seeing her fight.
“That kept me going for years.” But now all that is over and she does feel the void. The 15-year relentless journey has changed her forever. She has become a more aware citizen, more sensitive about issues — like, how there is so much garbage lying all around and nothing is being done about it; how when she reads about a crime, it hits her at a much deeper level and she empathises with the family’s trauma.
One marvels how a mother whose son is killed by men in power managed to remain so dauntingly positive through such a long battle which mostly looked lost. One marvels at a mother who did not break down. One marvels at a mother who has become a living example of motherhood.
The only time she felt she was at a disadvantage as a mother was when she heard — ‘Mother ka kya hai. No punishment will be less for her’.
“That really hurt,” Katara says.
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