Shraddha means faith and Aftab sunshine. In a cruel twist on the meaning of their names, this ghastly, unfolding saga of broken faith and utter moral darkness, rather than sunshine, is now playing out on national television in India day after day.
Shraddha’s life was snuffed out and the remains of her corpse cut up in 35 pieces and cast out in debris and trash of the urban forests of Mehrauli and Chhatarpur in outer Delhi by her abusive live-in lover, Aftab.
Since the brutal gang-rape and subsequent death of “Nirbhaya” Jyoti Singh ten years back, no heinous act of violence against women has so shaken India as the gruesome murder and dismemberment of Shraddha Walker. Just 22 years of age, Nirbhaya was training to be a physiotherapist.
She was gang-raped, tortured, and brutalised in the most horrible way in a moving bus on December 6th, 2012. Her six rapists, including the driver of the bus, thrashed the male friend, who was with her, before they violated, abused, and injured her.
So badly was she hurt that she died within two weeks of the assault despite receiving the best medical treatment in Safdarjang Hospital, Delhi. Later she was airlifted, at state expense, to Singapore, but to no avail. It was too late.
Of the six accused, Ram Singh, died in police custody, possibly murdered by other undertrial prisoners. Four others, sentenced to death, were executed by hanging on March 20, 2020. The remaining sixth, Mohammed Afroz, was a juvenile when he committed the crime.
Though convicted of rape and murder, he is free today, having already served a three-year sentence in a reform centre as per the Juvenile Justice Act.
This horrific incident happened in Munirka, just outside the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), where I have taught for over two decades. Now, again not too far south from my campus, another crime of passion has come to light.
A murder most gruesome
Aftab Amin Poonawalla strangled his live-in girlfriend, Shraddha Walker, on May 18th. But more than this ghastly crime, what has shocked the nation is that he dismembered her corpse in 35 pieces, disposing them off bit by bit, over several months, in the wooded areas of the Aravalli forests in South Delhi.
Aftab has not only been talking to the police, but also leading them to places where parts of Shraddha’s body were hidden. In an unfolding grisly narrative, beamed into homes all over India as a daily dose of the macabre, the police have recovered several of these hacked and chopped up body parts.
The latest of these are pieces of Shraddha’s skull, jaw, and other bones from Mehrauli on November 20th, last Sunday.
One unusual angle to this crime is that Aftab, from his testimony to the police so far, confessed that he had googled up information, as also watched “web series,” on how to destroy evidence, hide his crime, and dispose of the corpse.
Aftab told the Delhi police, “I am fond of watching web series and serials on crime and it was while watching these shows that I came up with ideas on preserving the body parts and keep Shraddha alive in the eyes of her family and friends. It was to preempt any doubts or suspicions on her whereabouts that I kept posting on Shradhha’s Instagram profile after the murder.”
A chef and food blogger, Aftab reportedly minced up Shraddha’s liver and intestines, in order to get rid of them.
As a teacher who observes young people, especially in a liberal campus such as JNU, what these horrible crimes against women signify is a huge social, cultural, and sexual revolution right under our eyes, which society as a whole is yet to fully take cognisance of.
Young people are finding their friends and partners, making up their own minds and sexual choices, while their elder parents and guardians are totally oblivious or unaware.
On the one hand, one reaction is “we told you so,” with a demand for more conservative mores and moral policing to be reinstated. But families and family values are themselves in a state of transition, if not decline, not just in India but the world over. What young people do beyond the supervision of their elders is hardly known.
Even in Shraddha’s case, it is her friends who reported that she was missing while her estranged father was unaware of her whereabouts since 2021.
Shraddha, of course, was 27 when she was murdered. But I have seen teens—even pre-teens—sometimes in school uniforms openly engaging in behaviour which most people, not only in India but in most parts of the world, would consider risky, if not inappropriate.
How to be safe, what is good and not so good for young people, especially sexually, is something that we do not talk about openly. Sex education, too, is still offered in a more or less hush-hush fashion, if not an outright taboo in most of our schools.
Shraddha and Aftab were, by all accounts, started out in a consensual adult relationship. Nor is forcible marriage or conversion under false pretexts, by impersonating another religion, an angle.
That is why the cries of “Love Jihad” in this case seem misplaced. But the fact that it was a Hindu-Muslim relationship made the social stigma and risks much higher.
Shraddha had to brave family disapproval, burning her bridges and options, so to speak. To retreat from obvious risk-taking thus becoming all the more difficult. Is that why she stuck it out in a what was clearly an abusive relationship, even after Aftab had beaten and hurt her repeatedly?
The message for young people is clear. Staying safe is the first priority. Walking out of a toxic relationship is your right. You don’t have to feel guilty or apologetic about it.
Making mistakes, too, is normal, whether you are young or old. That is the way we learn. But take family and friends into confidence when things go wrong. Recognize a mistake before it is too late.
Both Nirbhaya and Shraddha were murdered for no fault of theirs. Yet all of us, especially the youth, must not lose faith or succumb to fear.
What is definitely expected of us as a society, however, is not only to mourn for their tragic and untimely deaths and seek just punishments for their murders, but also to pledge to do whatever is in our power, both individually and collectively, to prevent their recurrence.