In May 2020, the Jaswal family in Ludhiana’s Haibowal area got a rude shock when an officer from Uttar Pradesh (UP) Police called them up.
The officer informed them that their daughter, who had eloped a year ago with a man from UP, had been murdered.
The officer texted the family a picture — body of a woman with only underpants on, no head, no arms. The officer told the family to be prepared to travel to Meerut in the coming weeks. The family was required to “verify” the body as well as the man she had eloped with, who was the suspected killer.
The police had identified the body as that of their daughter Ekta Jaswal, who would have turned 22 in December 2020. The police had been investigating the case for a year and finally got a breakthrough.
On 16 February 2021, when I visited Ekta’s house, her mother Seema said, “We had been under the impression that Ekta was alive. Now the police were telling us that she was no more. They were asking us to identify a body that had no head and no arms. We had so many questions, but the officer was busy and told us to make travel arrangements for Meerut immediately and hung up.”
The country was locked down at that time. The officer told the family to take the necessary travel clearances from the local police station in Ludhiana that had been apprised of the matter.
Seema, her husband Sanjeev and her brother Pawan Thakur hired a taxi for Meerut in the last week of May.
Until the police officer’s call, the family had known Ekta’s ‘boyfriend’ Mohammad Saqib as Aman.
The family participated in the Meerut Police’s press conference on the case on 2 June 2020.
The police told the media that Ekta had got in touch with “tantrik” Saqib in Ludhiana through an advertisement as she was facing troubles in her professional life as well as health issues, and that he killed her after bringing her to his village in Meerut as he was in a fix because he was bound to face opposition from his family because Ekta belonged to a different religion.
Ekta’s family had rejected this simplified explanation by the police of Saqib’s motive, as reported here.
However, the family let the police present their version in the press conference as they had no alternate explanation either. They were only thankful that the Meerut Police had bothered to dive deep into a case for which no first information report (FIR) had been filed.
Till date, the family is searching for the answers.
In my recent visit, Ekta’s grandmother Sharda Devi and her mother Seema narrated the events that unfolded in the months before Ekta eloped — a story that has not been told by the media so far.
The family began noticing a change in Ekta’s behaviour sometime in December 2018. Ekta was a third-year student of Bachelors of Commerce course at Ludhiana’s Khalsa College for Women.
It all started with a skin disease.
A patch around her tummy became rough and discoloured. “Within weeks, there were similar patches around her thighs. The skin would burn. Ekta showed them to no one but me,” says Sharda Devi.
The family took her to a doctor, who gave her anti-allergic tablets. It did not help. The skin condition troubled Ekta so much that even in the chill of December, she would apply ice on the patches. She would also close the door and sit unclothed for hours, the grandmother says.
Ekta also began to cry a lot. “For hours at a stretch,” she says. “I would ask her why. She never told me a thing. I concluded that it was her skin condition.”
The family took her to a temple in Himachal Pradesh, where the family has roots in Chanaur village of Dehra tehsil in Kangra district. It did not help. The family took her to a dargah in Punjab where a fakir gave her a tabeez. It did not help either.
On recommendation of a relative, the family now took Ekta to a healer in Himachal Pradesh. The healer, who the family says is not a certified doctor but “treats” people, saw the patches and asked Ekta if she was eating meat. Ekta replied with a meek yes.
“We were stunned,” says Sharda Devi. “We are pahadi people. Pure vegetarian. We had no idea that Ekta was eating meat.”
The healer told Ekta to strictly stick to the family’s traditional diet.
Seema says Ekta did feel some relief in the coming weeks. However, towards the end of January, the patches began to trouble her again. There were additional problems: Ekta was constantly cranky. She would frequently complain of severe headache. And she began to demand pocket money and a mobile phone.
Ekta’s father, the sole bread-earner in the family, drives a private taxi for a living. Ekta was elder of the couple’s two children; her brother is two years younger than her.
“She was always asking her father for money. I would object to it. So she began to avoid me,” says Seema.
Sharda Devi says, “she would come to me, sit beside me and ask — ‘dadi, tell me how much jewellery have you saved for me? How much cash have you saved for my wedding?’ I would tell her — bitiya, everything is yours only. But why do you need it now?”
Ekta finally got a mobile phone for herself — a simple handset that did not support WhatsApp. Ekta was now spending all her time on phone. Seema says she did suspect a relationship, but Ekta would reply with a firm no whenever questioned.
By February, Ekta’s relationship with her family had deteriorated on all counts. She had nearly stopped talked to her mother. She would approach her father only for money. She would sit beside her grandmother only to probe her about her lifelong savings. The skin condition also did not improve.
She began to cry even more.
“For four-five hours at a stretch. She would close the door and cry. Sometimes quite loudly. But despite repeatedly asking, she never told us anything. We always concluded that it must be her skin disease,” says Sharda Devi.
Seema says that one day, she found a business card in Ekta’s bag of an occult practitioner named Aman. She confronted Ekta, but she did not reply. “She left the house in a huff. I kept screaming after her — ‘what are you into? What kind of people are you meeting?’ But she just left,” says Seema.
When Ekta’s maternal uncle Pawan visited her the same week, Seema coaxed him to go to the address on the card. “We met a person at that address. He was a Muslim but we don’t remember his name now. He first said there was no Aman. Then he said Aman had left for his village. We returned home without any information about the man,” says Seema. “I could sense that Ekta had tipped off Aman and tutored this person against revealing anything.”
Seema says that she began to put two and two together. She realised that for quite some time, Ekta had not been participating in puja at home. “She would walk out of the room whenever I lit agarbatti,” says Seema. “I once caught Ekta reading ‘kalaam’, you know, Muslim verse. But at that time, I did not make much of it,” says Seema.
“Kalaam or kalma?” I ask.
“Is it called kalma? I don’t really know,” says Seema.
Ekta now became defiant. She got both her arms tattooed — on one arm was inscribed Ekta, on the other was inscribed ‘Aman’.
Seema put a total stop to Ekta’s visits to the college. Now confined to home, Ekta urged her grandmother to be allowed to visit her bua in Himachal.
“She told me — ‘dadi, let me go to Himachal and bring bua here for some days. I really miss her,” says Sharda Devi. “I relented. I said — ‘I’ll also go with you. Let’s both go and bring your bua to Ludhiana’.”
The two went to Himachal by bus. The first couple of days passed without much activity other than Ekta talking to her “friends” over phone and crying alone in a room as usual. “Even that day, I asked her, ‘bitiya, why do you keep crying?’ She did not say anything,” says the grandmother.
One day, Sharda Devi went to another relative’s house within the village to stay overnight. Ekta continued to be at her bua’s house. The next morning, Ekta quietly left Himachal.
“When her bua found out and called her up, she said she had an urgent college-related work in Ludhiana,” says Sharda Devi.
Ekta did not return to her house in Ludhiana that day. She answered only one call the entire day. Seema says Ekta told her that she was with a friend and would return once her work was over.
Sharda Devi returned to Ludhiana the next day. Two days passed, but Ekta did not return. She was not answering any phone calls.
Ekta’s bua, ashamed that Ekta had gone missing from her house, came to Ludhiana To visit Ekta’s parents.
“We were all talking and crying about our missing bitiya when I suddenly found myself say to my daughter — ‘have you checked your locker?’.”
Sharda Devi sent her daughter back to Himachal immediately. To everyone’s horror, Ekta’s bua informed over the phone that all her gold jewellery sets neatly kept in the boxes were missing.
“Half of that jewellery was mine,” says Seema. Embarrassed by Ekta’s conduct, Seema gave her sister-in-law a major portion of her savings to compensate for the gold.
“I now have no cash or jewellery left with me at all. I lost my daughter as well as all the assets I had.”
Over the next week, Ekta answered only one call. She told Seema she would talk only to her grandmother. The phone was immediately handed over to Sharda Devi.
“I said — bitiya, tu apna maut ka samaan lekar gayi hai. Ab usne tujhe nahi bakhshana [dear daughter, you have invited murder. He won’t spare you now],” the grandmother told her.
“Ekta did not say anything. After a few seconds, she disconnected the call.”
That was the last time the family spoke to Ekta. They went to the local police station in Ludhiana to give a complaint. The cop asked them to go to Himachal instead as it was “the site of the crime”.
Pawan, who stays in Himachal, gave a complaint at the local police station. The police took the letter but said that they were too busy with election duties to register an FIR (first information report), but would probe the matter in an unofficial manner whenever they have time.
It was the month of May when 2019 general elections were being held.
The family did not pursue the police case. “We knew our daughter was out of our hands,” says Seema. “My husband said he had forgotten that he ever had a daughter.”
Seema says she called up Ekta several times over in the coming months. Ekta never answered any of the calls made. Nor did anybody else on her behalf.
Her number showed on WhatsApp now — which meant she had changed her phone — but she did not reply to any of the text messages that Seema sent. Ekta’s display picture, however, was updated frequently.
“In one picture, Ekta was looking sideways with big gold earrings prominently in view,” says Seema.
It went on like this for a year until the phone call from the UP Police.
It was only after reaching Meerut that the family learnt that Aman’s real name was Mohammad Saqib and he was from UP. They saw Saqib for the first time only on the day of the press conference.
“Before that, we had seen Aman only in a picture. It was sent to us from Ekta’s number after she eloped,” says Seema.
In the picture, Aman is standing in what looks like a restaurant. “He looked quite good in that picture,” says Seema. “However, when I actually saw him in police custody, he looked like a labourer. Worse than a labourer, actually. I wondered — ‘how could this man be Ekta’s choice’?”
The family says that till date, they do not know Ekta’s real story.
Save for the minute-long conversation that Seema had with Saqib after the press conference, that too in the glare of the media and the police, the family has got no chance of talking to Saqib or his family.
“I asked Saqib — 'why did you kill my daughter?’ He coldly replied he had not killed my daughter. I said — ‘did you trap her only to get gold and cash from her?’ He coldly replied that Ekta had not brought anything other than a thin gold chain,” says Seema.
In the same press meet, Seema was given a minute to talk to Saqib’s sister-in-law, a co-accused in the murder. The police had made a total of six arrests in the case, including two women — all from Saqib’s family. The accused are named Musarrat, Mustakeem, Reshma, Ismat and Ayan.
“I had nothing to ask her. I simply slapped her in front of everyone. I asked her — ‘how could you kill my daughter despite being a woman yourself?’,” says Seema.
Saqib and his family are residents of Meerut’s Lohia village that falls under Daurala Police’s jurisdiction.
Ekta’s family has not seen this village till date. Their visits have been limited to Meerut city.
Seema says she had not seen this part of the country before. “After we crossed Karnal, everything was unfamiliar. I had never seen bearded men or burqa-clad women. We are simple pahadi folks,” she says.
Seema, her brother Pawan and her husband have travelled to Meerut three more times on request of the Meerut Police.
In their second visit, Seema gave her blood sample for DNA testing to match Ekta’s. In their third visit, Seema’s husband gave his blood sample for DNA testing to match Ekta’s. In their third visit, the couple were made to “sign on some papers”.
Beyond these procedures, the family is not involved in the police case.
“My husband says he can either work and fend for the family or fight the legal case. So we have left everything on the Meerut Police,” says Seema.
Sharda Devi turns to me, “Will the killers get hanged?”
I say that it is highly unlikely. The grandmother is disappointed.
Her voice is choked. She says that she now realises that Aman might have been blackmailing her and ordering her to get cash and gold. “This is why my bitiya would constantly cry. We never understood it then.”
Seema says she suspects vashikaran.
“Till date, we do not know how she developed that skin disease. We do not know how she met Aman. We do not how she became distant from us. We do not even know if she was giving in to Aman’s demands due to blackmail or she was having an affair with him,” says Seema.
“My daughter’s story is a mystery to us.”
Swati Goel Sharma is a senior editor at Swarajya. She tweets at @swati_gs.
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