Photo above: Gaurav Saini looking anxious with his barrister and legal representative Amod Shastri outside the Delhi High Court after a hearing on his petition for a CBI investigation into the case of his missing wife. Delhi, India © Tom Pietrasik 2009

At the beginning of December, Financial Times reporter Amy Kazmin and I drove out beyond the eastern fringes of Delhi and towards the dusty plains of Uttar Pradesh state. Barely an hour from the comfortable residential neighbourhoods of the capital, we entered a world where the cars of the wealthy give way to swarms of bicycles and diesel-spluttering buses. We were in the district of Ghaziabad and on our way to meet the family of Monika Dagar who’s suspicious death at the age of twenty-one presents a disturbing insight into the pervasive influence of caste in India.

Monika Dagar met Gaurav Saini in an online chat-room in 2006. Typical of the new generation of aspirational middle-class urban Indians, the couple were required to tread a fine line between tradition and modernity. Theirs was a relationship that crossed caste-boundaries and as a consequence invited the disdain of Monika’s conservative family. The Dagars are members of the Jat caste, a patriarchal and influential north Indian community that has at times used violence to defend caste purity.

Three generations of women from the Jat community outside their home in Monika Dagar’s village close to the city of Ghaziabad.
Uttar Pradesh, India © Tom Pietrasik 2009

Resolute in their love, Monika and Gaurav nonetheless married in July last year. The wedding was a simple – and legal – ceremony witnessed by only a handful of friends. Significantly the union was not blessed by any member of Monika’s family. As is the tradition in India, Monika decided to move in with Gaurav and his parents in a lower middle class neighbourhood of south Delhi.

A street scene close to Monika Dagar’s home in the district of Ghaziabad. Few women appear on the streets of conservative western Uttar Pradesh and then only in the company of a male relative.
Uttar Pradesh, India © Tom Pietrasik 2009

A week after the marriage the police, accompanied by some of Monika’s relatives, raided the Saini household in the middle of the night and forcibly removed the couple. Monika was handed over to her family in Ghaziabad while Gaurav was taken into custody. He was held for 32 days, accused of abducting a minor and of rape. Gaurav was twice denied bail despite the fact that Monika was over 18 years of age and testified that she had been neither abducted nor raped by Gaurav.

Since his release from police custody in August, Gaurav has been unable to locate the whereabouts of Monika who it is feared may have become the victim of an honour killing. Monika’s brother reported that his sister died of pneumonia in September though no official has verified her death and a postmortem was never conducted.

Gaurav Saini outside the home he shares with his parents and sister in a lower middle class suburb of New Delhi.
Delhi, India © Tom Pietrasik 2009

Thanks to Guarav’s determined and often lonely search for justice, a Delhi High Court hearing at the end of this month will decide whether a Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) inquiry will be opened into the suspicious case of his missing wife. Gaurav meanwhile continues the search for Monika who he believes is still alive. “I don’t know where to go and which path I have to follow,” he says. “I am just living on the hope that some time she will be back.”

Amy Kazmin’s compelling report on this disturbing case – the culmination of several months of investigation – was published alongside my photos in the Financial Times magazine last weekend. The story raises several crucial questions about the role of the Indian state in protecting its citizens and depicts a frightening picture of India that is far removed from the content and positive image that many would like us to see.

This was one of those assignments that presents a very real challenge to a photographer. Working after the event meant that I was obviously unable to capture key moments in this story. Of course neither Amy nor I were able to meet Monika and as a consequence Gaurav became the focus of our coverage. I felt it important that the viewer be able to understand some of the anxieties that he was experiencing in his struggle for justice while appreciating the environment in which both he and Monika were raised.

Opening spread for the Financial Times magazine feature “Love, death and dishonour”.
January 9th 2010

Ultimately, the Financial Times magazine editors considered the significance of the young couple’s relationship so fundamental to the story that their affection for one another had to presented visually. Consequently they chose to reproduce a number of “collect photos” from Gaurav’s camera and these formed the basis of the opening spread. As much as I would have liked my photographs to have appeared more prominently in the feature I was entirely sympathetic to the editors decision to place them behind Gaurav’s blurred snapshots. The relevance of these photographs lies not in their quality but in the awkward depiction of an innocent and apparently unexceptional relationship that is so difficult to reconcile with the horror of subsequent events.