“I feel deceived. Angry. No one wants the truth. They’re just interested in a story, any story but not the facts,” explains Rabya Khan. “I’ve been fighting for over seven years. It’s exhausting.”
Rabya is a mother who has single-handedly taken on the police and Indian criminal justice system. She exudes love, strength, and determination. She’s invited me to her home in London to talk about her eldest daughter, Jiah Khan, an American-born British actress who was found dead in suspicious circumstances in India aged 25.
On 3rd June 2013, Rabya came back from dinner with friends to find her daughter hanging from a ceiling fan in the family’s Mumbai apartment. A muslin dupatta (shawl) had been used as a ligature.
Rabya grabbed Jiah’s ankles to support her weight and desperately screamed for help. Eventually, someone came, and together they were able to take Jiah down gently.
“I was in so much shock I couldn’t do anything. I couldn’t cry.”
A friend called a doctor. The police eventually arrived.
As I listen, I physically sense how deeply traumatic it was for Rabya to find Jiah. I know what it’s like to have been informed by Interpol police that my son had been the victim of a homicide.
But to be present at the scene of my child’s death? My heart aches. I feel myself go still as she tells me what happened.
I imagine the anguish, the sheer desperation to make her child breathe again, to stop the hurt, to bring her baby back to life.
Only that afternoon, both mother and daughter had been together; they’d spoken on the phone a couple of hours before. Jiah was looking forward to seeing her sisters the next day. She had all to live for.
The only darkness in her life was her boyfriend. She’d confided in friends and family, and they were worried.
“I told her so many times not to be with this guy,” says Rabya. “I showed the police all the phone messages. They said they would investigate, but instead, they looked away.”
To my mind, they did more than just look away. The dupatta, a key piece of evidence, disappeared. To this day, no one knows what happened to it.
When the apartment was dusted for fingerprints, none were found. None.
Not even Jiah’s own.
That in itself should have raised a red flag.
The balcony windows at the back of the ground-floor apartment were unlocked; the clothes that she’d been seen wearing on CCTV before her death were nowhere to be found; the police later said they’d found blood.
And yet, right from the outset, the death was treated as a suicide.
“I want to bring the truth. There should have been a reconstruction. The police did not do their job; they missed evidence that was under their nose…” Rabya’s frustration is palpable. “My daughter had highly unusual injuries. There was bruising. It looked like foul play.”
She shows me photos of what she’s referring to. She doesn’t shy away from telling people what was done to her daughter.
Rabya needs the world to know. I understand.
The majority of people can’t cope with the reality of violent death, let alone the facts, especially when it’s the mother who’s doing the talking. All that emotion and love mixed with the brutality of how our children died is understandably hard for others to bear.
Yet, as a co-victim of homicide, it’s our truth – our children were killed.
Murder is violent, and we should not be obliged to hide the facts, so it’s easier for others to stomach.
If I had my way, Courtrooms would display large photos of the victim before and after the homicide just in case the judge and jury forget why they’re there.
Some criticize Rabya for speaking her mind, for publishing photos, for trying to expose the dark underbelly of Bollywood. Such is the madness of our society – a place where the families of victims are expected to sit by as the police and state prosecutors handle the case.
Often, the justice they seek never comes. This is especially true when criminals are wealthy and well-connected.
An autopsy was performed at JJ Hospital in Mumbai and determined that death was by hanging.
Jiah’s burial took place two days later. Indians were in shock, and rumors were rife.
The hashtag #gonetoosoon began trending, her apparent tragic suicide already a part of Bollywood’s dramatic mystique.
Several people were questioned, including Jiah’s then-boyfriend. He would later come to be charged with abetment to suicide (the trial is still pending).
When Rabya saw that the police were only interested in pursuing the suicide story, she got a lawyer. She filed a plea to have the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) take over the case.
Three full years after Jiah’s death, the CBI ruled out murder, citing the cause of death as ‘suicide by hanging’.
Since Jiah’s death, Rabya has lost count of the number of times she’s been to Court. She’s written an open letter to Indian Prime Minister Modi, alleging that CBI officials have ‘deliberately distorted certain information.’
At every turn, she’s fought for her daughter doing all she can to oblige the authorities to investigate fully.
“We’ve had to deal with hearings at least twice a month, every month, these last seven years.”
This is the aspect of homicide loss most people aren’t aware of – the fact that victims’ families have to deal with legal proceedings and endless hearings.
The stress and anxiety are overwhelming. It’s no wonder they end up re-traumatized by the very system that’s meant to deliver justice.
In a bid to find out the truth, Rabya and her husband, Jiah’s stepfather, hired a British forensic expert to review the case.
His report identified the nature of the injuries as not being consistent with a soft ligature and that they probably occurred antemortem – that’s to say, the bruising to the neck and body, and grip marks on the inner side of Jiah’s arm were caused whilst she was still alive.
In homicide cases, the accurate interpretation of bruising by a pathologist is essential to reconstructing the events leading to death.
“I believed in the system at the beginning. They said they would get me justice, and I believed them. But these last seven years have opened my eyes. I pray to God for justice. I’m still waiting. The suspect has been indicted with a charge [abetment to suicide], and even that trial hasn’t started,” says Rabya.
I know from personal experience how impossibly hard it is to live with a prosecutor’s thinking of ‘was it murder? was it reckless homicide? was it self-defense?’ My son’s killer is free to walk the streets even as my child lies dead in a cemetery, and few seem to care.
Criminal ‘justice’ systems the world over repeatedly fail victims, their families, and communities.
“And what about Jiah’s sisters?” I ask, looking through the family photos. Jiah was the eldest of three girls.
“They’re scared,” Rabya tells me. “They question themselves. It’s had such a profound impact on them. How are they meant to deal with so much grief, such deep pain, so much injustice? Is this something my daughters deserve?”
So how does she cope, after so many years of fighting?
“I live with Jiah in spirit. I light a candle, that’s my communion with her. Whatever I am doing, I talk to her. I include her. I want to hear her name. I want to talk to her.”
I look across the room and see the portrait of this beautiful young woman who should be here among those who love her so much. This is a close-knit family, and her death has devastated all their lives.
“What is death?” Rabya asks me, and then before I can respond, she adds, “You are here, visible or not, but you are still here. Nothing is ours, or yours — for, in the end, all is an illusion.”