Seven people were arrested Tuesday in the Indian state of Telangana in connection with the killing of a low-caste Christian man who married an upper-caste woman.
Pranay Kumar, 23, was reportedly hacked to death last Friday as he walked out of a hospital in the Nalgonda district with his pregnant wife, Amrutha Varshini.
Varshini belonged to the third-highest caste community in Hindu society, while Kumar is part of India's low-ranking Dalit caste.
The couple was married in January. Amrutha's father, Maruti Rao, was among the men arrested for Kumar's murder. Nalgonda Police Chief A.V. Ranganath told the media that the murder appears to be a contract killing.
According to the Indian magazine The Week, police say that Rao was opposed to the marriage and conspired with others to kill Kumar. Rao was alleged to have paid an advance of about Rs 15 lakh, which is the equivalent of about $20,000, to carry out the murder.
Surveillance footage shows Kumar walking out of the hospital when an assailant, who was later identified as Subhash Kumar Sharma, attacked the victim from behind with a machete and got in at least two blows before fleeing the scene.
According to The Hindustan Times, local Congress leader Abdul Karim, suspected Islamic terrorist Asghar Ali, and Rao's brother, Sravan, and driver Shiva were also arrested in connection with the murder.
Ali is accused of being connected with Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence. Ali and his aid, Mohammad Bari, who was also arrested for the killing of Kumar, were both accused and acquitted previously for the murder of former Gujarat home minister Haren Pandya in 2003.
According to police, Ali and Bari hired assassin Subhash Sharma from Bihar to carry out Kumar's murder. Sharma was also arrested on Tuesday.
Ranganath told the media that the plot to kill Kumar has been in the works since June.
"[Rao] first discussed his plan with his friend Abdul Karim and they got in touch with Bari, whom they have known since 2011," Ranganath was quoted as saying. "In the first week of July, Rao and Karim met Asghar Ali and Bari to work out a plan while sitting in a car at Miryalguda. Rao also showed them the residence of Pranay."
On Wednesday, six of the seven who have been arrested in connection with the crime were given over to judicial custody in Nalgonda district. Meanwhile, Sharma was being transferred to Nalgonda after being arrested in Bihar.
According to authorities, Sharma had previously tried to kill Pranay on two other occasions that were not successful.
Varshini and Kumar's father reportedly told reporters that they would like to see all involved in Kumar's death receive the death penalty. The pregnant mother said that she has also faced pressure to abort her baby.
"I have no intention of aborting my baby. Pranay's baby is my future," she told NDTV. "Pranay was such a nice person. He looked after me so well, especially after I became pregnant. I don't know why caste is so important in this time and age."
Caste-based honor crimes are not uncommon in India.
On Saturday, protesters and rights activists gathered to demonstrate against the caste-based violence. The demonstration caused shops in Telangana's Miryalguda town to shut down.
Earlier this year, another Dalit Christian man was abducted and murdered in Kerala for marrying an upper caste woman by a mob led by the victim's brother-in-law.
Last year, an Indian Muslim family burned their pregnant daughter alive for marrying a lower-caste man.
The killing of Kumar also comes after five civil rights activists were arrested last month by the BJP-led government in Maharashtra state on grounds of the Unlawful Activity Prevention Act. Authorities have also conducted recent raids across the country that have targeted the homes of Dalit scholars and civil rights activists calling for reform in India.
As the BJP is often linked to the right-wing Hindu nationalist group Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, some rights advocates believe that the arrest of the activists is an attempt to silence those who oppose the nationalistic agenda of the Hindu right and seek reform for India's corrupt caste-based society.
"The latest arrests of human rights activists show the government's widening assault on free speech to create an atmosphere of fear across India," Meenakshi Ganguly, the South Asia director for Human Rights Watch, said in a statement. "Officials are again targeting human rights defenders and those working with poor and marginalized communities just for doing their jobs."
On Wednesday, the Supreme Court of India decided that it would look into the arrests of the five activists and called for the state government to produce a document justifying their arrests. The court stated that there must be a distinction between opposition and dissent and attempts to create disturbance in law and order.
"[T]hose at the helm of institutions may not like everything that is said about them but this cannot be grounds to stop them," Justice Dhananjaya Y. Chandrachud was quoted as saying by the English-language newspaper the Deccan Chronicle. "Our institutions should be robust enough when there is an opposition to the system or even to this court. Then there has to be something different to constitute subversion of law and order as far as elected government is concerned. We may not like it but we must also accept there could be dissent."
"Let us make a clear-cut distinction between an opposition and attempts to create disturbance, overthrow government," he added.
Members of the European Parliament also voiced concern in a letter last week calling for the EU to discontinue agreements with India until the civil rights activists are released.
"The Indian government adds these most recent raids and arrests to the continuous and relentless repression on the democratic voice," reads the letter. "This amounts to a very serious attack on the already crumbling state of democracy in India."