Shafiq R Khan

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Love and dishonour

Delhi’s Inter-State Bus Terminal is dizzyingly chaotic, full of buses spewing diesel fumes, vendors flogging newspapers and cold drinks, weather-worn porters and hordes of weary travellers, their belongings stuffed into plastic shopping bags or hard-shell suitcases. Amid this mêlée, in June 2007, an ambitious

23-year-old named Gaurav Saini first laid eyes on Monika Dagar, a 19-year-old university student with whom his life would soon become devastatingly entwined. “When I first saw her, I felt that there was something in my eyes like tears,” Gaurav recalls. “In my whole life, I had never seen such an innocent face.”

The two had first made contact six months earlier in one of the many internet chatrooms that allow young Indians to overcome geographical barriers, parental restrictions or their own shyness to search for kindred spirits.

Gaurav came from a lower middle-class Delhi family keen to give its children a secure foothold in India’s booming knowledge economy. His father, who had a small business making Hindu idols, and his mother, a tailor, sent him to a private English-language school run by a prominent educational trust. In 2002, having completed his schooling, Gaurav helped his older sister set up a small tutoring business while also studying computer networking at private technical institutes. With his English and computer skills, he secured a part-time job as a troubleshooter at a training centre run by Hindustan Computers, one of India’s biggest IT companies. His prospects looked bright.

Monika, meanwhile, had grown up on the outskirts of Delhi, in a farming village that had prospered as the metropolis, with its rapacious appetite for land, crept ever closer. Her father, a primary school teacher, died when she was young, leaving Monika, her mother and her older brother dependent on an uncle. She excelled academically, and by the time she met Gaurav she was studying computers at a women’s residential college in Haryana, a state that neighbours Delhi. With a passion for languages – she spoke English, Russian and Hindi – she had dreams far bigger than her village could accommodate, such as working in radio or even joining the powerful Indian Administrative Service.

After their initial internet chats, Gaurav and Monika began talking by mobile phone. And several months later, Monika took a bus to Delhi so that they could finally meet. Gaurav, whose boyish face had always made him popular among girls, had already e-mailed his picture to Monika. But she had refused to reciprocate, saying only that she was short, dark and ugly, leaving him unprepared for her quiet beauty.

That first day they spent together was painfully awkward. They wandered aimlessly around Ansal Plaza, a Delhi shopping mall packed with western brands such as Levi’s and McDonald’s. Monika refused to eat, saying she was fasting. “We were so nervous, we were not able to look into each other’s eyes,” Gaurav recalls. “We were just shy and shivering, trying to face each other.” After he drove her back to her college hostel – a two-and-a-half hour journey – they returned to the comfortable intimacy of the phone. Both felt they had found “the right person”, Gaurav says. “I told her, I am the person who will always be with you. I will face everything for you until my last breath.”

Over the next two years of a largely secret courtship, Gaurav and Monika imagined building a life together and exploring all the possibilities that the new India offers to two bright, ambitious young people. They talked daily and met every few months. “We started to love each other very passionately,” Gaurav says. “We knew we wanted to be together our whole lives, so we were just concentrating on our goals.” What they had not reckoned with was how completely they could be destroyed by old India, with its caste prejudices, its callous police and its patriarchal attitudes towards women.

Monika and Gaurav were married in south Delhi on July 6 2009

Just 40km from Delhi’s powerful heart, Monika’s home village, Nistoli, is at the front line of India’s fierce tussles between ancient rural traditions and urban modernity. A few decades ago, most villagers were farmers, their lush fields surrounding brick houses with large central courtyards, where members of the extended family would mingle. But as the capital expanded, many families sold their land to developers, reaping profits that they ploughed into new homes, powerful motorbikes, cars and private education for their children.

Social attitudes, however, remain deeply conservative, reflecting the strict code of their Jat caste, known for its aggressive masculinity and strong – often violent – defence of caste purity. A large and politically powerful community of landed peasant farmers spread across the northern states of Haryana, Punjab, Rajasthan and the western parts of Uttar Pradesh, Jats consider themselves part of the high-status warrior caste, an image reinforced by their colonial-era recruitment into the military by the British, who viewed them as one of India’s so-called “martial races”.

In this macho world, women’s lives have long been constrained. “Controlling women became a part of the Jat identity,” says Nonica Datta, a Delhi University historian and author of a social history of Jats. “They want to show that they are a ‘superior caste’ [with] a culture protective of women … [a Jat woman] can’t just can’t go and marry a lower-caste man.”

The frontage of Monika's family home in Nistoli, just outside Delhi
Monika’s family home in Nistoli, just outside Delhi
While many of the young women in Nistoli are pursuing higher education, most do not live away from the family home, as Monika did. Instead, they travel to and from classes each day, their movements closely monitored. Young men, meanwhile, are less eager to study, tending, like Monika’s brother, to quit after high school. Even on weekdays, Nistoli’s narrow lanes are filled with young men under no apparent pressure to work.

Women may be permitted to work outside the home, but within well-defined limits. “Only a government job, with fixed timings, can give girls respectability,” explains Joginder Singh, Monika’s paternal uncle (who lives next door to her family). “In a private company, girls are coming and going at all hours. Why should we accept this? There is no need of money.” After college, girls are expected to marry a Jat boy chosen by their parents in accordance with strict rules of caste, clan and community. A traditional Hindi saying has it that “the daughter of a Jat must go to a Jat”.

Breaking these rigid rules can carry a high price. Powerful assemblies of Khap Panchayats (male elders) can order punishments – including death. Transgressions of the rules of intimate relations are considered public matters, and Jat men who refuse to enforce the edicts on their female family members can themselves be expelled from the community. “Women are the repository of honour in their bodies – the honour of the family, the honour of the clan, the caste, and the community,” says sociologist Prem Chowdhry, author of a book on honour killings in north India. “The man is the regulator of that honour. He stands to lose if he cannot regulate it in the woman. Essential to the upkeep of those norms is violence.”

Jat politicians defend the traditional assemblies (and have even sought to give them legal status) while many police officers are steeped in the same ethos. “The police don’t act – except to be on the side of the family,” says Chowdhry. “The young individuals don’t seem to count at all.”

Indian authorities do not record honour killings separate from other murders so there are no reliable statistics on their frequency. But Chowdhry believes they are increasing, as more young people, influenced by education, job opportunities, and urban values, rebel against caste strictures. In a high-profile 2008 case, Jat villagers in Haryana murdered a pregnant 22-year-old and her boyfriend who had broken an intimacy taboo. Subsequently, one of the dead woman’s cousins boasted to journalists that the killers had “the honour of doing the village proud”. Another villager described it as “a murder of morality”.

Last summer, a Jat man and two Jat couples were killed in Haryana in three similar but unrelated cases – all for violating their caste’s strictures on who may love whom. “People who have inflicted the violence are not looked down upon,” says Chowdhry, “but hailed as heroes”.

Monika was well aware of her community’s conservative attitudes and that her family would not easily accept Gaurav, whose caste of “market gardeners” would have been regarded as beneath them. Still, Gaurav says, Monika made a few indirect attempts to see if her mother might support their relationship. The response was overwhelmingly negative, and Monika began asking to live and work in Delhi after she graduated.

“She was trying to persuade the family to let her go and work, but we were reluctant,” her uncle recalls. Her mother, Yashoda Devi, said, “I resisted. She should be here in the village. She can go back and forth daily to Delhi if she has to.” Little wonder that as Monika’s May 2009 graduation date grew closer – and with it her expected return to the tightly controlled life of her village – the young couple grew more anxious about the future.

. . .

The bride wore a pink T-shirt and jeans; the groom wore a plaid short-sleeved shirt. On July 6, Monika and Gaurav, accompanied by a few friends, sat in the small, white, marble hall of an Arya Samaj temple in an affluent part of south Delhi, as A.K. Shastri, the priest, performed a secret but legal marriage ceremony. The weeks before their marriage were tumultuous. After finishing her exams on May 31, Monika (who had lied to her family about when the exams ended) travelled to Delhi to spend a few days with Gaurav. The couple talked at length about how Monika, then just four months shy of her 22nd birthday, could escape her family’s constraints. Gaurav thought she should simply remain with him, but Monika was anxious to try one more time to win the right to live her own life without severing all her family ties.

By then, Gaurav felt they should marry quickly for protection against her family’s wrath. “I wanted some name for this relationship,” he explained. “If her family members take action against her, how will I stop them? Will I just stand and say, ‘she is my friend’? I love this girl and it was very necessary to marry. After that, we will get some protection from the government. That was my thinking. Our relationship will be recognised.”On June 6, she returned to Nistoli, hoping to persuade her family to let her work in Delhi and live in one of the city’s hostels for single, working women. It quickly became apparent that they would not agree. On July 2, Monika slipped out secretly and caught a bus to Delhi. “She was so scared,” Gaurav says. “She was sitting with her head down in the seat, saying, ‘what will happen when my brother hears I have gone?’.”

The Arya Samaj is a 134-year-old Hindu reform movement that rejects idol-worship, the caste system and untouchability. Its priests will marry inter-caste couples, even if their parents are opposed. An Arya Samaj priest for 15 years, Shastri says that when he started, he would perform two or three inter-caste marriages a month that were boycotted by the parents. That number has now risen tenfold. He attributes this to economic changes that have brought greater social mobility and mixing of young people from differing castes: “People are studying in the same colleges, or working in the same company and they find their likes and dislikes are the same.”

Despite her family’s opposition, Monika affirmed her desire to marry Gaurav, says Shastri, and the two had the paperwork needed to prove they were eligible to marry under Indian law. After the 90-minute ceremony, Gaurav says, Monika was “very relieved”, yet the atmosphere was bittersweet. “It was our occasion of happiness, but a lot of things were missing.”

. . .

The days after their wedding were hectic. Gaurav had kept his relationship with Monika secret from his own family, but now he finally told them, and after the initial shock, his parents welcomed their new daughter-in-law into their home. The newlyweds began looking for jobs for Monika, and she made plans to study mass communication.

But Monika’s family had not been idle. Krishan Pal Singh, Nistoli’s village chief and a first cousin of Monika’s late father, said that after the girl disappeared, her family obtained her mobile phone records and discovered her calls to Gaurav. Monika’s brother filed a criminal complaint with the police in Uttar Pradesh (the state in which Nistoli is located), accusing Gaurav of abducting a minor – which Monika was not – and of rape.

One night, a week after the wedding, the Saini family home was invaded at around 10pm by a dozen or so men, including Monika’s brother and her uncle Joginder Singh. They were accompanied by police from both Uttar Pradesh and Delhi. “They started shouting, saying ‘what have you done – we will take revenge’,” Gaurav alleges. “We were begging the police, ‘we are legally married’. We showed age proof, photographs, a Xerox of the marriage certificate. But they shredded them. My mother was saying, ‘please forgive them – they are children’. Monika was crying, saying ‘I don’t want to go home. They will kill me.’ But they didn’t want to hear anything.”

Joginder Singh denies there was any resistance to their efforts to take his niece back to Nistoli, or that there was any talk of a marriage – only that Gaurav was trying to help her find a job. “We said ‘let’s go’, and she willingly agreed,” he insists. “She never declared she was married.”

The couple were taken first to a Delhi police station. Lawyers acting for Delhi police have since admitted in court that officers made no effort to determine whether or not Monika had been abducted – as her family claimed – or wanted to go back to them. Gaurav claims he was taken to a separate room, where Monika’s relatives shouted at him to give her up, sever all contact and give them Rs50,000 to avoid further trouble. The police officers, he said, stood by silently “as if they were watching a film”.

Eventually, Gaurav was led out, past Monika, who he says was weeping and demanding to be given to her husband. He says he asked her: “Will they kill the two of us?’” and that she replied, “maybe. It can happen.” He asked her: “Are you ready to die?” and she said she was. Finally, he asked: “Shall I go with you? Shall we both go together?” and she answered, “yes”. It was the last time they ever spoke.

Gaurav says that he was driven to a police station across the state border in Uttar Pradesh, about an hour away, not by police but by Monika’s relatives, who, he claims, insulted him, warned him to forget Monika and their marriage and threatened him with violence. At the police station, he says he was beaten by police and that the inspector handling the case, Neeraj Gautam, echoed the family’s demand that he renounce his marriage, which he refused to do. Monika was returned to her family.

Two days after the raid, Monika testified before a judge and, according to a terse court summary, said she had been neither abducted nor raped by Gaurav but had gone voluntarily to Delhi to meet him. Despite her testimony, the judge twice denied bail to Gaurav, who spent a month in prison, before an appeals court finally freed him. During that time, he claims, Monika’s relatives repeatedly called his parents, demanding the marriage certificate in exchange for their dropping the charges against Gaurav.

On August 14 Gaurav walked out of Dasna Jail in Ghaziabad, 10kg lighter and emotionally devastated. “My family and friends were happy that I was out of jail,” he recalls. “But I [was] just thinking that Monika is in prison in the hands of her family members.”

. . .

Indian parents often turn to the police and courts to press rebellious offspring to adhere to traditional social customs, even those at odds with Indian law. On a recent morning, Judges Sanjay Kaul and Ajit Bharihoke, of the Delhi High Court, were asked to order a defiant daughter-in-law to join her husband in Dubai. The judges summoned the young woman into their chambers and when she re-emerged, they rejected the petition. She was an adult; she did not wish to be with her husband; they could not compel her.

Gaurav Saini
Gaurav alone with his troubles
It was in this same courtroom that Gaurav Saini finally received a sympathetic hearing, a month after he was freed from prison. Unable to contact Monika and desperately worried about her, Gaurav petitioned the court, asking that Monika be brought before the judges so that her voice – and her wishes – could be heard and acted upon. Judges Kaul and Bharihoke agreed and on September 16 they ordered the Delhi and Uttar Pradesh police to produce her in court on October 7.

After that, Gaurav pestered Delhi police every day, asking them to go to Nistoli, retrieve Monika and put her in protective custody. He had heard she was locked in her house, depressed and not eating; with the issuing of the court order, he feared she might be forced to marry someone else (common practice in rural areas to thwart love marriages). After two weeks, two Delhi police officers finally went to Nistoli, accompanied by Amod Shastri, a Sanskrit scholar turned legal crusader who had been helping Gaurav.

They returned with shocking news. Nistoli’s village chief told police that Monika had died a day after the court order was issued. Her mother and uncles said Monika had suffered from pneumonia. She had been treated at an expensive private hospital in early September, but after her discharge had suddenly died at home one evening. Gaurav was devastated. Shastri recalls how “he was weeping, for six or seven hours continuously – in the police station and in the park.”

Soon, though, Gaurav began to doubt the family’s story. No doctor was called to examine Monika’s body after she died. Nor was there a post-mortem before the cremation, despite the large sums her family claimed to have spent having her treated. The death certificate was signed only by the village headman, a close relative. Gaurav became convinced Monika was still alive, being held somewhere, and that her family’s claim that she had died was an elaborate ruse to get rid of him. “I am 100 per cent sure she is alive, and they are hiding her,” he says.

The other alternatives are too much for him to contemplate. But Judge Kaul has considered them, repeatedly lambasting Uttar Pradesh and Delhi police for their handling of the case, including their imprisonment of Gaurav and their sluggish investigation of what happened to Monika. “It has to be investigated,” he declared in one hearing. “You can’t cover up this matter like this.”

Monika’s family would like to. Since her death, the family’s lawyer, Adish Aggarwal, has sought to have the legal proceedings quashed, declaring them “too trivial” for the court or police officials. He has also denied that Gaurav was married to Monika, and therefore has no legal standing to pursue the case. Lawyers for the Uttar Pradesh police have said “there is nothing to investigate”.

. . .

Judge Kaul takes a different view. “A girl is cremated without post-mortem and without medical assistance,” he says incredulously, “and there’s nothing to investigate?” After the Delhi High Court’s threat to call in the Central Bureau of Investigation – India’s top investigative agency – Uttar Pradesh police have begun treating the case as a suspected murder, and have promised to complete the investigation by the end of this month. Neeraj Gautam, the police officer who led the raid during which Monika was removed from the Sainis’ home, has also been suspended.

Gaurav Saini with his lawyers
Gaurav with his lawyers
“It is not disputed that in the cases of missing girls of marriageable age, the police should be sensitive and should deal with such matters with a firm resolve,” Anand Kumar, home secretary of Uttar Pradesh, said in a court affidavit. “During investigation, it was found that Ms Monika died in suspicious circumstances … All possible steps shall be taken to ascertain the truth.” So far, though, there have been no arrests and no charges.

A senior Delhi police officer who has tracked the case says the circumstances suggest an honour killing, but he adds that, given the lack of physical evidence and co-operative witnesses, it’s a “million-dollar question” whether justice will be done. Even a lawyer for Monika’s family privately admits that “only God knows” what really happened to her.

Gaurav, meanwhile, has been left unable to accept the loss of the woman he loved, even as he battles with his doubts about whether she will ever return. “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.”

Monika’s relatives are bitter at the prospect of a long investigation into what they still insist was a death from natural causes. Monika’s mother Yashoda, her tired eyes brimming with tears, still maintains her daughter never married, noting that the girl did not wear any of the traditional markers of a married woman, such as toe-rings or vermilion powder in the parting of her hair. Nistoli headman Krishan Pal Singh also scoffs at the notion that the village would feel the need to concoct an elaborate cover-up if Monika has indeed been killed. “This is UP,” he says. “Anybody can kill anybody and throw the body in a sack. And nobody is bothered.” (Amy Kazmin on http://www.ft.com/cms/s/2/3f53472a-f99a-11de-8085-00144feab49a.html)

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