Shafiq R Khan


Couples in India dying in 'honour killings'

Rajni, 19, and Sanjeev, 24, are under police protection. Rajni's family has threatened to kill them both if they marry out of class.

Rajni, 19, and Sanjeev, 24, are under police protection. Rajni's family has threatened to kill them both if they marry out of class.


The word gotra originally meant “cow-pen.” For many centuries, cows were the most valuable asset a person could possess, so it was natural that families became identified with the group of cows they owned.

The Jats, for instance, are a caste made up of some 33 million people in Indian and Pakistan. But within the jat community itself, there are hundreds, if not thousands, ofgotras, or clans.

“With someone's gotra, it's not something that can be proven or documented, that lineage back to someone who lived so many generations ago,” said Tulsi Patel, a sociologist at Delhi University who has studied the caste system.

“It's more a general belief that you belong to the same clan.”

A bride belongs to her father's gotra before her marriage, and to her husband's gotra afterwards. Boys keep the same gotra throughout their lives.

“Then there also many Indians with no caste, who don't believe in this system,” Patel said.

Trend that's spreading: Every year in India, hundreds of couples die in ‘honour killings'

Nineteen-year-old Rajni had been a bride for only a few minutes when her husband, Sanjeev, suggested they head for a nearby police station to ask for protection.

It was only a matter of time, Sanjeev reminded his new wife, before her family started to hunt them down.

In February, after she told her family of her plans to marry Sanjeev, a 24-year-old milkman, Rajni's uncle grabbed her around the neck, slapped her, and threatened to kill her.

The couple was a mismatch, Rajni's uncle raged. Her father, after all, has 25 buffalo, wealthy in this lush stretch of India, a checkerboard of rice paddy and sugar cane fields. Sanjeev and his parents, on the other hand, were labourers who made $2 a day.

If she married Sanjeev, her uncle said, Rajni's family would be forced to kill both of them to preserve its honour.

Sanjeev and Rajni are hardly unique. Throughout northern India, young couples are being killed by the thousands in the name of honour and tradition. Some are poisoned, while others are hanged, drowned or beheaded.

In one recent case, a young woman was reportedly lit on fire and burned to death for marrying the wrong man in a village just outside New Delhi.

There are at least 900 so-called “honour killings” a year in the Indian states of Haryana, Punjab and Uttar Pradesh, according to a study cited by Human Rights Watch, and there has even been a string of such murders in the country's affluent capital in recent weeks.

“It's a trend that's spreading,” says Ashish Nandy, a psychology professor at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies in New Delhi. “In some families, when a woman goes off to school and marries someone of her own choosing, her siblings' marriage prospects are hurt. She has slandered the whole family and that can't be tolerated.”

Life in India changed in countless ways after reforms in the early 1990s. The reforms were designed to spur the country's foundering economy, but they have also turned social and cultural mores on their head.

Millions of villagers have migrated to large cities in search of work, and women are entering post-secondary schools and the workforce in unprecedented numbers.

Foreign firms such as Nike, Coca-Cola and Harley-Davidson eye the opportunity represented by India's 300 million-strong middle class and even luxury brands drool over their prospects. Women in New Delhi, for instance, can now rent Louis Vuitton handbags by the night.

But the economic miracle that is India has also has strained its social fabric. Many Indians still endorse their country's traditional customs and bristle at the sweeping changes.

Many Hindus believe women should marry partners of the same ancient caste.

Marrying someone from a different social class — Rajni's transgression — is also often outlawed. But perhaps the most forbidden love involves a match between partners of the same gotra, members of a single caste believed to have descended from a common male ancestor. That is considered incestuous.

In India, the government has decried “honour killings” and vows to stamp them out. But some say the promise of a crackdown is half-hearted.

The government is loath to lose the support of local khap panchayats, or village caste councils, a mainstay in some rural areas since medieval times.

A typical khap provides moral direction for at least five villages and, thanks to a woefully ineffective court system, is used to settle disputes. Each village usually has two members on its khap.

Most often, khaps tackle property disputes between neighbours, but cases can often be far more serious. Khap leaders in Bahan told the Star they recently intervened when a bride refused to take part in her arranged marriage. The khap directed her would-be fiancé to return her dowry, and then took him to a nearby village, finding him a new bride.

“We sit people down and make them come to a resolution both can agree with,” a khap leader said.

Some khaps have openly endorsed “honour killings,” going so far as to suggest they are a family's obligation.

In early 2007, Manoj and Babli Banwana, childhood friends from rural Haryana, eloped even though they belonged to the same clan. They were later dragged off a bus by 19-year-old Babli's relatives. She was forced to drink poison. Manoj was strangled by Babli's uncle.

Earlier this year, five of Babli's relatives, including her uncle and brother, were sentenced to death. Two others, a taxi driver and a khap leader named Gangaraj, were sentenced to life in prison for their roles in the killings. Speaking from behind bars at the Karnal Jail in Haryana, 51-year-old Gangaraj wagged a finger when he was asked whether he regrets what happened to the young couple.

“Her marriage was a blot on their family,” Gangaraj said. “It is a scientific fact that people of the same gotra should not be married. They are brother and sister. When they get married, they are not just cursed in this life. They are cursed in the next seven lives.”

For Delhi, the problem is that khaps don't just offer moral guidance and advice. They wield enormous influence among voters.

On a recent weekday, khap leaders gathered a short drive away from Sanjeev's home to discuss the Congress Party's plans to amend the marriage act.

Though it's just a three-hour drive from New Delhi, the village of Bahan feels much further.

Irrigation pumps run like fire hydrants, gushing water into paddies around the clock. Haryana and neighbouring Punjab produce 76 per cent of India's food.

Some farmers stand neck deep in canals, washing down their livestock while others laze in the afternoon, sleeping on four-foot roadside cement walls painted with ads for Black Cobra plywood, Red & White Cigarettes and Edwards 5000 Super Strong Beer. Behind many of those walls, youngsters play cricket with abandon.

If cricket is the most popular sport here, politics runs a close second.

Almost 70 per cent of registered voters in Haryana went to the polls. The vast majority supported the ruling Congress Party, which won nine of the state's 10 parliamentary seats.

Alienating the Haryana khaps could herald severe political consequences for the Congress, which is headed by Italian-born Sonia Gandhi.

“We want to send a strong message to Gandhi, who doesn't have any knowledge on this subject,” said khap leader Mewa Singh Chhattar, speaking to local journalists from a fellow khap leader's home.

Chhattar, 65, a retired farmer who has been a khap member for 35 years, said Gandhi, the Congress Party leader, “is surrounded by advisors who have failed to explain Indian culture to her. There is unrest in Jammu and Kashmir. The northeast, Chhattisgarh and Bengal are equally disturbed. If there is peace in any part of the country, it is the north. She is disturbing that, too. We want to send out this message loud and clear that this region, too, will be in a state of war.”

“For a Westerner to understand this, you have to try to remember that, for us, this is like a brother marrying his sister,” said Chhattar.

And some politicians take heed.

Naveen Jindal, a cosmopolitan 40-year-old member of parliament from Haryana who attended the University of Texas and owns his own polo team, has said that while he doesn't approve of “honour killings” per se, he supports the khap's position outlawing same-gotra marriage.

“We should respect their customs and emotions,” he said. “The culture of villages is opposite of what we see in cities. Hence, there should not be any comparison between the two.”

In reality, you don't have to go to the washboard dirt roads of Bahan to find support for “honour killings.”

Several months ago, the Hindustan Times newspaper, one of India's largest English dailies, commissioned a survey of middle-class and upper-middle-class residents in the national capital region and found widespread support for the khaps.

In Bahan, as in New Delhi, the subject of “honour killings” is a popular talking point.

At a roadside food stand, labourers gobbled a lunch of peppers, chickpeas and eggplant and weighed in with their thoughts about Sanjeev and Rajni. “It's such a matter of shame that an ‘honour killing' is not a crime,” said Raghubir Singh, a Hindu priest. “It's the only option for the family.”

For 19-year-old Rajni, being the subject of town gossip is unnerving.

The oldest of four children, Rajni has lived a sheltered life. She was never allowed to attend local village fairs or the movie hall in Panipat, a nearby town.

Instead, she watched Hindi soap operas indoors. Rajni's father decided that after high school, she would be married off, hopefully to a well-to-do local boy who would bolster her family's social standing. His pretty daughter would fetch a fine husband.

Rajni, however, had other ideas.

She spied Sanjeev milking cows near her family's home and asked a friend to get his cell-phone number. After a few hushed conversations, Rajni's family confiscated her cell.

Sanjeev, whip-thin with a shy smile and short, wavy hair, bought her another one. One day while Rajni's father and brothers were busy attending to grazing cows, Sanjeev made his move, stealing into her bedroom. He stayed for 10 minutes, managing a kiss and the promise of another.

“He was different from other boys,” Rajni said, adjusting her saffron-coloured head scarf and fiddling with several dozen bangles. “I knew he wouldn't hit or slap me, or leave me.”

The couple said they weren't sure how long they would require the presence of a police constable, who sat dozing in a plastic lawn chair outside their home.

That's a problem. Some families have long memories when it comes to avenging their bruised honour.

On a hazy evening in late June, newspaper and TV reporters in New Delhi dashed to the northern suburb of Wazipur after police announced the city's latest honour-killing victims.

A 24-year-old woman named Monica and her 26-year-old husband, Kuldeep, had both been shot twice in the head. The attractive couple had been married four years and Monica was pregnant with their first child. Kuldeep had just landed a coveted job with a call centre.

Police say Monica's brother and a cousin committed the murders because Monica's family belongs to the Gujjar caste while Kuldeep was a Rajput, which is considered higher in the caste system.

“I remember the day of their wedding when Monica's family showed up at the courthouse very agitated and angry,” said Kuldeep's father Ajeet Singh, sitting in his home and holding a portrait of his son and daughter-in-law. “They were very rough and tried to intimidate them so they wouldn't get married. It didn't work on that day so they just waited.”

Even after their arrest, some locals in Wazirpur remain nonchalant over the gruesome crime.

“The boys had a rush of blood to the head,” shrugged Monica's uncle Chowdhary Ram Palsingh, playing cards with friends and lounging on a bamboo charpoy.

Several activist and aid agencies are working in India to eliminate caste discrimination. After the 2004 tsunami, some victims refused to stay in tents in makeshift relief camps alongside lower-caste families. And this month, at least 1,000 students belonging to upper castes in Uttar Pradesh switched schools so they wouldn't have to eat mid-day lunches prepared by cooks who were members of the Dalit, or “untouchable” caste.

“These are not easy times,” said Sanjeev, sitting next to his wife in their tiny home. “But if my wife can leave her entire family for me, I can go through this. And if they come for us and kill us, what can we do? We love each other.”

By Rick Westhead

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