Young and defiant boys and girls in Haryana end up losing their life over the families’ sense of ‘honour’. A feudal mindset is pitted against the youth that is embracing modernity, and love. Education, separate legislation for such killings and banning khaps are what some experts pin their hopes on.
The gates of the temple at the entrance of Garnawati village in Rohtak are shut. Even at 10 am. God has been locked in. He seems to be at the mercy of village residents, as were Nidhi Barak and Dharmender Barak on the fateful evening of September 18 when they were hacked as the sun went down.
Nobody even winced, let alone come forward to save the couple from the hands of rage-driven Narender, alias Billu, who executed the cold-blooded murders in his courtyard. He dismembered the bodies of his only daughter Nidhi and her beau Dharmender for the most ‘heinous’ of all crimes — falling in love. Their audacity was more pronounced since the two belonged to the same village and shared the same ‘gotra’ of the Jat community. They had put their love before family honour, which was, of course, unpardonable.
As dusk descended and darkness deepened that evening, ‘honour’ left the village, draped in a dishonourable shroud. It took the red hue from the blood on the family’s hands. It stole the crackle from the fires that lapped up Nidhi and Dharmender’s pyres. It also became the silence of the villagers.
Fear did not give birth to this silence that sewed up every mouth in the village. Neither did ignorance of what had transpired. It was the eerie silence of quiet acceptance that screamed that archaic beliefs of a regressive society carried more weight; were thicker than blood and far superior than a couple of human lives; that the social rules of the village were sacrosanct and anybody who messed with them would meet the same fate — death.
Less than a week after the couple’s senseless murder in Rohtak, Sat Narayan, belonging to the SC community and a resident of Bhapoli village in Panipat, allegedly murdered his 19-year-old daughter Meenakshi in the name of honour. She was killed and hurriedly cremated on the banks of the Yamuna for daring to marry a boy from the Gujjar community against her parents’ wishes.
While their paths may have never crossed and they lived oblivious of each other, Nidhi and Meenakshi met the same fate at the hands of a family that should have stood by them. Their barbaric killing, once again, brought the spotlight on the stagnant near-fanatic mindset of a closed society with no qualms and regrets about murder. Only the blood of their own can wash away the stain and stigma of dishonour, or so they think. The dust of dead customs, however, still clings to them.
Indoctrination for decades
In Haryana, honour is synonymous with expression of choice. The moment a youth decides to execute choice in marriage, the family honour takes a hit. This honour, however, gets away unblemished when the same family faces trial for dowry death, rape charges or even domestic violence. So, the question of honour of a family boils down only to the issue of picking a life partner.
Social observers feel that the roots of this honour go deeper than thought. Hindi writer and former academician, Dr Subha, puts honour killings down to one reason alone —property.
“Ours is a patriarchal society where a daughter is simply to be married off and forgotten. As progress is making inroads into this closed society and boys and girls are opening up to the many possibilities before them, the so-called traditionalists fear the youth will assert itself. If married in the same village, or to a boy of their choice, the society feels it is allowing elements of democratisation to take seed. This means the end of khaps. They fear a backlash in the form of girls seeking property and other rights. ‘Gotra’ rows, pressure building and whimsical pronouncements are the armour against openness,” she insists, adding the recent diktats asking girls not to wear jeans or carry mobiles or even venture out of homes alone are an attempt to keep a hold on people.
Having travelled extensively in Haryana, her experience is that the khaps do not recognise the right of a lower caste to agree or disagree with their decisions. What is once decided has to be adhered to without question. “They generally target lower castes or the financially weak while the upper caste gets away with everything. They may or may not be directly involved in honour killings, just the way they have washed their hands of the Garnawati case. But the truth is that they exert much pressure,” she says.
The boys and girls in the village are fed on the ‘golden’ rules by the khaps. Consequently, they grow up believing that all boys and girls of a village are brother and sister; falling in love is a crime; nobody can marry in similar ‘gotras’; and they cannot marry in the neighbouring village because it is detrimental to ‘village brotherhood’.
Three girls we spoke to at Garnawati were appalled that a boy and girl could marry anybody they chose without worrying about the caste and ‘gotra’. “We focus on our studies. Love figures nowhere. We do not want to meet the same fate as Dharmender and Nidhi,” they remark.
Need for separate legislation
Though such killings are rampant not only in Haryana, but also neighbouring states of Punjab and Rajasthan, the law seems ill-equipped to deal with the enormity of this crime. As in the Garnawati case, the panchayat shrugged off responsibility, claiming that the “issue was between two families and the village had nothing to do with it”. However, it is strange that there are no witnesses to the two murders. The case was registered on the statement of a police official.
The whole village speaks only in one voice — silence. This conspiracy of silence means that the villagers approve of the murders and nobody comes forward with any information. In some cases, the perpetrators of the crime get away with impunity for lack of evidence.
Dr Manjeet Rathi of All India Democratic Women Association says: “The present provisions in law are not enough to deal with ‘honour’ killings. Slapping a murder case against the accused is no deterrent. There is urgent need of a legislation that punishes not only those who murder, but also those who stand as mute spectators and are directly or indirectly involved with the murder. We drafted a legislation and submitted it to the Home Minister with one lakh signatures. However, nothing came of it.”
Though the Supreme Court has observed that ‘honour’ killings should be treated as the “rarest of rare crime and those perpetrating it should be sent to the gallows”, the killings have not got the attention they deserve.
Call it lack of political will or the fear of a backlash from the communities which have granted it sanctity, Haryana and other states are opposed to the idea of a legislation to deal with this menace.
The Central government had initiated steps to bring about a separate law on ‘honour’ killings, but it was shelved after a number of states failed to give a feedback, indicative of the disinterest in the subject. Resultantly, all the law provides for is to book the perpetrator of the crime for murder while the others get away.
The change has begun
Despite pessimism and the snail-speed with which things are moving, there may still be a ray of hope. The khaps and their parallel structures are crumbling. As more and more youth step out into the world and interact on various platforms, the divide between castes and ‘gotras’ is diminishing. Even though a big section of the villagers chooses to remain silent after a heinous killing, it does not necessarily mean it gives sanction to such crimes. It only means these people are too weak to break free and find their voice to stand up for what is right.
“Despite the killings, the fact that boys and girls are falling in love and standing by each other even in death is a sign that the influence of the khaps is waning. The identity of the khaps is being challenged from various quarters — whether it is the Dalit movement, women’s movement or law. They are being questioned and pressured into softening their stance. We, however, need a separate legislation and make everybody from the local MP, MLA, and the district administration accountable if and when such a crime happens,” says Dr Subha.
Claiming that an inter-caste or same ‘gotra’ marriage is not only seen as a stigma on the family, but also the entire village and democratic thinking is a taboo, Dr Ahlawat says that the elected panchayat also plays vote-bank politics by protecting the guilty. “Though every village may not have a khap, its representatives are spread all over. Sometimes, these members make up the panchayat also. Living in a village, it becomes impossible to flow against the tide since the earnings and livelihood of a family is connected to agriculture. Since youths depend on farming, they are unable to sustain themselves economically. They will be forced to return to the village and will be killed. Economic independence by way of better education holds the key to liberation from the clutches of regressive tradition.”
Recommending a multi-pronged strategy, Dr Rathi is clear that a separate legislation to deal with ‘honour’ killings is half the battle won. “A social movement to change mindsets, a ban on khaps, model punishments and involvement of a number of social organisations will also make a difference. Most organisations reach a village after a crime has been committed. A continuous comprehensive engagement with villagers could go a long way in checking such crimes. This is a fight between tradition and modernity and the more violent the khaps get, the closer they are to extinction,” she says.
Nothing stays forever. A straight tree falls first during a storm. Survival for too long, given their rigidity, is an uphill task for the khaps. Whether they will come to terms with the change or break as the winds blow against them is their call. Either way, love will find a way.
Nidhi and Meenakshi’s is not a stray case in patriarchal Haryana where all honour talk seems to converge and rest on the shoulders of women who have no choice but to drag the dead weight all their lives. Despite carrying this burden in a male-centric society, they remain unwanted.
In a state notorious for foeticide and a sex ratio that brackets it with the ‘poorest performers’ in the country, the rising economic indices have little meaning. This upward swing is eroded and negated by a society living in its past, stuck in the quagmire of meaningless norms, wary of shaking off its blinkers. While prosperity has multiplied and demographic dynamics have altered, this is one society that refuses to grow, is averse to social change and deflects ‘newly fangled’ ideas with a wave of the hand.
‘Honour’ killings, common in Punjab, Haryana, Rajasthan, UP and a few pockets of Delhi, draw blood as also a sense of legitimacy from the very society these thrive in, with the support of a powerful force that works behind the scenes and within it.
These undisputed torchbearers of tradition are the khaps, instructing and ensuring the social fabric remains untouched by ‘defiled’ influences of modernity.
The khap leaders are a handful of self-appointed, self-styled protectors of the ‘purity’ of the Jat community in rural Haryana. Baljit Malik, a leader of the Jathwala khap, says: “We do not subscribe to these killings. It is the families that execute such murders. Khaps are needed today like never before, given the exposure to the outside world. The village cannot depart from conventions which form the basis of civilisation.” He is speechless when asked why they do not issue fatwa, osctracising families indulging in such killings or repressing women.
The authority the khap has in a village makes its leaders demigods. Their word is law and any digression is enough to invite the severest punishment.
“Since the times of the Mughals, the khaps have been traditional village councils. They played a constructive role in protecting communities and property from invaders. But they lost relevance when panchayats took on the role of taking decisions. Unwilling to let go of the glory, the khaps are trying to save themselves from extinction by fuelling negative emotions and issuing preposterous diktats,” says Dr Neerja Ahlawat, a sociologist at Maharishi Dayanand University, Rohtak.
THEY DIED FOR HONOUR
Manoj and Babli from Karora village in Kaithal district were murdered by the latter’s relatives in June 2007 on the diktats of a khap panchayat for marrying within the same ‘gotra’. The were killed near a toll plaza. In March 2010, a Karnal district court had awarded death sentence to Babli’s brother, uncles and cousins for killing the couple. A leader of the Banwala khap was awarded life sentence for hatching the plot.
Monika (18) of Neemdiwala village and Pradeep (19) of Manheru village, Bhiwani district, were found hanging from a tree in June 2010. The couple was killed and then hanged to give an impression of suicide. They were planning to marry but their parents were against the alliance. A case of murder was registered against six persons, including Monika’s parents, two brothers, uncle and aunt.
The decomposed bodies of Inder Pal (22), a farmhand, and Maya (18) were recovered from the fields of Phoolkan village, Sirsa, in September 2010. The couple were neighbours and wanted to marry. They were killed by the boy’s family. Inder was forcibly married two months before the couple was killed.
A mob lynched Vedpal Mor of Matour village, Jind, when he accompanied a court’s warrant officer to get back his wife Sonia of Singhwal village, Narwana, in July 2010. They had married in court against their parents’ wishes. Sonia had returned to her village and Vedpal had filed a petition in the High Court. A case was registered against Sonia’s family.