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When Love Spells Death

By Anjali Modi

The Hindu
04 November, 2003

"Enraged over the affair of a boy and a girl of different castes, family members allegedly killed both in Bulandshahar district of Uttar Pradesh, police said. Chander, a jatav, and his beloved Sajini, belonging to thakur caste, had fled their village and were planning to marry when family members of the girl caught them and murdered them at Bhojpur yesterday, police said."

Every week, perhaps every day, the Chander and Sajini story is retold. Another cast, another location but the same narrative. Two young people who fall in love and hope to build a life together, are hunted down for daring to think that they can.

The murders of young women and men, who have married by choice or across caste barriers, often go unnoticed. There are no names, not even statistics. Many are not investigated because the community closes ranks, apparently making it impossible to find out what really happened.

Naz Parveen was 25, and unusually for a woman in Khalapur, Uttar Pradesh, a doctor. Kasif Jamal, 10 years older, was from the same village. They married "against family wishes". Their killers found them in the middle of a crowded bazaar. Some say they were shot, others that they were stabbed. No investigation was done, because "dozens of people from the community came forward to claim responsibility". No cases of obstructing the course of justice were filed.

Forbidden love attracts death in many forms. Susheela's family poisoned her. She was 19, her father a Jat shopkeeper in Talau, Haryana. Her crime? She married Rajpal, son of a Dalit army subedar. Her sister Lalita, who helped her, was also killed. Neighbours said the family had "no option but to kill". Susheela had told a court, just days earlier, that she had chosen to marry Rajpal. The police said Susheela and Lalita had committed suicide. Rajpal is in jail; he, and four friends, charged with "abduction" and "rape".

Harpreet fell in love with Kamaljit Singh, a Shiromani Akali Dal worker campaigning for her MLA mother, Jagir Kaur. His family were "poor", not son-in-law material for a politician and member of the Shiromani Gurdwara Prabhandak Committee. They married, in secret. Some months later Harpreet was dead, her family said of "food poisoning" or "sun-stroke". The police said, "there was no suspicion of foul play, so no necessity for an investigation". Kamaljit filed a petition in the State High Court: his wife had forcibly undergone an abortion, before her death. The court ordered a Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) investigation. In 2001, her mother, and six others, were charged with murder. Jagir Kaur was not arrested.

Society, it seems, stands on the shoulders of the State, when it exacts vengeance from those who defy it. The State's absolute complicity is reflected in cases, reported by the People's Union for Democratic Rights (PUDR), of what can only be called "State assisted suicide": Ghulam Mohammed, a fruit seller at the Delhi's Azadpur Mandi, was picked up by the police on charges of "eloping with a married woman". According to police he "committed suicide" inside the Sabzi Mandi police station, witnessed by them and the woman's brother-in-law.

Bijender, a factory clerk, and Reena, a college student, both "committed suicide" by consuming poison in police custody four days after they were married. Reena's family had filed a complaint of abduction. The Delhi Police blandly said that Reena had "announced" her intention to kill herself.

"Suicide" even outside a police station can be murder by other means, says Saarika Kalia of Aali, a Lucknow based legal aid NGO. The line between having no where to run to and "choosing" death is very thin.

Where the law is nominally enforced, "legal" means are employed to reclaim these women. They get hauled up before the courts on the weight of complaints made by their parents. Their husbands are accused of abduction and their conjugal love termed "rape". Where proof of age is not available, the charge is "abduction and rape of a minor". The legal age of consent is a curious weapon in the hands of those who would otherwise have no qualms about child marriage. In cases where there is no ambiguity that the woman is a legal adult, the complaint declares her to be of "unsound mind".

The police, normally so reluctant to file a first information report (FIR), is happy to register these complaints. They ask for no evidence of the age or even proof of the "abducted" woman's alleged mental incapacity. In fact Aali's experience in Uttar Pradesh and the PUDR's in Delhi, is that the police often arbitrarily arrests members of the man's family, or the young man himself, and files specious charges against any number of them.

Manjith Rathi, a college lecturer in English and an activist of the Janwadi Mahila Samiti, says that there are dozens of such cases filed in just the three districts of Haryana in which she works. When following-up one such case with the Hissar district administration, the collector told her "do your work, which is to make rotis, instead of interfering in other people's lives". A senior officer of the Delhi Police told Prof. Uma Chakravarthy, of Delhi University, inquiring about "abduction" charges against a young man, "why are you pursuing this case? If your daughter had done such a thing as this girl has, you too would have pressed the same charges."

Every month the High Court in New Delhi hears between 15 and 20 new cases of "abduction" and "rape" of women who say they have married by choice. Most, according to the public prosecutor Mukta Gupta, "are decided in favour of the women". She admits that while the court upholds a woman's legal rights, this does not guarantee her safety outside the court. Most couples invariably have to return to live surrounded by a hostile community and police force,

that instead of protecting them will continue to harass them.

Delhi may be the exception. Courts, as Lata Singh found, are unconcerned with a woman's rights or the law. At 20, and educated, she left home to marry Bhramanand Gupta. Their's is a poignant tale of survival against the odds. They were neighbours and fell in love. Neither imagined that they could ever marry. The social barriers — she a Rajput and he a bania — were huge and the fallout of breaching them too enormous.

But when the squabbles among her brothers about who would pay for her marriage became unbearable, Lata decided to leave home. "Leaving home was a big step, my attitude was: what have I to lose now?"

On November 7, 2000, they were married at Tees Hazari district court in Delhi.

For the four years that they have been married, Lata's family has pursued them relentlessly. Bhramanand's two sisters, a brother-in-law and cousin spent months in Lucknow jail charged with "abduction" and "rape" of a "mentally unsound" woman. Lata made statements to magistrates and swore affidavits that she had married of her own (adult) free will, but no one was interested. The "personal intervention" of the former Supreme Court Justice J.S. Verma, then National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) chairman, got them released on personal bonds. But the criminal cases continue.

To keep the family out of jail, every fortnight Lata and Bhramanand, along with their two-year-old son Amritansh, leave Jaipur — where they live out of reach of the Uttar Pradesh police and her brothers — pick up his sisters and brother-in-law from Delhi and Lucknow, to mark attendance in the Lucknow High Court. The court ignores Lata's numerous proclamations of (adult) free will; it acknowledges only the charges of "abduction" and "rape". The judge told them: "aukat ke bahar kaam karenge to yehi hoga (if you act outside your limits, this is what will happen").

The "limit" that Lata and Bhramanand crossed was to have loved and to have chosen, but most of all, in doing so, to have shaken the invisible walls that maintain the separations and hierarchies of caste.

"When anyone, but specially a woman, acts autonomously or asserts choice, the entire edifice of the caste and class system is disrupted," says Prof. Chakravarthy. There could be no more profound a transgression, for a society whose self-definition is caste, than marrying across caste. Inter-caste marriages blur, like nothing else, the boundaries of caste and shake its foundations.

Tied up in this is a bizarre notion of "honour" or what in North India is called izzat. It depends rather heavily on a code of conduct for women. Modesty, obedience, duty define good conduct. A woman's failure to live within the prescribed code results in the loss of honour to her family. Exercising choice and breaching the caste barrier are extreme violations of the code and apparently are good grounds for murder or at minimum, the forcible dissolution of a marriage.

The State has created laws, which recognise the right to chose. But society, and those who "enforce" the laws, have shifted very little ground in the 200 years since the first civil laws of marriage were enacted, and an irate magistrate wrote to the colonial government saying, "parents would rather kill her (a daughter) in her cradle than allow her, when of age to disgrace her family". The battle lines, such as they exist, are drawn between "love" and "obedience". The one carries the tag of illicitness, the other, the burden of tradition.

This tradition proclaims marriage as a sacrament. Yet, it leaves Lata Singh and Bhramanand, wondering if they will still be making the twice-monthly journey to the court, even when Amritansh is old enough to go to school; and, whether the ties that bind their small family will survive society's and the State's attack on them.