Death by decree

Published : Aug 28, 2009 00:00 IST

recently in western Uttar Pradesh

NINETEEN-year-old Babitha of Kinanagar village in Meerut district of Uttar Pradesh had a different kind of Raksha Bandhan (a Hindu festival when girls seek the promise of protection from those they consider their brothers) this year. On August 5, she got up early as usual, had a bath, dressed up, took out the sanctified rakhi thread and went up to tie it on the photograph of her younger brother Manoj. She then burst out crying. According to her relatives and neighbours, Babitha kept on alternately crying and getting angry throughout the day, clutching the photograph tied with the rakhi. In earlier years, she had celebrated the festival hailed as the ultimate religious and ritualistic observance of the relationship between brothers and sisters tying the rakhi on her brothers wrist and he used to shower her with gifts.

Manoj was in love with Afsana, a Muslim girl of the same locality. On July 10, Afsanas brothers and cousins allegedly killed Manoj and Afsana in what is believed to be an honour killing provoked by a love affair between Afsana and the Dalit boy.

Afsanas brothers Javed Khan and Rashid Khan and her cousins Wasim Khan and Suhaib Khan were arrested in the days immediately following the murder on the basis of the first information report (FIR No. 113-202/09) filed at the nearby Bhawanpur police station. The FIR holds the four youth in the age group of 18 to 22 responsible for the double murder. As per the FIR, Manoj was told on the fateful morning that Afsana wanted to meet him at her home. He was attacked when he reached her house in response to the message. Interestingly, there are no eyewitnesses to the murder, which took place in broad daylight, around 10 a.m. However, villagers do drop sufficient hints about the sequence of events that led to the murder.

According to Lakhanpal, a resident of Kinanagar, the parents of Manoj and Afsana were close friends. Both were agricultural labourers and used to work together. The elder daughters of the two families, Babitha and Salma, used to do agricultural errands together for landlords in and around the village. Afsana and Manoj were the relatively better educated in the two families and used to exchange educational notes. (Afsana had passed Class 10 while Manoj was in Plus 2.) The families had free access to each others house and were constantly interacting socially.

Lakhanpal and other villagers added that there was a minor altercation a few days before the murder between Manoj and Afsanas brothers over Rs.1,000 borrowed by the latter from the former. But they also add that there was no way a matter of a thousand rupees would have led to such a gruesome double murder. At the same time, they also do not confirm or state emphatically that Manoj and Afsana were in a relationship. Who knows what the reason is is their refrain. The villagers also express a sense of relief that both the girl and the boy are dead; for, had just one of them been killed it could have caused a communal situation not only in the village but also in the surrounding areas.

A senior police officer operating out of western Uttar Pradesh told Frontline that the atmosphere in Kinanagar, including the reaction of the villagers as a whole, reveals the many facets of the honour killing. The lack of witnesses to a daylight murder, the studied silence and the sense of relief at things being under control, are all part of it. But an official probe cannot proceed on the basis of a theory of circumstances. It has to rely on more concrete evidence, which need not necessarily come up in every investigation, he pointed out.

In fact, Uttar Pradesh, particularly a number of districts in western Uttar Pradesh, has reported several cases of what is generally termed as honour killing, but for want of concrete evidence there have been no convictions in these. Muzaffarnagar has the highest reported number of honour killings. According to a study done by the Delhi-based Indian Population Statistics Survey in mid-2007, the district accounted for 25 per cent of the honour killings reported until then. In terms of actual numbers, this amounted to approximately 150 killings.

Other districts in western Uttar Pradesh, such as Meerut, Saharanpur, Bijnore and Agra, have also reported honour killings, though not on the same scale. The districts of Unnao and Etah in central Uttar Pradesh and Ballia in the east have also reported honour killings. According to senior State Home Department officials, the actual number of such killings in the past two years is yet to be tabulated.

Honour killings in the region are classified broadly into two segments those undertaken by families to protect the honour of individual families and those ordered by caste panchayats to protect caste honour. The Kinanagar killing is widely perceived to be of the former category.

The triple murder that took place at Pilaktara village in Etah district in November 2008 is also considered to be of the same category. According to police records, a man killed his daughter, her lover and the latters brother in that case. As in several cases of this kind, the legal proceedings in the Pilaktara killings have also been tardy.

Honour killings ordered by caste panchayats have been reported now and then in western Uttar Pradesh since the early 1990s. One of the most widely reported cases of this type was the 2007 killing of Mahesh Singh and 19-year-old Gudiya in Agra. They had eloped and got married, much to the chagrin of the village elders in Nehra, Gudiyas native place. The village leaders proclaimed the marriage an incestuous affair as both Gudiya and Mahesh belonged to the same gotra (clan).

The caste elders formed a team to capture them and bring them back to the village. This done, a meeting of the caste panchayat was held. It ordered the couple to put an end to their relationship. When the couple refused, the caste panchayat awarded the death sentence and carried it out a few hours later. Gudiya and Mahesh were hacked to pieces and their body parts were burnt. When Frontline visited Nehra, the village residents, as usual refused to talk about the incident.

They met their fate, why do you want to rake it up now? a resident asked this correspondent.

The 2004 case of Mahesh and Janaka, belonging to Chak Kushehari in Kanpur, is also one of the death sentence given by a caste panchayat. In this case too, the couple belonged to the same caste and the caste panchayat held their marriage to be incestuous. The couple had eloped to Kanpur, from where they were forcibly brought back to the village, tortured for two days and then done to death.

Social activists and police officials have observed at a number of public fora that honour killings in general and caste panchayat-ordered killings in particular go on unabated partly on account of the complicity of mainstream political parties, which strive to keep the caste elders in good humour with an eye on the vote bank. Not a single mainstream political party that is active in the region has condemned the killings.

The response from Ajit Singh, leader of the Rashtriya Lok Dal (RLD), when queried about this silence indicated that things were not going to change in a hurry. According to him, while he does not approve of the violence advocated by many of the caste panchayats on issues relating to intra-caste, intra-gotra marriages, he was of the view that positions taken by the panchayats and the social customs practised by them against these marriages had relevance both in social and medical terms.

Scientific research has pointed to the dangers of having marital relations within the same family and this point has been reflected in the position of the caste panchayats of many communities, he said. Incidentally, the majority of the honour killings have been reported in the Jat community, the core support base of the RLD.

Almost all the other mainstream parties of Uttar Pradesh, including the Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party, have taken similar positions although these are not stated publicly. More significantly, none of these parties is ready to state the fact that the caste panchayat is an illegitimate extra-judicial agency with no constitutional validity.

This studied silence underlines the fact that votes and caste-based support are more important for the politicians of Uttar Pradesh than the lives of a few couples in love.

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