Print edition : November 01, 2013

Parents of Nidhi being taken away by the police at Garnawathi village in Rohtak district. Photo: manoj dhaka

Nidhi. Photo: MANOJ DHAKA

Removing the body of Dharmender, which was dumped in front of his house by Nidhi's family. Photo: manoj dhaka

Grieving women in Dharmender's house.

The member of the National Commission for Women who visited the village holding a meeting with the elder residents. Photo: manoj dhaka

In a Haryana village, intolerant parents murder their daughter and behead the boy she eloped with for violating the gotra norm.

DHARMENDER and Nidhi of Garnawathi village in Rohtak district of Haryana were in the prime of their youth. On September 17, they decided to elope and get married in a court. They left the village clandestinely to an unknown destination in Delhi. They knew the village community would not accept their communion as they shared the same gotra. But they were lured back to the village by a close friend of Dharmender, who is learnt to have been under pressure from the community.

The couple was running out of money and the friend convinced them that their families were reconciled to their marriage idea. They were murdered on their return to the village. The girl’s parents, uncle and younger brother allegedly tortured and hacked the two of them into pieces. They decapitated the boy and threw his head and torso in front of his modest dwelling and challenged his family to come and claim the remains. None of the residents of the village dared to apprehend the perpetrators of the crime.

The twin murders came to light when somebody tipped off the police as Nidhi’s body was being prepared for cremation. Some reports said that the bodies were dragged through the village to a send a message across to society, but this could not be confirmed. Union Minister Kumari Selja, who hails from the State, described the crime as a “horror” while most of her colleagues in the Congress, including Chief Minister Bhoopinder Singh Hooda (who belongs to Rohtak district) and his son, Deepender Singh Hooda, who represents the Rohtak constituency in the Lok Sabha, preferred to treat the incident as an ordinary law and order problem. The Chief Minister even maintained that “khap panchayats [caste councils] do not order honour killings” and that it was the couple’s parents or close relatives who were usually behind such crime.

Barring the Left parties and their mass organisations, all the other political parties in the State declined to come out openly and condemn the heinous crime. Billoo, the girl’s father and a former wrestler, proudly claimed before the media that he had done the right thing.

The Garnawathi incident was reminiscent of the infamous killing of Manoj and Babli of Karoda village in Kaithal district in 2007, also in the name of honour. Manoj and Babli had got married under the directions of the Punjab and Haryana High Court and were even given police protection. The khap panchayat had called for the elimination of Manoj and Babli. Some persons were arrested after a prolonged struggle for justice by the All India Democratic Women’s Association (AIDWA). The Sessions Court awarded the death sentence to the guilty but the sentence was later commuted to life. One commendable aspect of that fight for justice was that Manoj’s family, comprising his mother, two younger siblings and an uncle, did not budge from their resolve to put the killers behind bars despite caste and political pressure. In that case as well, the girl’s family was involved in the crime. It was a damning indictment of the State, which continues to treat honour killings as a mere law and order problem.

In Garnawathi no one was allowed to speak in defence of the couple. The family of Dharmender was poor but the girl’s family had a thriving business in dog breeding. An eerie silence hung over the village with no one coming forward to speak on the matter. People even hesitated to give directions to Dharmender’s house. “They are not going to say a word about or against what happened. There is no point in quizzing them,” this correspondent was told.

In defence of a crime

But a former sarpanch of the village agreed to speak. “The village agrees that they should not have been killed like this but they left the family with no option. Once you make a relationship official, that is not acceptable,” he said candidly. Dharmender was a pleasant fellow, he said, adding that he was among the few youth who greeted the elders with the words “Ram Ram” in the traditional way.

In the same breath, he said the boy should not have done it (marry someone from the same gotra). But, in his view, women should be more responsible in such cases. “They should have more self-control. See what has happened now. Now, all the girls who had a chance of a good education are not going to be sent to study by their parents,” he said.

He said people had been instructed not to speak to the media which had “spoilt the image” of the village. The people in the village were unanimous in their opinion that the couple had left the girl’s parents with no choice. “The girl’s father should have got her married instead of sending her to the city to study. The laws are made for society but our society doesn’t accept it. The age of marriage should be reduced from 18 to 14. This will solve a lot of problems. If the government can change the Supreme Court order on convicted members, it can definitely reduce the age of marriage,” he argued. He said had any of his four daughters done what the couple did, he would have meted out the same form of “punishment” to them. “I said it in front of the NCW [National Commission for Women] member. I have no regrets. Yes, they should not have thrown the body in front of the house. They could have used the rail tracks instead. They got carried away,” he said.

A photographer Frontline got in touch with said he was not allowed to take pictures and was threatened with violence. He said the situation was similar when he went to cover the Manoj-Babli murder case. “Babli’s family surrounded me and the men began looking for sharp-edged weapons to attack me with. I had taken my motorbike anticipating something like that and so I fled for my life,” he said.

Mediapersons visiting Garnawathi were told not to engage in any conversation with anyone. They were only allowed to offer condolences.

Caste and property

“The notion of honour itself has to be deconstructed and demolished,” Jitender Prasad, sociologist at Maharishi Dayanand University, Rohtak, told Frontline. He said there appeared to be no problem of caste or gotra in marriages where girls were being brought and bought from other States to Haryana in view of the declining sex ratio in the State.

According to him, the concept of property is very strong in Haryana and the three Js—jar (property), joru (wife) and jameen (land)—are the cornerstones of patriarchy in Haryanvi society. To this extent, and to protect and preserve property, levirate marriages, where the widow is married off to the husband’s brother, are common. It has happened even in cases where the groom was much younger than his widowed sister-in-law.

Rajinder Singh, a former sarpanch, told Frontline that he had married his widowed daughter in-law to his younger son, who was perhaps in his teens, when his older son died. “I could not forsake that woman, my daughter-in-law and the villagers also told me that it would be an insult to allow ‘stridhan’ to go out of the house,” he said. He added that his daughter-in-law pleaded with him to let her stay in his house. In a situation where women seldom have a choice either over marriage or their life in the eventuality of their widowhood, the plea of the daughter-in-law does not seem unnatural.

Women seldom assert their right to marital or natal property. Jitendra Prasad said the Arya Samaj had attempted some reforms. In 1913, the Unionist Party had rallied peasants against usurious zamindars, but the reform ended there, he said. Moneylending as an institution was not attacke,so it continued with newer people doing the same old thing. When asked whether the killing of the couple was discussed in the university, considering that the village is located about 15 kilometres from Rohtak city, he said no one felt comfortable discussing the incident.

The killings in Garnawathi village evoked a standard response from some khap leaders, who reiterated their demand to amend the Hindu Marriage Act (HMA), 1955, in order to proscribe same-gotra marriages.

“It baffles me. Even if it is amended, why should couples marry under the HMA? They can always marry under the Special Marriage Act,” Inderjit Singh, State secretary of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), said. He said the demand to amend the HMA was being raised repeatedly to legitimise the killings and to consolidate caste.

Gotra as a tool for caste mobilisation

“Same-gotra marriages are not happening because of the khaps’ opposition to them. They are not taking place because people themselves have an understanding of village sensibilities. It is strange that no one objects to illicit relationships in the same village. But as soon as one talks of marriage, nothing less than murder is uttered. Likewise, there is no talk of rape or incest although these are prevalent as well,” he said.

The gotra, he said, served as an institution for caste mobilisation for the larger purpose of reaping electoral dividends. The demand for a ban on same-gotra marriages could lead to a ban on marriage in the same village and then extend to the “brotherhood” of villages. The concept of brotherhood extended to all nearby villages where marriages were prohibited. Such demands have escalated of late and have been seen as emanating from a need for wider caste consolidation.

Shamsher Singh, a retired army officer and a former State president of the Lok Janshakti Party, said if women of the village and those living in nearby villages were regarded as sisters, crimes against women would decline and the need for stronger laws to prevent crimes against women would not be required. He pointed out that in Haryana, girls who learned wrestling wore outfits that even men would not dare to. “We are not conservative at all. We do not have social evils such as witch-hunting or child marriage here. We allow widow remarriage, too. We are not religious fundamentalists either. We are largely a vegetarian society. A little bit aggressive, that is all,” he said.

Village customs

Another elderly man from the village said that townspeople found it difficult to understand village customs. “There is no concept of brotherhood in the cities. No one cares for the other,” he said. He said when such transgressions took place, the influential people involved would resort to murder. Among the other forms of “punishment” for those who violate the “norms” are social boycott ( hukka-paani band) and economic “sanction”, which prevents people from tilling or sowing the fields of the families concerned. He said the principle of “ath-gama” (eight villages) is followed, under which marital relationships among people of the same gotra in eight contiguous villages falling within a radius of 10 km could not be considered. “When this is not allowed, how can we allow marriages within the same village?” he asked.

Free hand for identity politics

The State government is set against a separate piece of legislation on honour-related crimes. At an interaction with the media in Chandigarh on October 5, Bhupinder Singh Hooda came out strongly in defence of the khaps, arguing that they had no role to play in honour killings. They were part of the social structure and preserved the age-old traditions. Most of these killings, he said, were done by the close relatives of the families concerned. He did not deny that crimes in the name of honour took place elsewhere in the country, too. He had articulated similar views during an interaction with women journalists in Delhi.

Strangely, the position of the Central government on the issue is not very different. In its representation to the 16th meeting of the National Integration Council (NIC), the CPI(M) had pressed for the need for a separate law on the “so-called” honour killings. However, the resolution adopted by the NIC glossed over this demand.

Jagmati Sangwan, vice-president of AIDWA, said that in the Garnawathi case, the arrival of the police as the girl’s body was being cremated showed that there was some response from the government. She said this had never happened before as the police were hand in glove with the perpetrators of the crime. She illustrated another recent case of an honour crime in Panipat where a sub-inspector handed over a girl to her parents who then killed her.

“We are saying that honour killings are on the rise. The State government denies it,” Jagmati Sangwan said. She pointed out that a Group of Ministers was constituted in 2010 under the Union Finance Minister. The State government responded positively demanding a stand-alone law. But it changed its stand within months saying that there was no need for a separate law.

Supreme Court advocate Kirti Singh and AIDWA drafted a piece of legislation titled “Prevention of Crimes in the Name of Honour and Tradition Bill, 2010”, which the NCW accepted. But there was no progress after that.

Growing conservatism

More and more conservatism is the reaction to increasing crimes against women. The demand to prevent girls from using mobile phones or wearing jeans has been on the rise. The comment made by the lawyer of those pronounced guilty in the December 16 gang rape incident in Delhi on the way the deceased had dressed shocked one and all. Barring a gentle rebuke from the Bar Council and strong condemnation from women’s groups, nothing much has been done to address the larger issue of growing conservatism in society. Juxtaposed with this issue is the political mobilisation around caste identity, which often serves as the backdrop for larger communal mobilisation.

Two recent instances give credence to this notion—the Muzaffarnagar killings, which was followed by a maha khap panchayat, and the mass burning on August 24-25 of vehicles belonging to a particular community in Gurgaon allegedly carrying cattle for slaughter. In the latter case, religious frenzy was whipped up as the area adjoined the Meo-dominated district of Mewat. The incident was not reported adequately in the mainstream media. Had the administration not acted, the consequences would have been disastrous. Observers felt that it was a ploy to mobilise support on communal lines for the ex-servicemen’s rally in Rewari, which was addressed by Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi, on September 15.

Inderjit Singh said it was not a coincidence that caste organisations had been allotted large plots of prime land in district headquarters by successive governments in the name of dharamshalas. The size of the land and the location depended on the clout the caste enjoyed with the government. The State government was silent on the HMA. The Act, he said, applied to the whole country, and in any case, there was so much heterogeneity in the customs of Haryana society itself that it was impractical to impose one Act on the whole society and expect it to be upheld.

The irony is that the same party is in power in Haryana and at the Centre. That the lives of two young people could be snuffed out 100-odd kilometres from the seat of the Central government is a tragedy of sorts.

That such a brutality is allowed to be perpetuated in the name of custom and tradition shows the moral bankruptcy and vacuousness of the ruling parties.