This is the tragic story of two youngsters in love who ran away to be together; they also ran away from the hostile reaction their relationship was likely to provoke in their village - Shahadpur, Dausa district, Rajasthan. Two months later - on September 22, 2004 - the 15-year-old-girl, Neelam, was dead, allegedly killed by her own father and uncles for bringing 'dishonor' to the family. Rajesh, the 17-year-old boy she eloped with, is a Bairwa, a dalit (the lowest in the caste hierarchy), while Neelam's family is Gurjar, a dominant caste group.
Women's organizations and human rights activists who have taken up the case of Neelam's honor killing are demanding protection of the right to choice. Tragedies like these, they say, can be checked or prevented if there is legal and state protection of the right to choice. The activists are demanding that a special cell be set up in the women's commission for this purpose.
Rajesh was in police custody when Neelam was killed. The police had arrested him in a case of abduction lodged by Neelam's family after the couple eloped. Still a minor, Rajesh has been detained in a juvenile home but even so, he is likely to be tried for rape.
Rajesh's family has been living in terror ever since the elopement. After the abduction case was lodged, the police picked them up for questioning. The Gurjars had gone to the police station and threatened to kill them as soon as the police released them, says Rajesh's father, Girdhari Bairwa.
In effect, the local police have played along with the prevailing power structure in the area. The police did not register an FIR the day Neelam was killed despite the suspicious circumstances surrounding her death. Neelam's mother and aunt had been packed off the night before she died. Her uncles said she died of snakebite when she went to relieve herself in the fields at night. They cremated her before daybreak even before informing her mother, who was in Bharatpur, just an hour's drive away.
It was only when women activists and human rights activists went to the area to investigate that the police lodged a case of murder on September 25 and named 13 persons as the accused. As pressure mounted, two of them, Neelam's granduncle and uncle, were arrested on September 29. They confessed to the police that Neelam was strangled to death and her body cremated.
However, the Gurjars, who have the patronage of local politicians, have rallied behind Neelam's family. Although they could not openly support the killing, at a panchayat (village council meeting) on October 3, they said this was a conspiracy to defame their community, and that all charges were concocted. They demanded the release of all accused and threatened action. The panchayat was held despite the efforts of the women's groups in Jaipur to persuade the state government to prevent the meeting so that the developing caste conflict situation could be averted.
In 1992, an alleged sexual harassment incident had led to a massacre of 17 Jatavs (dalits), at Kumher in adjoining Bharatpur district. This is a state where feudal attitudes, manifest in the treatment of both dalits and women, are at their strongest and worst.
The story of Neelam and Rajesh is a typical instance; and according to the local people, it is not the only one. If restrictions of choice apply to men, the situation is far worse for women. According to People's Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL) general secretary Kavita Srivastava, the right to choice for women in Rajasthan is confined to the "valorous" choice - such as 'sati' (a wife burning herself on her husband's funeral pyre) - where her identity is subsumed in that of her husband.
The Convention on Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) adopted by the United Nations in 1979 (and ratified by India in 1993) protects the right of men and women to choose their spouse, says Jasveen Ahluwalia, a women's rights activist. Eleven years later, its provisions still await enforcement.
According to Srivastava, repression of the individual's freedom of choice goes beyond the family and the community; the state and its machinery also contribute to it. Frequently, police officers conform to general social perceptions. When a girl's parents come to complain about their daughter eloping with a man, it is the policemen who advise them to lodge a case of abduction. And when a girl is "recovered" and restored to her parents, a few days are allowed to pass before her statement is recorded before the magistrate. This gives the family enough time to pressurize the girl and influence the nature of the statement she gives.
For instance, in the statement given by Neelam a few days after she was brought back to her parents' house, she said she had gone with Rajesh of her own free will but was happy to return and be with her parents.
A churning is taking place in present-day Rajasthan, particularly to do with adolescent girls who are increasingly making choices about relationships (with the opposite sex) outside the existing societal restrictions. "They are beginning to take decisions about what they want to do, not just for things like whether they want education, but about what they want to do with their body," says Ahluwalia.
Of the total of about 10,000 cases of crimes against women in a year in Rajasthan, one-fifth or 2,000 are cases of "abduction". And over 60 per cent of these are closed later - an indicator of the truth behind "abductions".
That girls are asserting themselves sexually seems to be a trend in Rajasthan. Society needs to come to grips with this reality so as to provide an environment in which young people can be encouraged to make informed choices, and receive support when they do. Until that happens, girls and boys will continue to break the rules and be hounded with disastrous consequences.