Seema Banawal, 23, of village Karora in Kaithal district of Haryana, has one aim in life - to avenge the murder of her brother Manoj and his wife, Bubbly.
It was less than a year ago that the bread-winner of the house and his bride were brutally murdered by Bubbly's relatives. Their fault: they had fallen in love, eloped and married. Heartbroken, Chandrapati, 49, the widowed mother of Seema, picks up a picture of the young couple, "See how beautiful the two were... and how brutally they were killed."
As both were from the Jat community, from the same sub-caste and from the same village, their marriage was taboo. As per Hindu tradition, inter-caste marriages are prohibited, an alliance between a boy and girl of the same caste and 'gotra' (origin of a caste from the lineage of the seven sages in the Vedas) is not valid, and even a union between two from the same village is forbidden.
Seema recalls the harrowing summer of 2007, "Manoj and Bubbly eloped and we had no idea about it. Yet, we were harassed by Bubbly's relatives and the 'khap panchayat'. A case of kidnapping was registered and we were socially boycotted."
When the couple came back to Kaithal, Bubbly gave a statement to the magistrate saying that she had chosen to go with Manoj and that the two were now married. The magistrate instructed the police to escort the couple back to Jaipur, where they had eloped. Instead, the police put them on to a bus at Pipli, near Karnal. At Karnal, Bubbly's relatives tracked them down. On June 21, 2007, the couple was found dead.
Even as Seema wages a battle for justice - she has filed a case against her sister-in-law's family, another 'honour killing' is making headlines. In Balah village on May 9, 2008, Sunita Devi, 22, and Jasbir Singh, 27, both Jats, were killed by Sunita's father and other relatives. Their bodies were displayed like hunting trophies outside Sunita's house. Childhood sweethearts, Sunita and Jasbir had eloped and were living with Jasbir's sister, Neelam Devi, in Machhraoli village near Panipat when they were attacked. As the village celebrated the killings, the 'sarpanch' (village council head), Ranbir Singh Mann, announced with pride that the entire village supported the family in its 'noble act'.
Gruesome murders like these committed in the name of family honour and lauded by the local community indicate that material progress in these regions has not led to a tolerant outlook. Unfortunately, 'khap panchayats', or caste panchayats, that have been around since medieval times, still hold a powerful sway over people. Though they are not recognised by the government, they have a right to intervene in case there is any lapse in the caste and 'gotra' arrangement in a rural society.
However, today there is change in the air. This brutal tradition is now meeting with resistance from some rural women, with the support of women's groups like the CPM's All India Democratic Women's Association (AIDWA). Admits Seema, "I would never have had the courage to fight the case, which has resulted in six arrests, but for the support of Jagmati Sangwan and Brinda Karat."
Jagmati Sangwan, the Haryana president of Akhil Bhartiye Janwadi Samiti, (AIDWA in Hindi) reveals, "We have been protesting and resisting these barbaric acts for over a decade."
As a result of greater mobility and with more women gaining access to education, the number of marriages of choice, as against those arranged by elders, is on the rise. In Hisar, where there are three universities, the number of inter-caste marriages has increased. Since students of different backgrounds study together, they often fall in love and want to marry but are too scared to return to their villages for they know that it will either lead to separation or death.
Shakuntala Jakharh, state secretary of Janwadi Samiti, says, "The first case of inter-caste elopement came to us in 1987. In the last five years, we have come across many more and we have lobbied with the administration to ensure that these couples are given security. The administration doesn't act until pushed."
The administration is not keen to meddle with the local social hierarchy and do little even when public lynchings of couples take place. The violence ranges from murder, murder made to appear as suicide, public beatings to forced incarceration and social boycott.
"At times, the panchayat forces the couple into tying a rakhi to signify that they are brother and sister. What kind of twisted morality is this?" questions Sangwan.
Take the case of Sonia Devi and Rampal Dahiya of Asandha village in Jhajjar district. Married for over a year, with Sonia three-months pregnant, the Rathi caste panchayat of Asandha declared that the husband and wife could only be brother and sister. The judgement was based on the contention that Rampal's caste - the Rathis - inhabit the same village as Sonia's parents, who come from the Hooda caste. Sonia was thus from a third caste, but since there were Rathi settlements in her native village the marriage was considered wrong. At the panchayat assembly Rampal was told that he would be physically attacked if he refused to have a rakhi tied on him by his wife, who was then dragged towards him.
However, his mother and sister stood their ground. Just as the group was dragging Sonia to do this, Rampal's sister, Sheela Malik, 40, intervened. "I reached just in time. I even beat up a 'panch' (village council member). I was not afraid and I spoke out because someone has to speak out against such injustice."
Malik filed a case with the help of AIDWA. A timely petition filed by the People's Union for Civil Liberties in the High Court of Punjab and Haryana elicited a prompt response. The court directed the state government to rehabilitate the couple in their village and provide them with security. Though it was reluctant, the government had no choice but to carry out the court order. Today, after six years of marriage and two children, Rampal and Sonia still live in fear. Shanti devi, 60, Rampal's mother says, "While all is well on the outside, we are afraid that they may harm us. There have been two assaults on my son while he was working in the fields."
Sangwan says, "It is sad that the government has not condemned the killings of Sunita and Jasbir. The right to marry a person of one's choice should be protected. We have been working with rural women in Asandha and Jaundhi for years and have now been able to make a difference. In fact, there have been some concessions from the caste panchayats in these villages too." For instance, the Asandha khap panchayat has said that they will not interfere if a marriage is over a year or more old.
Such gruesome killings continue to make it to the front page of newspapers but end up being forgotten, with the administration taking little or no action. Even a higher social status is no protection. Santosh Yadav of Rewat village, who scaled Mount Everest twice and was awarded the Padma Shri in 2000, faced a tough time when she decided to marry outside her caste. She had no choice but to leave her state and settle elsewhere.
Meanwhile, Seema who is studying law, has been selected to the post of constable in the Haryana police. After Manoj's death, the family's financial situation deteriorated. Empowered by her struggle, Seema applied for and secured a job with the Haryana police. She goes for training in July. "The panchayat has now been pressurising us to reach an out-of-court settlement in exchange for cash. No money can compensate for such a heinous crime. I will fight to the very end."