"The man's body bore strangulation
marks, while the woman was found tied, and frothing at the mouth," the
news anchor said, suggesting that the woman, at least, had been forced
to drink some poisonous chemical. The report added that the girl's
father had been arrested.
In northern India, especially in rural areas,
tradition prohibits couples from marrying outside their caste, the
all-pervasive social hierarchy, or within their blood line, a
complicated system of lineage called a gotra.
In rural areas, informal councils of village elders,
called khap panchayat, often enforce the prohibitions.
A Tale Of Two Families
A case that is currently in the news is taking place
in two farming villages a little more than an hour's drive from New
Delhi. They are located in the middle of peaceful and prosperous rice
paddies and cornfields, where cars and motorcycles share the roads with
bullock carts and children lead their water buffalo to cool off in the
The area is also the scene of a potentially deadly
dispute, where a young woman from one family has eloped with a young man
of a slightly lower caste from another village.
In the village of Maicha, the young woman's father
and uncle say they have been falsely accused of threatening violence if
the young woman isn't returned. The father thinks his daughter was
pressured into running away, and he says he just wants to hear from her
that this is what she wants. (The families involved in this case did not
want their names to be used.)
When asked if he would kill his daughter if he felt
his honor or the family's honor had been harmed, he answers quickly:
"No, I would never harm my daughter. If she tells me that she wants to
stay with the boy, I'll let her do that."
The young man's family lives in the village of Daula,
just a few minutes' drive from the young woman's village.
The young man's father and uncle say they feel their
lives are threatened. They charge that the elders — the khap
panchayat — from the young woman's village demanded one of their
village girls in exchange for the woman who eloped.
They say they have searched for the missing couple,
but haven't been able to find them.
Social Activists Provide Aid To Couples
Too often, young people involved in elopements are
eventually found dead, victims of murder or mutual suicides.
The danger has spurred social activists to offer to
help newly eloped couples. Sanjoy Sachdev heads a group in New Delhi
that calls itself the "Love Commandos."
He meets reporters on a rooftop in central New Delhi.
He says he keeps the location of his office secret because he has
received death threats for resisting violence against young couples.
"That which people call 'honor killing,' but we feel
is a national disgrace," Sachdev says. "In this great land of love,
there is so much hate against love and love marriage. We are flooded
He says his group of volunteers includes lawyers and
counselors who can help couples marry and find shelter from relatives
who might do them harm.
Balancing Tradition With Modernity And Law
Swami Agnivesh, a social reformer, says Indian
politicians need to take a firm stand against village councils that
advocate violence or forced marriage.
"The political leaders don't have the nerve to stand
up to these so-called village elders and say 'stop this nonsense,
otherwise you will be tried for murder,' " he says.
But Madhu Kishwar, a women's rights activist, says
those traditional councils deserve some respect and understanding.
"Nobody goes, talks to those people, tries to understand what their
concerns are — what is the moral universe that they come from? —
including those who otherwise want to celebrate India's diversity, and
insist that they shouldn't be a one-size-fits-all kind of society," she
Kishwar says that murder and intimidation ought to be
punished, no matter what the cause, but she says the khap panchayat
can be a force for stability in villages and safety for women.
lawmakers are weighing in as well. Some members of India's Parliament
have introduced bills that would give local councils more of a say in
restrictions on marriage, while others are pressing for stronger
penalties against those who advocate violence.