Killing for honour in India
New Delhi — When Indian newlyweds Ravinder and Shilpa go out for a romantic walk, they take an armed guard — protection against villagers who say their marriage has dishonoured their community.
The couple have been living at a secret location on the outskirts of Delhi for four months since their marriage was denounced by village elders in Haryana state, some 80 kilometres (50 miles) away.
A "khaap panchayat" or village social council decreed that they both belonged to the same sub-caste and were therefore "brother and sister".
"The marriage transgressed our firmly held ‘brotherhood’ principle of social organisation. We cannot tolerate that," Raghuvender Singh Dahiya, deputy chief of the council, told AFP.
The ruling was a serious warning in a country where couples can end up badly beaten or even killed for ignoring caste, religious or social differences when choosing life partners.
Ravinder and Shilpa’s marriage was arranged by their families and they insist the union is not incestuous as they belong to separate villages with no familial ties.
But that argument fell on deaf ears.
"I was told our families were related through the generations. So our marriage is immoral and we have to divorce," said Ravinder.
When their families defied the ruling, the council banished Ravinder’s father from their village for three months and the couple for life.
So traumatising was the experience that Ravinder attempted suicide by drinking poison. He survived but spent days recovering in hospital.
A Haryana court granted the couple police protection, but one month with a guard has done little to comfort either of them and Ravinder has stopped turning up for his call centre job in Gurgaon, a New Delhi satellite town that is inside the Haryana border.
"I am scared I will be beaten up or killed if I step into Haryana. My life has been on hold ever since I got married," he said.
"There is always a sword hanging over our heads," agreed Shilpa. "Police protection won’t be with us for the rest of our lives but our fear will."
Their concern is not without foundation.
Ved Pal, 27, was lynched by an angry mob in July when he came to collect his wife Sonia from Haryana’s Jind district accompanied by a judicial officer and armed with a court order.
His "crime" was to marry Sonia who, though from a different clan, was from an adjoining village — again defying the "brotherhood principle".
Three members of the panchayat council that decreed their marriage illegal are now in prison, together with several members of the girl’s family.
"We are trying to apprehend some other people," said Jind police superintendent Satheesh Balan.
There are no official figures for the number of honour murders in India, but social activists say hundreds are killed every year.
Sherry Sabharwal, a Haryana University sociology professor, said the figures belied a general perception that such killings were exclusive to Muslim countries.
"We are talking about a deeply conservative, patriarchal society where the idea of brotherhood is strong. In Islamic countries, religion is used to justify the murders, while in India it is tradition and caste," she said.
In recent years, many cases have come to light in the northern states of Punjab and Uttar Pradesh, both bordering Haryana.
Prevention is hampered by the fact that the killings often go unreported, witnesses are hard to find and local police are sometimes sympathetic to the traditional council rulings.
"Law enforcement officers hail from the same society. They believe in the judgment of the panchayats that such marriages between members of the same caste or love marriages rupture the social fabric," Sabharwal said.
The councils themselves insist that they play a vital role in preserving social cohesion, and point to other rulings they have made such as banning female infanticide.
Prakash Sangwan, the head of the council that sanctioned Ravinder and Shilpa, said ostracising couples had proved a powerful punishment.
"No one speaks, associates or sells anything to the family. They are isolated," he said. "Society has made some rules for its smooth running and we have to adhere to them."
Sangwan’s opinion of honour killings left some room for interpretation.
"We only order boycotts or banishing of families. We don’t sanction murder," he insisted. "But if people who feel outraged that their honour has been violated take the law into their own hands, we cannot do anything."
Despite the existence of elected village councils under an act of the Indian constitution, it is the centuries-old social councils that wield the true power in parts of rural India.
"We dispense justice very fast, without any fees. The process is transparent and people trust us which is why they come to us," said Sangwan.
"Compare this to a case in court which can take up to 20 years to deliver justice."
Their influence is such that politicians are reluctant to take them on.
"These are social issues, I cannot comment on this," was all Haryana’s chief minister Bhupinder Singh Hooda, who belongs to India’s ruling Congress party, would say when asked to comment on council rulings and honour killings in his state.
Federal Home Minister Palaniappan Chidambaram condemned the murders as a "national shame" in parliament last month but offered little in the way of a future deterrent.
Sabharwal said politicians were only too aware that the village councils could swing tens of thousands of votes come election time.
"This is the paradox of democracy — that to preserve it, sometimes people condone or overlook pockets of authoritarianism," she said.