By Rama Lakshmi
Tuesday, May 25, 2010; A08
KARODA, INDIA -- No one in this village visits Chanderpati Banwala's home, which stands at the end of a lane full of sleeping buffaloes and overturned wooden carts. The boycott began three years ago when her son eloped with his sweetheart, a neighbor from his clan.
But the marriage was short-lived. Village elders declared the relationship incestuous, a violation of ancient Hindu rules of marriage because the two were descendants of a common ancestor who lived thousands of years ago. As the couple tried to flee town, the young woman's family chased them down and dragged them out of a bus on a busy highway. The groom, Manoj, was strangled, and his bride, Babli, was forced to drink pesticide. Their bodies were dumped in a canal.
"My son did the honorable thing by marrying the girl he loved. But the village council said the boy and girl belong to the same clan and are siblings. They said the couple had brought dishonor," said Banwala, sitting on her porch kneading dough. "It has been three years, nobody invites us to marriages or funerals, and no shop sells us groceries."
Despite pressure from villagers to remain quiet, Banwala took the case to court here in the northern state of Haryana. In March, five defendants were sentenced to death, the first time in India that capital punishment has been ordered in an honor killing.
The case has sparked ire on both sides of the issue, forcing lawmakers to revisit India's complicated system of marriage restrictions. Some Indians say the strict taboos are outdated in a rapidly urbanizing country, where old identities are fragmenting and young couples are asserting their right to choose whom they marry.
But many others are demanding new laws that ban marriages like Manoj and Babli's. In villages across northern India, the landmark verdict sparked an uproar, with clan councils fiercely defending prohibitions on unions within the same clan or gotra, a Sanskrit word, which each clan uses to trace its lineage. To these villagers, romantic love breaches codes passed down many generations.
"Manoj and Babli rubbed our village's name in mud," said Gulab Singh, a 60-year-old farmer, inhaling on a gurgling water pipe in a cattle shelter with other men in Banwala's village. "For thousands of years, we have followed strict marriage rules. If my son transgresses these rules, I will kill him without a thought."
At a recent clan council meeting, members raised money to pay for the appeal of those convicted in the killing.
The popular practice of arranged marriages perpetuates these social codes in India. Suitable matches must be from the same caste but not the same clan. The residents of a village and adjoining areas are considered siblings, so no matches can be found in these areas as well. People who do not follow tradition are often shunned and sometimes killed.
"They are using culture to stifle self-choice marriages," said Kirti Singh, a lawyer in New Delhi. "Each gotra consists of millions of people who are in no way related, except in the minds of certain elders. It is not borne out by reality. It is a long battle, but it has to be fought because we are a society in transition."
Singh said that in 1945, Bombay's high court had already ruled that same-gotra marriages valid.
Last year, officials in Haryana recorded about 100 honor killings of young people caught in the war between clan, caste, culture and cupid. Banwala's case is the first honor-killing trial to secure a verdict, although a similar trial is underway. In that case, four people are accused of beating and hacking a young man to death with sticks, sickles and scythes last year after he married a woman from a neighboring village, a relationship villagers also regarded as incest.
In 2008, a judge in Haryana and Punjab, Kanwaljit Singh Ahluwalia, said the number of "couples hiding themselves in the corridors of court" had risen in recent years. In response, the government set up hotlines and opened shelters for the runaway couples.
Mewa Singh Mor, the president of all clan councils in Haryana, said the councils do not order killings but often ostracize and boycott the defiant couples and their families.
"It is a shame that so many girls and boys are eloping nowadays, under the influence of TV and movies. Our constitution tells our youth what their rights are but says nothing about their social duties," he said. "These couples are like an epidemic. They are destroying our social fabric."
Jagmati Sangwan, a social activist, said the council meetings are "frightening, Taliban-type" gatherings that bar women but announce stern decisions on matters that directly concern them.
"There are seeds of an egalitarian society in such self-choice marriages, and these councils cannot tolerate that," said Sangwan, director of the women's studies center at the Maharishi Dayanand University in Haryana. "Victims of honor crimes fear filing a police complaint, and witnesses are hard to find. Sometimes the police dismiss them, saying it is a private, community matter. We want to break the social acceptance that honor crimes and killings enjoy."
Meanwhile, the court has posted two security guards outside Chanderpati Banwala's home. She has a fresh battle ahead when a higher court hears the defendants' appeal. "I will not give up. I want to teach them a lesson, so that innocent young couples are not killed again in the name of tradition," she said. "Now I trust only the court and God."