Thirty-three-year-old Savita is nine months pregnant with her first child. After an eight-year-long struggle to convince her parents — proud Jats who abide by caste rules — of her love for her husband Jai Bhagwan, the child may well be the light at the end of a dark tunnel. “I think our child will help ease relationships,” she says, referring to her family’s refusal to speak to her husband or to allow him inside their house in Jind, Haryana.
Savita and Bhagwan met at the university in Kurukshetra where both were student leaders with the Students’ Federation of India. Bhagwan came from the backward “Zogi” caste and was a full-time activist, while Savita was a lecturer with an M Phil in mathematics. When they fell in love, and decided to marry, her family staunchly opposed the union. “He did not have a conventional job and my parents objected to the inter-caste alliance,” she says. “I feared for his life. More than my parents, my relatives’ ‘honour’ seemed to be at stake.” It has been more than three years since the couple married in Rohtak in December 2010, and Savita says that a lot has changed in these parts. “A few years ago, police used to abet khap killings. Now they are more sensitive and there are at least 15 protection homes across Haryana to safeguard couples in distress,” says Savita, who, inspired by her husband’s “devotion and dedication to addressing exploitation in our society”, quit her job to join the All India Democratic Women’s Association (AIDWA) as a full-time activist.
Fortunately for her, Savita’s marriage did not directly assault the authority of a khap panchayat. Khaps have made it their mission to cauterise all “unacceptable” forms of love — between two people from the same gotra (lineage), the same gaon (village), or the same gawnd (neighbourhood) — by ordering killings in the name of honour and ostracising the lovers’ families. For many Jat couples in the khap belt, which includes parts of NCR, Haryana and Rajasthan, life oscillates between fear and hope; romance is veiled in the secrecy of cellphone conversations and stolen moments at the mall. Unlike in most university campuses, love doesn’t hang in the air at Rohtak’s Maharshi Dayanand University. Here, boys and girls don’t bunk classes and hang out; the campus rose garden is bereft of love birds. A sprawling mall with a cinema hall has come up just 200 metres from the university and it is the one place where lovers dare to go. But there is always the fear of being spotted by someone from the village.
Ajay Budhwar, an engineering graduate from Shri Baba Mast Nath University in Rohtak, believes love has nothing to do with marriage. In the heart of khapland, the 20-year-old Jat says a girl who agrees to be his girlfriend is not fit to be his wife. “College affairs are a pastime. You cannot spend your life with someone who lacks character,” he says. A resident of Sunaria village in Rohtak district, Budhwar, however, stops short of justifying honour killings. His cousin, who ran away with her lover on the day she was to be married to a man chosen by her parents, invited the wrath of the khap, which ordered the killing of the couple. “To save face, the girl’s younger sister had to marry the groom and the parents of the girl decided to kill the runaway couple, who are still absconding. It has been six months now,” he says.
Yet, scores of rebellious young couples continue to risk death for a chance at love and a hope that things will change. Law student Varsha Bhardwaj, a Jat from Rewari, says a relationship may stand a chance if it doesn’t directly go against khap rules. At least she hopes hers will. Her boyfriend belongs to a different gotra, a different village and a different neighbourhood, and she hopes they can be married without raising hell.
Tulsi Grewal, 35, is on the other side of the discourse. The self-styled pradhan of the Meham Chaubisi khap, the educated young man talks of the changing ideas and mindset of youth today and how they need to be accommodated. “There is nothing wrong with girls wearing jeans and talking on mobile phones when they go to study in the city. But they need to respect the sanctity of the village when they are here, and dress like the other women do,” he says. The youngest khap leader in India, Grewal says his khap has never ordered a killing. “It is wrong to malign the khaps as murder courts. It is the parents who are so shamed by their children that they are left with no option but to kill them to save face,” he says.
Now Grewal wants to convince parents “not to kill their children”. The owner of 70 acres of farmland in Meham village, he made headlines in local newspapers for convening a khap maha-panchayat on January 29 last month, inviting leaders of all the other khaps in Haryana. It was claimed to be the first attempt by the khaps to discuss the menace of “honour killings” that have rendered these local village councils infamous over the years. The idea of “honour” and “shame” is what needs to be debated and changed, says Grewal. “Now we have decided to form regional and national khap committees to look into this issue,” he says.
Same-gotra and same-village marriage are the most important marital taboos in Haryana, and a famous example is that of Manoj and Babli’s marriage and their brutal murder in 2007. The couple broke two rules — not only did they belong to the same gotra, they were also from the same village, making them brother and sister in the eyes of the khap. But the first legal blow to the khap custodians came in March 2011, when a Haryana court sentenced five of the couple’s killers to death and one to life imprisonment.
Where the administration and police were once mute spectators, a new activism has brought joy to couples in distress. Twenty-year-old Kusum waits for her husband Hawa Singh at their one-room house in Jasbir Colony near the Sheila bypass in Rohtak. Kusum met Singh, a Jat, at a wedding in his village in Kalanaur five years ago.
They fell in love and would speak to each other on the phone, for Kusum lived far away, in Ajitpur village of Bhiwani district. But by the time Kusum finished her teacher’s training, her parents had already picked a groom for her. Sentiments flared when she declared her love; her father resorted to blackmail and threats. On June 24 last year, the lovers got a chance to meet and quietly married at a temple. Then, they ran away with the help of the AIDWA and the police to reach a protection home in Bhiwani on September 6, where they stayed there for seven days. During that week, the village sarpanch came to meet Kusum. “He said that my parents want me to get married socially, in front of the community,” she says. But Kusum sensed his words were too good to be true.
“I knew that if I went with the sarpanch, I would never come back. I knew they would kill me.” Meanwhile, her husband’s family, accepted the inter-caste union.
Ravinder Singh and Shilpa got married on April 24, 2009 at his uncle’s house in Bawana in outer Delhi.
Belonging to different gotras (Ravinder, a Gehlot, Shilpa, a Kadyan), the parents were in full agreement of the alliance and all was well. But then news of their wedding reached Ravinder’s village in Jhajjhar in Haryana, and the khap decided on boycotting Ravinder’s extended family who had been living there for generations. Khap panchayats from 12 villages gathered and declared the wedding illegal on the pretext that Gehlots and Kadyans had been in the village for generations, and hence could not marry. They could only be brother and sister. Ravinder and his family refused to obey the panchayat’s orders to divorce, and after deliberations, the khaps decided that the couple would have to leave the village and never return. The couple agreed, and now live happily in Delhi’s Sultanpuri area.
The cries of outrage against honour killings are no longer feeble today; they refuse to be muffled behind the curtain of social acceptance. Perhaps, it is now time for happy endings in khapland.