TWENTY-TWO ‘safe homes’, 49 couples in all, and each with a fortnight to figure out their future. Hounded by caste, khap panchayats and entrenched values of family honour, many love stories in Haryana have this ending. In an acknowledgement of this fact, the Supreme Court on January 16 underlined “the freedom of an adult girl or boy to pick their spouse,” asserting that nobody, including parents, khap panchayats or society, can question their right to do so.
Seven years ago, in another acknowledgment of this, Haryana had set up these ‘safe homes,’ at least one for each of its 22 districts, for newly-weds who had eloped fearing violence and social ostractisation at home. These are essentially two large rooms per shelter, shared by the couples (a maximum of 10 at a time), in government buildings run and protected by the police.
Since 2010, not a single couple belonging to the same village, from any of the safe homes, has ever returned home. Such a move could mean “seedha maut (death straightaway),” they say — underlining the strict codes that bind families in India’s khap territory.
“We have taken the risk to marry who we want to, but it is society that needs to change. The court cannot guarantee our security at home or in the village,” says Mahender Singh, 31, who along with his wife Kanta has sought refuge at the Rohtak Safe Home, on the outskirts of Rohtak City.
The shelter has five couples, all between the ages of 19 and 31. They give the example of Haryana’s most famous honour killing, the 2007 murders of Manoj and Babli of Kaithal district, and talk of Rohtak’s Nidhi Barak (20), who along with her 23-year-old partner Dharmendra Barak was lynched in 2013, allegedly by the girl’s family, for belonging to the same gotra (clan). That, as per the norms of the khap panchayat, made them ‘siblings’.
In another famous case, of 2004, the Rathi khap panchayat in Jhajjar district had ordered a woman called Sonia and her husband Ram Pal to end their one-year-old marriage because they belonged to the same gotra. The khap backed off after intervention by the Punjab and Haryana High Court.
In December 2016, speaking in the Lok Sabha, MoS, Home Affairs, Hansraj Ahir said the country registered 251 honour killings in 2015, against 28 the year before. The data, which reflected a 792 per cent jump in such killings, for the first time pointed to the widespread nature of the crime.
While studying honour-related crimes in Haryana, a 2014 study conducted by professor Satnam Singh Deol of Guru Nanak Dev University, published in the International Journal of Criminal Justice Sciences, found that 74 per cent of such cases in the state transpired in ‘Jat-dominated’ regions, including the districts of Sirsa, Fatehabad, Hisar, Jind, Rohtak, Sonipat, Karnal, Panipat and Kaithal.
In 2012, the Supreme Court called for a strict legal regime to contain honour killings by “Taliban-like” groups. The court also summoned the Superintendents of Police of Rohtak and Jind to monitor such crimes.
But repeated assurances by the court inspire little confidence in couples such as the five at the Rohtak shelter. The centre, like other such homes, has two rooms, and a toilet and verandah that couples use to bathe, wash and dry clothes. The mattresses and quilts are hired by the newly-weds on rent. They pay for their food and the expenses amount to anywhere between Rs 100-150 a day. Right now, all the five couples are housed in one room, while the shelter in-charge uses the other room as his office.
The shelter’s chipped walls, the unmade mattresses lining the floor, the clothes kept in travel bags, the underwears of people who are complete strangers hung out to dry together in the corridor, don’t really make a setting where love would blossom. But all over the shelter are testaments to it. Enclosed in hearts, scribbled in rainbow colours, in words or in photos, in smiling faces or bare weddings, offering a possibility. Enough to hope.
Kanta and Mahender
Sitting cross-legged on a mattress, a dupatta covering her head, Kanta, 21, nudges her husband Mahender Singh to narrate their “love story”. The 30-year-old obliges. “We lived in the same village in Rohtak district and had known each other for years. Our friendship soon turned to love. But our castes are different. Also, marriages within the same village are not allowed by khaps,” says Mahender, a tailor, who does not want to reveal the name of his village. Kanta blushes.
Mahendar is a Kumhar, a Backward Caste, and Kanta a Dalit. Although in the past few years, the poor sex ratio in the state has prompted khaps to allow inter-caste marriages, these are far from common.
So, fearing “social boycott and violence”, on January 15, Kanta and Mahender eloped, getting married in an Arya Samaj temple. They then appeared in a Rohtak court, and sought shelter at the Rohtak home.
Explaining why they had few options, Mahender says, “There have been three love marriages in the past seven years in my village; not one of them has been allowed to return home. My family knew about my relationship with Kanta, but they were against the marriage, fearing a backlash. Kanta’s family did not know.”
While Mahender is the third of four siblings, Kanta, who has studied till Class 12, has two sisters and a brother. Mahender says they factored that in when deciding to flee. “A social boycott of our families would mean our siblings would not find matches. Word spreads fast in the village.”
They are afraid to return, Mahender adds. “I have heard of girls’ families convincing them to return and then getting them married off to someone else. In many cases, couples have been attacked.”
ASI Subhash Chander, who is in-charge of the Rohtak centre, remarks, unironically, that the safe homes have helped them save valuable manpower. “Earlier, we would have to provide security to each couple individually; now, we can host at least 25 couples in one safe house and station five securitymen. There is also a PCR van nearby.”
Earlier, the Red Cross Society would provide food for the couples, Chander adds. “But then the couples would stay for as long as six months; so, we stopped that.”
Recounting how they escaped, Mahender says, “I collected Rs 15,000, got a new SIM card, and packed my ration card, Aadhaar and a few clothes. I asked Kanta to do the same. On January 15 we fled. We walked 12 km and then took an autorickshaw to Rohtak.”
Ravi Kant, a Supreme Court lawyer and president of the NGO Shakti Vahini, whose 2010 petition asking the apex court to direct the Central and state governments to take action against honour crimes led to the January 16 observations, calls for an “action plan” to change mindsets. “The government has to reach out… There is not a single advertisement against honour killing by either the Haryana government or the Centre,” he says.
Mahender, who has permission from court to stay at the safe home only till January 24, says he will have to stay away from the village for at least a year. “I will find a job in Rohtak and stay on rent,” he says.
Nisha and Sahil
Sahil, 21, and Nisha, 19, met at a wedding in her hometown of Sonepat a year ago, where he was the DJ. The two stayed in touch over the phone, and love happened.
But when they talked marriage, Nisha’s family said no. She is a Jat, he is a Khati from Naya Bans village in Rohtak. “Marriages between the two communities have never taken place,” she says. Plus, while Nisha is doing her graduation, he has studied only till Class 12, and her family raised that too.
Sahil says while love marriages are becoming common even in Haryana villages now, most families are worried about being “shamed” and losing “honour”. “Haryana has very tightly knit communities and once someone in the family does such a thing, the stories continue to float around for generations,” he says.
On January 4, they fled their homes and got married on January 5.
Sahil and Nisha haven’t heard of the Supreme Court’s observations; same as the other couples at the centre. Like the others, they believe it will hardly change anything. “It all boils down to the family and the village. Who will argue with them?” says Sahil.
Two of the three other couples at the Rohtak home are also from different castes. The parents of Karuna, 19, belonging to the Pawar community, did not approve of husband Pramod, 21, being a Yadav; while the Brahmin family of Indu Sharma, 18, was unhappy with 26-year-old Gopal as he belonged to a different caste plus worked as a beautician.
All of them did the same, says Sahil. They fled home with a few clothes and documents, got married at Arya Samaj temples, and then appeared in courts to seek protection.
I didn’t get anything; I came straight from college,” smiles Nisha. “I got everything for her,” adds Sahil.
The couple are among those to have inked their love on the wall: ‘Sahil weds Nisha’ is scribbled with a heart drawn around it.
Talking about the challenges of running the safe homes, Haryana Inspector General of Police (Crime Against Women Cell) Mamta Singh says, “Round-the-clock security cover for the couples has led to conflicts. The couples ask permission to go out into the city, but it is not possible to allow them. There have been incidences of couples trying to go secretly. We have had to suspend the policemen concerned (for negligence),” says Singh.
Kiran and Yogesh
They consider themselves fortunate, for being the rare couple to have managed to find a place back home after fleeing for love.
The families of Yogesh Kumar Tanwar, 25, and his wife Kiran, 25, both Dalits, opposed their union for being from different ‘samaaj’. “I am from the Khatik Samaaj and Kiran from the Valmiki Samaaj,” explains Tanwar.
“We got married on January 5. We stayed at the Rohtak Safe Home for a week, by which time my parents accepted our marriage. Her parents followed suit. I returned home on January 11,” says Tanwar.
ASI Chander says the couples who have returned home are those who are not from the same gotra, “whose families have accepted them after a little convincing”.
Still, Tanwar admits, he continues to live in fear. He has found work at a diagnostic centre in Rohtak, he says. “In some corner of my mind there is the fear that her family might take her away, that they are just pretending to accept us. Haryana is full of such stories.”