AMIT SRIVASDAV and his new wife Babita Attri hold hands.
She is dressed in a bright-pink sari and looks younger than her 25 years. Amit wears a well-ironed white shirt and looks at Babita through thin steel-rim glasses.
They married without fuss or ceremony in November, 2010 but fled their families three days ago because Babita’s family had threatened to kill them both if they didn’t renounce their union. Now they’re sitting on the edge of a small bed in a house hidden in a labyrinth of Delhi backstreets hoping that they will not be found. They are from different castes, and in marrying have brought shame on their families. The only way the family’s status can be restored is for one or both of them to die in a so-called ‘honour killing’.
Falling in love with someone from a different caste or religion can also have you killed. The killing is carried out by the woman’s brother or father with the sanction of the family and the blessing of the powerful village committees known as khap panchayats, who have the power to decide who can and cannot marry. There are four main castes in India and many sub-castes. To discriminate on the basis of caste is illegal, however in reality your caste can determine what job you do, where you live and who you can love.
Amit quietly tells his story. “We are both from Haryana state and were neighbours and classmates from childhood — she was in the third class, I was in the fourth,” he says. “We had a very long relationship and a good friendship and wanted to marry each other. Babita is from the Jat Caste. I am not, I am lower and her parents wanted to settle her life with some Jat boy. For a year she tried to convince her parents but she was beaten by her brother and when they tried to marry her to another boy, she tried to kill herself. So many times they threatened me, ‘I will kill you’. We don’t want to go against the pathway and the direction [of our families] but we could not live without each other.”
Babita was kept a prisoner in her house but with the help of a group called the Love Commandos, she escaped her family and joined Amit in a safe house in Delhi. Set up in July 2010, in response to an unprecedented increase in honour killings, Love Commandos is a loose collection of individuals who run a helpline for couples who fear their lives are in danger because of their relationship. Amit saw their ad in a newspaper and rang. They offered an escape plan, transport and shelter.
Meeting with the Love Commandos is a challenge. I am met outside my hotel by two young men who lead me down paved Delhi backstreets that give way to dirt alleys, eventually twisting and turning up to a tiny, dark two-roomed house which acts as the office of Love Commando’s chairman Sanjay Sachdev. It is an unorthodox operation but Sanjay says it is this secrecy that keeps him alive and the organisation functioning.
“The day we have a proper office in an open area is the day we will be killed,” he says. The organisation receives up to 200 calls a day, and for the two hours I am there he takes and makes calls on his mobile phone. He tells me they are arranging a truck to help a woman escape who is being held in a house 50kms away. Her boyfriend rang the helpline.
“Every call is a different story. There are callers who want to marry but their marriage to someone else has already been arranged, there are callers who have married in secret and not told their parents, and there are calls where the girl is kept in the house, almost like illegal detention. Depending upon the [nature of the] call, we take up the matter with the police and the judiciary. We get legal counsel and marriages organised for them,” he says.
For Sanjay the term ‘honour killing’ is an insult to love and Indian culture. “What is the honour in killing anybody? There is no honour. Thousands get killed or injured in the name of so called ‘honour’ in India every year. The mental torture, the depression, the suicides, the number of crimes go into hundreds of thousands a year. It is a very sad state,” he says.
The Crime Statistics Bureau doesn’t have a category for honour killings and many go unreported. According to figures compiled by the India Democratic Women’s Association, there are as many as 1,000 such killings every year and a spate of recent killings in some northern states has put pressure on the government to act. In June 2010, the supreme court ordered the federal government and eight state governments, including Uttar Pradesh and Haryana, to investigate these killings and to put in place measures to address the issue. That seems to be having little impact.
Devanashi Kumar is a programme officer with the Association for Advocacy and Legal Initiatives (AALI), an NGO based in Lucknow which gives legal aid and shelter to women forced into marriage. She says the increase in murders may be related to Indian youth rebelling against the old ways.
“There’s a saying in India, that when two people get married, their families marry each other too. Love in marriage comes after you marry. It’s not important that the man and woman meet or even see each other beforehand. But young people are becoming more aware of their rights, that they can have a boyfriend and move out of their houses. [However] the Khap panchats say we need to protect our traditions and culture in light of this globalisation,” she says.
Something as innocent as a mobile phone can be seen as temptation. “In certain parts of Uttar Pradesh, women are not allowed to have mobiles because it is said that they play a big role in them being with their partners. They are also banned from wearing jeans because they are seen as more open to going around with boys,” she says.
In their offices in a suburb of the city of Lucknow in Uttar Pradesh, she tells me story after story of women imprisoned, beaten and coerced into marriage. “In some cases if the girl has run away, the family pays the repercussions and the mother or sister is paraded naked in the villages or the family of the higher caste rapes the women of the lower caste’s family,” she says.
Despite official decrees, local police and judiciary often turn a blind eye. “In one case, a girl was talking to a boy on their roof and her brother and father saw her. They started to beat him and she ran away to get help. By the time she got back, they had thrown him off the roof and pretended he had committed suicide. When she went to the police their attitude was ‘Well, if you are talking to a boy in the middle of the night, what do you expect?’ How much justice will the couple get if the police and even the commissioner has an attitude like this?” Devanashi asks.
I meet 22-year-old Breeta Sharma who sits her 14-month-old son on her lap. She is from the high Brahaim caste but her husband is a Baniya, a lower caste. When her father suspected she was having a relationship of which he did not approve, he took away her mobile phone, locked her in the house and beat her. She escaped to another state and married in secret.
“When my father discovered this, he claimed my husband had kidnapped me and he got my husband’s father put into prison. My husband went to AALI for help. The police there, even the high officials, tried to convince us that we should go back to the village but we refused to do so because we knew that if we did anything could happen — my father had become very violent. He even tried to bribe AALI with three Lakh (about €4,800). AALI sent my marriage certificate and a statement to say that I had willingly married my husband and only then was my husband’s father freed. I live in Lucknow now but I don’t see my family any more,” she says.
Later this year, the Indian government will table a motion to include a clause under Section 300 of the Indian Penal Code to deal with honour killings. It is a start and Sanjay Sachdev is optimistic.
“Now society is debating the issue. The youth are coming out and speaking out. We will see a day when love will govern this country,” he says. Babita and Amit are safe for now but without money or a home their future is uncertain. With family being a central part of Indian life I wonder if Babita has any regrets and perhaps misses her family? She pulls up her cardigan to show me the scars on her wrists where she tried to commit suicide and quietly says ‘no’.
* This article was supported with a grant from Irish Aid’s Simon Cumbers Media Fund.
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