Unmasking honour killings in India

Just a few days ago, a couple was brutally murdered in Haryana’s Rohtak district for defying their village caste traditions, and eloping to get married. They were adults, mind you!

While the girl was lynched by her own family members and then cremated discreetly, the boy was tied up, beaten and then beheaded by the girl’s kin. This is the feudal social mindset in Haryana, one of India’s most economically progressive states. It is also the state where several young people have lost their lives because they chose their own life partners from the wrong caste.

Journalist Chander Suta Dogra’s maiden book is a chronicle of one such glaring case – a newly married couple – Manoj and Babli. In June 2007, in Kaithal district, this couple was killed in a heinous honour killing. It shook the conscience of the entire nation.

It became the first ever instance of honour killing wherein the accused got convicted and sentenced, thereby conveying to the urban middle class that even in 21st century India, medieval practices such as honour killings are for real. In that context, the premise of Dogra’s book is quite relevant to the times – an ideal example of the clash of the old and the new in a transitional society.

Dogra has devoted several pages to recreate the couple’s elopement; their capture and brutalization by the girl’s family; and finally, how, in the end, their bodies were dumped into a canal. In an act of reprehensible abetment, the villagers of Karoran – from where both the victims came – did not even attend the funeral.

The book exposes, and this perhaps is its most valuable contribution, the tardiness and complicity of police and other state agencies.

The author helps the reader see how votebank politics causes our chief ministers and parliamentarians to chicken out when it comes to taking on these community groups. The book kicks off with a graphic description of the gory killing of the young couple in love.

Babli’s brother “poured a bottle of a foul-smelling liquid down her throat. The fumes of Endosulfan, a pesticide, spread in the night air and, even before it hit her stomach, the chemical began searing her oesophagus.”
But rather than the eloped couple, the protagonist of this story is Manoj’s mother, Chandrapati, who, along with her daughter Seema, took it upon herself to fight for justice for her son and his wife. With the support of the media and women activists, the two women stood up to intimidation, ostracism and the fury of Jat councils. Eventually, their efforts resulted in a landmark judgement, with all the five accused sentenced to death.

The only drawback of this book is that it’s part fact, part fiction. So at times, it’s neither here nor there. In fact, in many parts of the book, Dogra’s account reads like a chargesheet.
Most people who have read about the case in newspapers, know about the conviction. So the climax is like a foregone conclusion.

Also, at times, some parts of the book seem to have been added as an afterthought, so as to reach a respectable size in step with the publisher’s list. For instance, just when the couple is about to be killed and the reader’s curiosity is at its peak, there is an unwanted lull. The author shifts gears, and details, painstakingly, the geography of Kaithal. Perhaps, it is an editorial slip – to let the pace of the story sag at such an significant juncture.

Regardless of everything, the story is the hero here. It’s real and very powerful. And the book is an important addition to the shelf of a serious reader of Indian soionomics.