[NYT] Vigilantes in Kashmir enforce marriage rules

Rohit Khare (rohit@uci.edu)
Fri, 9 Apr 1999 00:09:55 -0700

[ Summary: couple elopes from same village, violating local incest
conventions. Brother-in-law snitched. Parents virtually agree to have
the couple eliminated. Mob does so.
>"We blame the girl," said Reshma, Desh Raj's mother. "Why did she go
>with him? It is always the girl who instigates these things. And she
>knew this marriage could never be."

>"This couple was guilty of a social evil," the policeman said. "But
>it is over now. The village has already taken care of it."

I wonder what sort of image India really has for modern America. Is
this the kind of acontextual vignette people most need to hear? At
the same time, I don't want to apologize for it in the least -- I
don't buy "softening" the news, either. Bottom line: with nearly 1
billion people, this is still statistical chance. At least in a
democracy it gets reported. Go ask Xinhua, the Chinese propaganda
agency... --RK]

April 9, 1999
A Tale of 2 Lovers, and a Taboo Recklessly Flouted

SHIMLA, India -- Their love was forbidden, and for three years they
furtively indulged it, meeting in the wheat fields at the village's
edge. Desh Raj was 23, Nirmala 17. The end of their lives began on
March 27, the day they eloped.

The young man had made many mistakes, but surely one of the bigger
ones was to seek shelter in a nearby village with Pappu, his
brother-in-law. Pappu was appalled and ashamed. This was not a love
he could abide. He unmasked it.

In two days, the couple were dead, their bodies mauled with sticks
and scythes by members of the girl's family. A huge crowd watched the
bloody spectacle.

Nirmala's body was carried on her father's shoulder to the village's
funeral pyre. Desh Raj's was dragged through the streets. No chanting
was done, no ritual spreading of herbs and sugar and oils. The wood
was hurriedly lit, the sooner to launch the bodies into their graves
of smoke.

"My daughter ran away, and our whole family was humiliated," Gansahi,
the girl's mother, said a few days later. "We killed her to protect
our honor."

She was kneeling as she talked, and sorrow filled her eyes. Her
husband and 14 other members of their extended family had been
arrested for the slaying. To Gansahi, this seemed an impossibly
unjust result for so understandable a killing.

A friend, a man named Chandrabhan, was standing nearby and spoke up
in the family's defense. Like many people in Shimla, he uses only a
single name.

"Whatever happened had the support of the village," he said.

All societies have rules for love, including who is allowed to marry
whom. In India, the rules vary from region to region and even village
to village. In much of south India, the marriage of people from the
same village is commonplace. Weddings are often arranged between
first cousins.

But Desh Raj and Nirmala lived in the north, here in Haryana state,
where the prevailing rule is that a husband and wife must come from
different villages.

Amid the brick hovels and small ponds here in Shimla, this
requirement is especially important. Each caste in the village is
thought to belong to a single gotra, a clan descended from a common
male ancestor. No matter how distant that ancestry -- whether it goes
back 10 generations or more -- marriage within the gotra is forbidden.

"Such a marriage is a crime against nature," said Inder Singh, Desh
Raj's older brother. "A man and woman from the same gotra are like
brother and sister."

However secret the long romance, the couple's parents had their
suspicions. Such things are not spoken of freely within the village,
but Reshma, the young man's mother, said she had warned the girl's
parents a few times of the shame they all risked.

"It is easier to control a daughter than a son," Reshma said, sure
where the blame should be placed.

When Pappu, the brother-in-law, disclosed the couple's whereabouts,
word of the love affair raced through Shimla's cobblestone alleys and
rutted dirt roads.

Both of the disgraced families were dalits, the lowest rung in
India's caste hierarchy, but punishing the couple was of concern to
nearly all 7,000 residents of Shimla.

A meeting of the village council was convened. People left their
water buffalo lolling in the shallow ponds. They left their creaky
wooden carts. The council did not deliberate long. The judgment was
that Desh Raj would be exiled from Shimla for five years. Nirmala
could return, though presumably her parents would marry her off
outside the village and she would be gone as well.

The news was taken to the couple, and the girl was taken home. The
young man brooded, and the brooding led him to liquor. Within hours,
he was drunk, witnesses said, and he too returned to Shimla. He stood
in the narrow lane outside Nirmala's front gate.

"I want my wife!" people recall him ranting.

For more than an hour, he stomped and paced, always returning to
Nirmala's house ready with a fresh volley of invective.

Another council meeting was called, but before it could begin the
girl's angry family had picked up handy weaponry to impose their own
death sentence.

Some here say Desh Raj's family agreed to this outcome, though they
deny that, and some wonder if the slaying of the girl was an intended
part of the blood lust or merely an afterthought.

"I think after they killed the boy they may have realized: if we
don't kill the girl, people will think this is unjust," said Rajinder
Singh Mor, another of the village leaders.

A constable's office was only a few miles away, but no one reported
the killings for 15 hours. The complaint finally was filed by Desh
Raj's family. They had been debating what to do, concerned about
bringing yet more shame to the village.

"We blame the girl," said Reshma, Desh Raj's mother. "Why did she go
with him? It is always the girl who instigates these things. And she
knew this marriage could never be."

While the couple may have deserved to die, she said, the killing was
done too quickly. It was like a lynching by a mob. "Even when you
want to kill a dog, some people will oppose it," she said. "But when
my son was killed, no one cared."

Reshma's sons and daughters had crowded around her in the family's
two-room house. The air was heavy with heat. Flies danced in every
shaft of light.

Reshma's husband, who is nearly blind, sat silently outside, by a
brick wall spotted with his son's blood. Ribbons of red also stained
the stone at his feet.

"We are under pressure from the village to drop our complaint,"
Reshma said nervously. "We are told the important thing is that
everyone live together in peace."

Randhir Singh, the station house police officer in nearby Kalait,
said too much attention was being been paid to so small a matter.
Such vigilante justice is rare, but it does happen, he said.

"This couple was guilty of a social evil," the policeman said. "But
it is over now. The village has already taken care of it."