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Loving and Living in 21st Century India

Suhasini Raj (suhasini.raj@gmail.com) is a freelance journalist based in New Delhi.

Honour killings are rampant in many parts of India, particularly in its north and northwest states. An account of a young couple who managed to escape and marry but are still being hunted and thus, hiding.

India sees more than 1000 honour killings every year say experts. The need for a law on honour killings / honour crimes to act as a deterrent is still to shape up in India, although Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had referred it to a group of ministers in 2010 and it should have been introduced as a bill a while ago. The National Crime Records bureau has no separate data on the number of honour killings but clubs them with murders. In 2010, Shaktivahini, an NGO working on honour killings, had filed a petition in the Supreme court, acting upon which the court had sought a response from the eight state governments, Haryana, Punjab, Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Jharkhand, Himachal Pradesh, Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh, where honour killings are rampant. Most recently, in a shocking revelation in Uttar Pradesh, a policeman, Satish Kumar Mathur was caught on hidden camera, advising the father of a girl who had married against his wishes, to kill her if she had indeed eloped. It is a matter of common knowledge that there remains strong resistance to inter caste and inter religious marriage in many families in India. In fact, it can be termed a “taboo” against the young, specially girls, taking a decision on their own about whom they will marry. Despite this, a growing number of young people are marrying outside of their caste, religion and parental approval.

In an environment where parents, police and society are the worst kind of enemies to a couple in love, there are few openings and fewer opportunities to escape. There is a lack of awareness of the laws, there is a hostile police force which almost always sides with the parents, there is a disapproving social atmosphere and few shelter homes or support institutions. In such a parched terrain, even a small opening provides hope, as it did to a young couple from Haryana who happened to catch the number of a helpline which supports young people who want to marry against the wishes of their parents which was shown on the television programme Satyamev Jayate, hosted by star actor, Amir Khan.

I spent an afternoon with them, in a shelter in the heart of central Delhi, as destiny unfolded before them. Here is an excerpt from their lives so far.

Their love affair began with stolen walks around the lanes of a cramped locality in the bustling satellite town of Faridabad, part of the country’s National Capital Territory, and thus as much Haryana as it is Delhi.

Saurabh Sharma, 22, a tall and lean man, with wavy black hair in a side parting, is pursuing an MBA degree with a job at IBM. Natasha Adlakha, a petite, pretty, 19 year old girl with long hair tied in a neat pony tail, and dressed in a bright yellow salwar kameez, is the eldest of three children. They could quite be the couple one sees strolling in Lodhi garden on any evenings. Only they have just escaped being killed.

“If you do not sign on this letter, all the bullets will be pumped in your head”, bellowed Natasha’s maternal Uncle as he pushed the suicide note before her, with a revolver thrust against Natasha’s temple. Only this suicide note was not written by her and it pressed false charges against Saurabh, the love of her life. Natasha refused and her signatures were forged by her maternal aunt. It was a hoax to somehow put Saurabh behind bars.

What was frustrating Natasha’s family no end was the fact that none of these tactics were working.

They lived on the same street and had grown to be close friends before falling in love . Going out for walks, hanging out in a group, it was an easy life till Natasha’s family got whiff of her love affair with Saurabh. While it was Natasha’s simplicity that pulled Saurabh to her, Natasha had other reasons, “What I really like about Saurabh is his understanding nature. He is just so gentle. So caring”. she gushed as she spoke.

Two years ago, Natasha’s family sweet talked her into inviting Saurabh over so that they could meet the boy and talk about their marriage in the future. “I was taken to the basement of their house and beaten black and blue. I still have marks on my knees and elbow. There was blood on my shirt. They wanted to make sure I could not walk again, it seems”, said Saurabh, sitting comfortably beside his newly wedded wife, at the shelter they are now at.

Saurabh has braved three violent attacks by Natasha’s family in the past couple of years. His family has been threatened and false charges of sexually harassing Natasha, of pushing her to suicide, of stealing jewellery have all been tried to “encourage” him to abandon this relationship. Natasha was taken out of regular college. Her cell phone confiscated, she was asked to pursue graduation via correspondence. She explains, “My parents have a big problem with my getting married to Saurabh because his family is not rich or well off. Although he is a Brahmin and higher than us in caste. I know they’d rather see us dead than married.”

There appeared no way of escaping Natasha’s parents wrath, till one Sunday afternoon.

“I was watching Satyamev Jayate and suddenly on the screen I saw ‘Baba” talking. I immediately searched the internet for their website and got the toll free number for lovers in distress. This was on 11 June. We were asked to come to this place without any delay and are now safe with the Love Commandos”, said Natasha.

Natasha and Saurabh were married secretively at a temple on Thursday night with help from the volunteers of Love Commandos while her family is desperately searching for them. It appears that they have managed to get the Haryana police to trace Natasha’s calls made to the helpline run by the Love Commandos. It is only by permission of a court of law can the police tap or trace any phone. What Haryana police has done is patently illegal but illustrates precisely the obstacles which young people face when they want to go against their parents’ wishes to marry.

Natasha has come to know that her parents are offering money bribes to priests at various temples in Faridabad for providing clues to her whereabouts and says that both she and Saurabh are in danger is they are discovered. However, there was a firm resolve on Natasha’s face as she imagined the consequences on being discovered by her family. The grit was written all over. “I will finish my graduation and also take up some job. Saurabh will also find work as he has an MBA degree. He cannot go back to IBM, where he was working earlier as my family will surely go there looking for him,” she said.

This interestingly named organisation, Love Commando, was started by Sanjay Sachdev, a journalist and former student’s leader who is a Congress activist, in the summer of 2010 with the aim of helping such couples in distress. On some days their helpline gets close to 4,000 calls. He is clear about one thing -- everyone has the right to love and choose their life partners. “I will protect them to the best of my capacity and make sure they are safe for as long as they want to stay here. I will let them go only once I am sure they are settled and safe”, he says though he claims that with the large number of requests coming in he does find it hard to run the place now. He rued that he did not get any money from Satyameva Jayate, while another organisation did get a large collection.

Jagmati Sangwan, President of the Haryana based Himmat Mahila Samooh, which received the money from the public collections linked to Satyameva Jayate, has been among the pioneer organisations which came out to protest against such honour killings and the various patriarchal practices which allow familes to stop young people from marrying a life partner of their choice. They had been in the forefront in providing support to the mother and sister of Manoj and Babli after they had been caught, tortured and killed for marrying against the wishes of their family and Khap. Himmat Mahila Samooh also plans to launch a helpline and support centre for couples who face any kind of threats with the money they have received from Satyameva Jayate.

With society’s acceptance of honour killing as a way of life, it would need much more than a tough law to punish the perpetrators or stop people like Natasha’s parents from harassing, threatening and sometimes even killing their children. We need a change of mindset for that we need a some sort of a “cultural revolution”. It still remains to be seen how far Natasha’s family will go to punish them for choosing her life partner. As they keep their phones switched off for fear of being traced, Natasha sounds certain of one thing, “My parents might not approve of our love and marriage but for me there is no other choice. I love Saurabh and will spend the rest of my life with him, come what may,” and she made a pretty picture as she looked up hesitantly at Saurabh to pose for cameras waiting to catch their story.

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