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India: Incest, or star-crossed love?

A north Indian caste wants laws changed to match honor-killing codes.

A shortage of marriageable women is complicating the cause of caste councils that routinely condemn young villagers to death for incestuous or otherwise unsanctioned relationships. (Adnan Abidi/Reuters)

NEW DELHI, India — When a Haryana court handed down the death sentence to five family members this spring for murdering a young couple who'd married in violation of an arcane incest taboo, women's rights activists hailed the decision as a landmark judgment.

But now a new challenge from the village councils that order such killings threatens to bring more violence.

“They say those who marry despite blood and milk ties will be killed,” said Jagmati Sangwan, an activist with the local chapter of the All India Democratic Women's Association (AIDWA).

Following the capital sentence awarded March 30 to the five family members who hacked 23-year-old Manoj and 19-year-old Babli to death on the orders of the local khap panchayat, or caste council, groups of defiant leaders from similar councils across Haryana have rallied to protest. Members of the dominant Jat caste of agrarian land owners, they called for an amendment to the Hindu Marriage Act to put it in accordance with their beliefs on incest.

The general population has little sympathy for the Jat cause, even though there are already separate sets of laws for marriage among Hindus, Muslims and Christians — some of which, like the provision for polygamy in the Muslim code, are often criticized as anti-women.

So there's little chance that the legislature will entertain Jat's call for a constitutional amendment. But in a country already divided on caste, religious and regional lines, the dispute threatens to throw gunpowder straight into one of the flash points of conflict over the modernization of India.

“If you look at both the khap panchayat violence and the intercaste violence, I think they're reaching a peak,” said Ravinder Kaur, a sociologist from the Indian Institute of Technology (Delhi).

The drive appears to be gathering momentum. On April 13, a group claiming to represent 36 khap panchayats from across Haryana, parts of Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan and even Delhi met in the city of Kurukshetra, where they pledged support to the men sentenced to death for murdering Manoj and Babli.

They promised to collect 10 rupees (about 25 U.S. cents) from every family in Haryana to pay for top lawyers for the death row inmates, vowed to block roads and highways with demonstrations, and threatened to surround the parliament and Haryana state assembly if action was not taken to amend the marriage act. A week later, a similar group met in Haryana's Jind district to serve an ultimatum to the state's parliamentarians and assemblymen: Introduce a bill in support of our call for a ban on marriages we deem to be incestuous, or face statewide protests.

Then, on May 2, Sarvjatiya Sarvkhap Maha Panchayat, an umbrella body of khap panchayats, decided to surround the residence of local member of parliament Naveen Jindal to force him to support their cause, even as former Haryana Chief Minister Om Prakash Chautala on Monday backed the demand of khap panchayats to ban same gotra marriages — suggesting that the proposed change to the Hindu Marriage Act could become a compelling issue for state polls.

“It's very funny that the [marriage] law was passed in 1955, and they are now demanding a change,” said sociologist Prem Chowdhry, author of a seminal book on honor killings in Haryana. “Obviously, all these years they have gotten away with murder, and the state and the judiciary have not been able to do anything. For once the judiciary acts, and they cannot take it: they want to change the law itself.”

For the Jat caste of rural north India, the rapid social changes that have accompanied India's economic rise represent a terrifying threat to their traditional dominance. Political reforms have introduced democratically elected councils to replace the traditional leaders — reserving places for women at the helm.

Job and education quotas for lower castes have helped young people from erstwhile untouchable castes to earn more money than their onetime betters. The supremacy associated with owning farmland is fast being eroded by industrialization and urbanization. And by fighting to prevent women from marrying better educated partners instead of ignorant ones from clans with traditionally higher status, the khaps are fighting a rearguard action to preserve the static value system that for centuries has prevented upward mobility by tying status to land.

“Many of these marriages have been regular arranged marriages. The parents know they are violating these gotra [clan] rules, but they're doing it because there is obviously a shift in Indian society from [valuing] land to education and employment of a different kind,” explained Kaur. “The khaps want land to remain the basis of social negotiations and social rankings.”

The backlash can be violent.