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India: Incest, or star-crossed love?

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

In states like Haryana, Punjab, and Uttar Pradesh, AIDWA estimates that was many as 10 percent of all murders are so-called “honor killings,” in which families execute young men and women for violating the marriage rules set down by these khap panchayats. Screamer headlines like, “DAD KILLS PREGNANT DAUGHTER AND LOVER,” have grown commonplace in the vernacular press.

But the blood runs for other reasons, too.

In typical incidents this month, five people, including two children, supposedly jumped under the wheels of a speeding train because the local council had ordered the man to pay a fine tantamount to a year's wages as punishment for an extramarital affair. And a few hundred kilometers away, a father and daughter from one of the Dalit castes once considered untouchable were allegedly burned alive — along with 25 empty huts — following an argument between a Dalit and a Jat who threw stones at his dog.

“They are trying to make their presence felt in a context where they are increasingly becoming irrelevant,” said Surindher Jodhka, professor of sociology at Jawaharlal Nehru University. “Basically the patriarchal caste elders do not have much authority in the village, but within their community the patriarchy wants to exert its will by controlling the sexuality of their women.”

At least some of the khaps' problems may be self-created. According to sociologists, the khaps comprise rich landowners who use their power to suppress women, Dalits and the poor. But in perpetuating and reinforcing cultural obsessions with masculinity and the purity of their blood, the unsanctioned councils are virtually compelling the younger generation to rebel. Thanks to the skewed sex ratio stemming from female feticide, marriageable women are few and far between.

But the khaps' blind allegiance to ancient incest taboos makes marriage nearly impossible. Under traditional law, it is forbidden to marry someone from the same village on the theory that somewhere in the forgotten past you might have a common ancestor; it's forbidden to marry anyone from the same gotra, or clan; and it's forbidden to marry anyone from neighboring villages with whom your mob has formed a brotherhood pact, called bhaichara. In today's more mobile society, that makes getting married almost impossible. As many as a fourth of the region's men remain bachelors. Some go as far afield as Kerala, in India's deep south, to import short-term, child-bearing brides. Others risk death to defy an incest taboo they see as outdated.

And now India's courts have begun to protect them.