Sonia, 18, and Ved Pal, 23,

January, 2011

NEW DELHI // A powerful village council in the northern state of Haryana has issued death warrants against a young couple who eloped this month.

The khap panchayat (caste council) in the village of Banawala in Jind district, about 220km from New Delhi, ruled Sonia and Ved Pal were “siblings” as they were both part of the same clan, which can include many families, and they had violated local customs that forbade them getting into an intimate relationship.

Fearing for their lives, Sonia, 18, and Ved Pal, 23, went into hiding this month. Their full names were not disclosed.

Villagers are looking for the couple and the council has ordered police to arrest the pair, who are not related, and hand them over.

“They must be hunted down and killed for dishonouring their families, their two villages and the entire community of Jats,” the elders, including the couple’s family members, decided at an emergency meeting of the council last week. The meeting was held with the Akhil Bharatiya Adarsh Jat Mahasabha (ABAJM), an umbrella organisation of Jat’s caste from all over India.

Paaramjit Banwala, the ABAJM leader who convened the emergency meeting, said: “The villagers will never tolerate any dishonour or violation of caste traditions.”

The village council is convinced the couple eloped as they were aware their families would never agree to their marriage.

“If young people live in our society they will have to adhere to and follow our age-old customs. Such relationships are unacceptable at any cost. Jat honour is supreme and must be preserved at any cost,” Mr Banwala was quoted as saying in local media.

The families of the missing couple first reported the matter to the local police but later decided to approach the khap panchayat. The villagers and both the families felt the police would only move in to protect the young girl and her lover.

The head of the village council, Satpal, who did not want his full name disclosed, said: “It was a brother and sister kind of relationship and they should not have married. It is condemnable and we will not leave them the way they want to be. Their marriage is null and void. We will track them and the [council’s] decision would be the final one.”

The district administration has warned the villagers of legal action if an offence is committed in apprehending the couple. Police have increased their efforts to find the pair to ensure their safety.

“We will track them down but at the same time no one will be allowed to take law into their own hands. We will protect the couple at any cost,” said Satish Balan, a senior police officer in Jind.

Last year, a couple were killed by family members and villagers in Ballia village, Haryana. Sunita Devi, 21, who was pregnant, and her husband, Jasbir Singh, 22, were beaten and strangled in their house. Their bodies were left outside Sunita’s father’s house as part of an effort to restore the family’s honour.

The Indian Supreme court last year called honour killings “barbaric” and ordered police across the country to clamp down on violence against men and women who enter inter-clan or inter-religious marriages.

Jats make up about 25 per cent of the population in Haryana. The relatively prosperous state is one of India’s most conservative when it comes to marriage and the role of women in the society. Deeply patriarchal, caste purity is paramount and most marriages are arranged.

The khap panchayat in Haryana is powerful can issue death warrants for committing certain acts, though the sentences are not legally binding.

Majid Menon, criminal lawyer from Mumbai, said: “Police should ensure the safety of the couple as their act is not against the law of the land. They can approach to the court of law for safety. This is simply a case of moral conviction by the society and is illegal and unconstitutional.”

Several incidents of honour killings have been reported from around the country, including Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan and Punjab. Atrocities are carried out under the guise of saving the honour of the community, caste or family.

Acts of violence include public lynchings, murder, public beatings, humiliation, blackening of the face, forced incarceration, social boycotts and being fined.

Most rulings and murders are never reported, said C P Bhambri, a social scientist and former head of the sociology department at ­Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi. “These are age-old traditions which still continue. These are states within states. Boys and girls from same villages are treated as siblings in these societies. So to them, it is incest.”

He said there was a lack of political will to move against honour killings as leaders fear they might lose the vote of dominant castes like Jats.

“Politicians, police and the ­administration are also a part of the same system and it is very difficult to see couples like Sonia and Ved Pal escape the medieval barbarism,” said Mr Bhambri.

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