Once again the underbelly of the Indian society is exposed and the case has become a rallying point for activists demanding a change in the laws to protect vulnerable couples.
NEW DELHI — An Indian runaway couple were allegedly attacked outside a court in northern Uttar Pradesh state, barely a week after they released a video on social media desperately pleading for police protection from the woman’s father who despised her relationship with a man from a so-called ‘untouchable’ Hindu caste.
Sakshi Mishra, from a Brahmin caste — the tip of the Hindu caste pyramid — had earlier this month secretly married her childhood friend Ajitesh Kumar, 29, a member of the 300 million-strong but historically marginalised Dalit community —formerly known as ‘untouchables’ — that rests at the bottom of a rigid Hindu caste hierarchy.
It was a barrage of threats to her life that prompted the 23-year-old woman to raise the alarm against her powerful politician father, who she said was trying to "eliminate" them over the "unholy relationship".
"I have married of my free will and my father has sent out his goons for us… if in future anything happens to me, Ajitesh or his family, my father…will be responsible for it," a defiant Sakshi said in the video posted on Facebook that caused massive public outcry online and hit the national headlines on TV and in newspapers.
On Monday the group of “unidentified” men launched the assault inside the Allahabad court, where the couple had gone to plead before the judges for an extra layer of police protection.
The attack came despite her father, Rajesh Mishra, a lawmaker from Prime Minister Narendra Modi's party, publicly denying the allegations or coercion and assuring he never meant to harm them.
The attackers, suspected to be supporters of her father, managed to flee.
Police said they have launched an investigation into the crime and beefed up their security.
But thousands of young men and women in India are regularly harassed, hounded or simply forced to forgo their relationships, while in some cases they are even killed by their families in a bid to protect their ‘honour’ from couples who defy age-old matrimonial traditions and marry outside their caste, class or religion.
Killing for honour
With the high-profile family saga playing out in the public, the case has once again shone a light on the underbelly of Indian society and become a rallying point for activists demanding a change in the laws to protect vulnerable couples.
Hours before the video shored-up public support on social media for the couple last week, some 1,200 kilometres away in west India, a Dalit man was brutally hacked to death with swords by his in-laws to avenge the loss of their ‘family honour’.
Haresh Solanki, 25, had married 22-year-old Urmila eight months ago despite the woman's upper caste family disapproving of the relationship.
The couple were expecting their first child in a few months and Solanki was trying hard to wrest back his wife from her parent's illegal custody.
Eight members of the woman's family, including Urmila's father, Dashrathsinh Jhala, fatally assaulted him outside their home in the presence of law officers, who had gone there to mediate.
Jhala had deceitfully taken his daughter to his home and detained her.
When Solanki approached they charged at him with sticks and swords, slitting his throat as women police officers stood-by helplessly.
"Eight men came running and dragged Haresh out of the vehicle and beat him to death," Bhavika Bhagore, the official accompanying Solanki and an eye witness to the gruesome murder, told police in her complaint.
Nearly 300 cases of honour killings were reported between 2014 and 2016, India’s interior ministry said in a statement in 2018.
But many more go unreported, with critics saying the figure is just the tip of the iceberg.
Experts describe the murders by close family members or parents as an act to redeem the ‘lost honour’.
“Parents have no fear because they believe their identity is supreme and if they have given birth, they have a right to take away the life of their children for the sake of some misplaced notion of purity of their identity,” said Amit Thorat, an academic at New Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University.
He said the rapid changes in women’s lives have not matched the rigid norms of the larger society, often causing friction between the two. Deep-rooted patriarchy also fuels such crimes as women are not allowed to have control over their lives.
"Women are seen as repository of caste and religious practices and rituals. There is a sudden class and cultural transformation happening in India, where women are getting educated, working and choosing their partners.”
Experts have called for a separate law for crimes committed in the name of ‘honour’ and say treating such acts like ordinary crimes has added to the scourge, with India’s top court terming such murder as “unacceptable”.
But they continue with ferocity and often with impunity.
TRT World noted a sharp increase in such killings in June, with newspapers reporting at least 15 murders from across the country, including the killing of a 21-year-old pregnant woman by her two teenage brothers in central India.
The woman had married outside her caste, something that infuriated her brothers and they fatally shot her in the head.
Many conservative communities see these murders in line with the societal norms, particularly in rural areas, where illegal caste councils act like kangaroo courts and impose penalties or even punishments on couples shunning the traditional matrimonial practices.
But over the years it has also bedevilled India's growing urban middle class.
Last month the Delhi High Court ordered police to provide round-the-clock security to an interfaith couple after their families threatened them over their relationship.
The pair registered their marriage under India's civil marriage law, one of the many marriage procedures available to the citizens in the officially secular country of 1.3 billion people.
India's former chief judge Deepak Misra in a 54-page judgement in 2018 remarked that "the act of honour killing puts the rule of law in a catastrophic crisis".
Misra was hearing a 2010 plea on the spate of honour killings, filed by Delhi-based non-government organisation Shakti Vahini, which works for women empowerment.
The top judge had said the government was duty-bound to protect the lives of the citizens and lambasted parents and arbitrary caste councils for imposing their decision on consenting couples.
The government told the court that it intends to draft a new law and is consulting with state governments.
But that still remains a mere promise.
Ravi Kant, President of Shakti Vahini, rued the fact that such killings continue because the state lacks "intent to implement the judgment".
"Honour killings are an end product. Most couples go through a lot of pressure, security issues and intimidation. They live a life of hell and one day they are killed," Kant said.
India was shocked by the murder of a couple in 2007 after a caste council ordered they be killed.
The pair from northern Haryana state hit the headlines due to the barbaric murder that was carried out by the girl's family after kidnapping them as they tried to flee their village.
The council believed the newly married couple were "siblings" and dubbed their relationship as "incest" since they belonged to the same extended clan.
A court in a landmark judgment in 2011 sentenced the convicted family to death but their execution was suspended after they challenged the order.
This month a similar case was enacted in southern Tamil Nadu state, where a runaway couple’s beheaded bodies were found at their home.
Jyothi, 21, and Solairaja, 24, from different subsects of the Dalit community, had secretly married in a temple in April, and the woman's family assured no harm after they announced their nuptials.
Police arrested Jyothi’s father last week for carrying out the double murder along with four associates who had climbed the boundary wall of the house in the night and hacked them to death.
Giving up on love and life
But sword-wielding families are not the only threat couples face.
Many are unable to break with societal norms and fail to cope with immense pressure put upon them by their families, forcing them to either end their relationship or their lives.
Media reports said at least 46 inter-caste couples have committed suicide in the eastern region of Uttar Pradesh state in less than two years.
One, just last week in Lakimpur district.
The bodies of 15-year-old girl and 18-year-old man were found hanging in a mango orchard, some 150 kilometres away from Bareilly district, where the high-profile couple have waged a battle against their powerful political family and centuries-old traditions in a quest to live "happily and peacefully".
Thorat said the governments need to intervene with new and strict laws to deal with honour crimes and run awareness campaigns to educate about individual freedoms.
As of now in a rare consolatory move, the Lakimpur couple were cremated together on the same pyre after some sympathetic villagers insisted that it would be a tribute to their love.