Haryana ‘honour’ killing | Death penalty for a daughter

Allegedly killed by her parents and brother for marrying a person from her village and of another caste, both taboos in Haryana, a land with farm and cattle wealth, Anjali dreamt of the big city and the opportunities it held for her and her husband of eight months. Ashok Kumar travels to her village to discover that even though the victim’s family members have been arrested, the villagers feel the accused had ‘no choice’

August 25, 2023 01:07 am | Updated 08:53 am IST

The streets in Jhajjar’s Surehti village are deserted following tension between members of two castes over the murder of a woman allegedly by her parents and brother for marrying a man of her choice from the same village.

The streets in Jhajjar’s Surehti village are deserted following tension between members of two castes over the murder of a woman allegedly by her parents and brother for marrying a man of her choice from the same village. | Photo Credit: SUSHIL KUMAR VERMA

“She was a dreamer,” says Sandeep Vats, 28, before taking a long pause to regain his composure. Then he says, with some bitterness, “Her family so miserably failed to understand her. They just didn’t let her be happy.”

His wife, Anjali Deshwal, 22, was strangled to death on August 17, allegedly by her parents and younger brother, for marrying against what is considered ‘acceptable’ in rural Haryana’s Surehti village in Jhajjar district. At the couple’s Gurugram apartment, her brother and mother held her, while her father allegedly strangled her to death, the police said. Her husband was not at home. The family allegedly cremated the body hurriedly at their ancestral village, about 70 km south-west of the national capital.

Her crime: marrying a man from the same village and not from the so-called caste she belonged to. Such relationships in Haryana are socially ‘unpardonable’, with families and neighbours getting involved.

Vats says his wife was a woman who knew her mind and was ready to stand up for what she believed in. “She always took patriarchy and regressive societal norms head-on, and paid with her life,” he says over a phone call from Dehradun. Their flat has been sealed, and Vats says he has been getting death threats.

A dream destroyed

Anjali and Vats settled into regular gated-community life in Gurugram’s Sector 102 after they married in December last year. He had moved to the city earlier and worked as a bouncer in a night club. She stayed home, caring for their dog.

Fascinated by an urban lifestyle, she was progressive, a thinking-feeling person, says Vats. “It was because of her curiosity and yearning for a life in a city that we decided to settle in Gurugram. She had many dreams. We were so happy together,” he says, choking.

A graduate in science from Rohtak’s Vaish College, Anjali met Vats in 2015. She was a teenager studying at M.R. Senior Secondary School, about 2 km from the village, and he ran a music shop that offered a DJ service. They grew fond of each other and never asked about caste. By the time they realised they were from different castes, Vats decided to back off, because he feared the consequences the moment families got involved.

“Anjali put her foot down and said she’d kill herself,” he says, adding that she was determined to be with him. He describes her as a “born rebel” who followed her heart.

A neighbour at the housing society says that Anjali kept to herself, mostly walking her dog alone, sometimes accompanied by her husband. “She hardly interacted with anyone, but people in the society recognised them because of the pet,” she says, adding that the couple would sit on the balcony occasionally, drinking tea. Not willing to be identified, another woman in the neighbourhood says trouble started a month ago when her parents learnt about their marriage. Anjali’s brother, Kunal, had shared the wedding pictures with them.

Family feuds

Six months before they married, Kunal, now an accused in the murder case, had married a teenage girl related to their neighbours in the village. This went against family ‘values’ and tradition.

“Kunal marrying a girl connected to the village was also not socially acceptable, and his parents and relatives were opposed to it. Anjali took a stand for him. She made a call to the police control room and supported him in filing a police complaint against their parents, who were threatening him with dire consequences,” says Vats. He is too shocked to believe that a brother she supported would eventually allegedly kill her.

Kunal and his wife, Shikha, barred by their parents from entering the village, had come to stay with Vats in June last year. Then relations between the children and parents gradually improved. “I got Kunal’s mother, Rinki, to speak to him over the phone for the first time as they were not on speaking terms for months. Eventually, they conspired against me and my wife,” he says, repeating this often, in disbelief.

After Vats and Anjali got married, they shared the flat with Kunal and Shikha. But relations between the couples soured. Vats says Shikha was not willing to share household chores and things escalated with Vats thrashing Kunal one day.

Vats says he never really trusted the family. He remembers how Anjali’s parents, her mother in particular, would be nice to them, often speaking to them over phone. He advised her against going to her parents’ home in Surehti alone. “Her mother invited Anjali to come home after she learnt about the marriage, but I told her it was not safe. But I had not expected them to kill her inside our own flat.” Again, the disbelief. He regrets having left her alone that day.

“It was not just about marriage. Had that been the case, they would have killed their son too. It’s deep-rooted patriarchy that ‘pardons’ the son, but cannot ‘pardon’ the daughter. She paid the price for being a woman, for challenging patriarchy, for living on her own terms,” says Vats.

The apartment building where the couple lived in Gurugram. 

The apartment building where the couple lived in Gurugram.  | Photo Credit: SUSHIL KUMAR VERMA

Death and devastation

On the day of the murder, Vats left for his sister’s house. He says Kunal, who was staying with them, alerted his parents. Anjali’s father, Kuldeep, 44, who works at a hotel in Damdama, Gurugram district, reached the flat in a friend’s car. Kunal brought his mother along on a two-wheeler.

“They took care to enter the flat from the back door to avoid being noticed. In their hurry to escape with the body, they left from the main door and were caught on the CCTV (closed-circuit television) cameras,” says Vats.

Vats had a minor accident on his way to his sister’s house, and remembers calling his wife around 11 a.m. to inform her. But when he called her again, an hour later, she did not take his calls. “I then called her brother and mother. They too did not reply. I knew something was wrong,” he says. Before he could return, he got a call from a friend saying his wife had died and had been cremated at her village.

The three, now arrested, purportedly told the police during interrogation that Anjali’s marriage had brought upon them shame and isolation in the village. They had been too embarrassed to face their neighbours and relatives. Shikha’s role is also under probe, according to the police.

Vats says that the accused took away their dog along with Anjali’s body. “I hope to get our dog back. She was so fond of it, and I want it as a mark of her memory,” he says.

Back in the village

Close to Gurugram, the city of steel and glass, where class is a greater measure than caste, Surehti, dominated by the Jats, now remains tense. Vats’s family has fled the village amid the growing tension between the two caste groups. Anjali’s family members and fellow villagers are tight-lipped to prevent “further negative publicity to the village”. In oblique ways, they voice their opinions, talking of “the misdeeds of children”.

Four days after the killing, Anjali’s granduncle is napping on a charpai (wooden-framed cot with ropes) in the front yard of his house. It’s afternoon and the sultry weather makes everyone sweat. Mange Ram, 72, is a retired Subedar Major, a foot soldier from the Jat Regiment. He is not willing to comment on the matter, and says curtly, “What can parents do if a child turns rogue?”

In Anjali’s home, Kuldeep’s cousin, who doesn’t wish to be named, is alone. Bundles of green fodder lean against the walls of the two-room house, its plaster peeling, exposing the weathered, bare brick walls. He looks after the family’s cattle now, in a village where agriculture and cattle rearing are the mainstay, much like the rest of Haryana.

He questions the couple’s claims to having got married: “What is the proof that the two were married?” Then, the police’s version of it being an honour killing: “Anjali was staying with her brother and sister-in-law in Gurugram. It is not an honour killing. Marrying a man from the same village is the same as marrying a brother. What would you do if a woman marries her brother?” he says. “There is tension between the two castes. We don’t want to talk about this.”

Another villager, Jitender, echoes his views, saying that in “such situations” parents are left with only two choices: either to kill themselves or their children. “Not long ago, a man in the neighbouring village died of shock and embarrassment after his daughter married a man from the same gotra (sub-caste),” he says.

In 2021, there were 32 cases of honour killing across the country, with four from Haryana. However, the actual number may be higher. Many cases go unreported because it is the family that has to report a crime, and there is the silent consent of society.

It’s the reason women’s rights organisations like the All India Democratic Women’s Association have asked for a separate law on honour killings. With the onus on the accused to prove innocence, since the crime is committed by family members of the victim, it is often difficult to find both evidence and witnesses.

Law and order

Balwan, sarpanch of Surehti, is worried over growing numbers of marriages within the village and about inter-caste marriages. He stresses how the social structure in a village is different from a city, and advocates a legal ban on such weddings.

“Social traditions see a village as a close-knit family. Marriages within it are not acceptable. The khaps (community organisations) have been fighting for an amendment in the Hindu Marriage Act [1955] to ban marriages in the same gotra. Marriages in the same village must also be banned to end this ‘evil’. The strictest possible punishment must be meted out to those engaging in such acts,” says Balwan, ominously.

He says he has little “hope” from lawmakers as they themselves are flouting tradition and marrying out of caste. He is upset about law enforcement agencies providing legal safeguards and police protection to couples that are threatened, often with death.

Once Balwan begins, he’s off on a tirade. Next, he blames mobile phones for “misleading” young people. “With almost everything being online, mobile phones have now become a necessity. I, too, had to allow my two sons to use them after their classes went online during COVID [pandemic]. But most of the time, it is abused. With everyone having mobile phones, it has become so easy to communicate secretly without anyone knowing about it,” says the sarpanch, not acknowledging the right of adult children to make their own decisions.

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