For inter-caste, inter-faith couples, a harrowing search for safe houses

Despite a Supreme Court directive, only Delhi, Haryana and Punjab have proper shelters for such couples facing opposition from families and community

October 10, 2022 10:31 pm | Updated October 11, 2022 09:57 am IST - New Delhi

Ravikant Chandrawanshi and Alisha. Photo: Special Arrangement

Ravikant Chandrawanshi and Alisha. Photo: Special Arrangement

Amit Kumar had everything going for him. After graduating in engineering and landing a decent job, Amit wanted to settle down with his childhood sweetheart Renu. The couple had known each other since Class IX and dreamt of a life together. The only difficulty was that Renu belonged to a Brahmin family and Amit was a Dalit.

With their homes barely a kilometre apart in Garhwa district of Jharkhand, Renu knew her family would never approve of the match. The couple decided to run away and tie the knot in another State. And thus began their tale of unending harassment and tragedy.

The couple married at a temple in Dehradun and got their marriage registered there. They had just about settled down at Paonta Sahib in Himachal Pradesh when, in a midnight raid, the Uttar Pradesh police took away Renu, claiming that she had been abducted. Amit and Renu have not seen or spoken to each other since that fateful night of August 13, 2021.

Amit’s life has been a quagmire of legal battles and dismissed habeas corpus petitions since then. “I fear my wife is no more,” he told The Hindu.

Activists say such tragic situations can be avoided if couples like Amit and Renu are provided safe houses and special protection by the State governments as mandated by the Supreme Court.

According to data from the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), the number of “honour killings” in the country was 24, 25 and 33 in 2019, 2020 and 2021, respectively. Punjab, Madhya Pradesh and Jharkhand topped the list in 2021 and 2020, while Manipur was on top in 2019.

The government in 2021 informed Parliament that there were 145 “honour killing” incidents in the country between 2017 and 2019.

Interestingly, though the NCRB report attributed only 25 deaths to “honour killings” in 2020, it said there were 27 deaths due to casteism and 1,558 due to “illicit relationship”. Similarly, in 2021, 33 deaths were listed under “honour killings”, but 1,544 and 1,532 under “illicit relationship” and “love affairs”, respectively.

So far, only Delhi, Haryana and Punjab have safe houses for inter-faith and inter-religious couples. Kerala has only announced the setting up of a safe house.

In fact, only 21 States have said that they have complied with the Supreme Court directives, which means that they have asked the police officers concerned of a State for strict compliance, according to Dhanak for Humanity, a non-governmental organisation which works with such couples, helping them solemnise their marriages and providing legal support.

The Supreme Court had in 2018 directed that safe houses be set up in every district as well as a special cell in States for couples facing opposition from families and community.

Gaurav Yadav, an engineer from IIT Chennai, said he was working with survivors of “honour crimes” and couples who are in hiding to petition the government for more safe houses across the country.

“Soon we will form an official grouping and petition the government to follow the Supreme Court directives on safe houses and special cells,” Mr. Yadav said, adding that he had organised a convention regarding the same in Delhi recently.

He said though couples had been demanding that safe houses be set up, the State administrations had looked the other way.

An example is of Ravikant Chandrawanshi and Alisha, who had a harrowing time getting married under the Special Marriage Act in Chhattisgarh.

The inter-faith couple at first decided to elope and marry in Bilaspur. However, a lack of support system and security, including finances, saw them return home in Kawardha within four days.

“As my wife’s family were well to do and politically connected, they kept up the pressure on us. Finally, we had to take legal recourse and approached the High Court asking them to direct the State administration to provide the mandated safe house and police protection.

“However, we were informed that there was no safe house and Alisha had to go to a sakhi centre or a women’s safe house,” Mr. Chandravanshi said.

Though the couple approached the highest of authorities, they were not given any police protection either and had to go into hiding for around six months after their marriage.

According to Asif Iqbal of Dhanak for Humanity, most States send the girl to a Nari Niketan after couples approach them. “It is here that the girl is the most insecure as her family mostly approaches her and puts pressure to go back. Many a time, this also leads to what is known as honour killing of the girl”.

Sanjay Sachadev of Love Commandoes, an organisation which rescues and shelters such couples, said, “The need of the hour is safe houses across the country. In almost every case, the police try and send the girl to a women’s shelter and the boy is left to fend for himself.”

A couple who are staying in a Delhi safe house and did not wish to be identified said that they could not have thought of living together had it not been for the security of the safe house.

Mr. Iqbal, whose organisation has helped many couples seek legal recourse to stay together and get married, said that of the distress calls he receives, the most were from Uttar Pradesh, Maharashtra and Rajasthan.

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