Modern Romeos and Juliets of India risk lives for love’s sake

The Shakespearean tale of the feuding families of Montagues and Capulets is a beautiful love-story for some people, but for young couples in India it is cruel reality that they have to live in.

Narender Singh’s cousin Banoj dreamed of nothing but a life of happiness when he married his childhood sweetheart Babli in 2007.

That dream came to a brutal end, however, when the couple were abducted and killed by Babli’s own family.

“They chased after the bus they were on and forced it to stop. They took Banoj and Babli to the village, tied them up in a field and beat them to death,” Narender Singh told the story of his cousin.

The case has put the spotlight on the traditional system of clan councils, which do not allow people from the same sub-caste to marry, as it is seen as akin to incest.

“Children are born with physical and mental problems,” Ghatwala clan chief Baljeet Singh Malik explained. “We also say do not marry within the same village. After all, a village was established by one ancestor along with his brothers. Many generations have followed since, and we are all related by blood.”

However, more and more people are defying tradition to be with the ones they love.

Parveen and Minakshi Sanghwan knew that when they eloped last May their marriage would be met with hostility, but they never imagined Minakshi’s father would try to kill them.

“He is unhappy just because Minakshi married someone of her own choice. He keeps threatening us. Last November, he got Minakshi’s brother to lead a knife attack on us. Minakshi was hurt; they even put a noose around her neck. Somehow we managed to escape,” Parveen Sanghwan remembered.

India is a secular democracy which prides itself on the rule of law. Yet it is in its villages that the age-old traditions are coming into conflict with these modern aspirations. And the decisions being taken there are being taken mostly be men, and it is their writ that rules.

In order to remain within the law, the clan councils now want the law itself changed, and are putting pressure on local politicians.

“The law has been around only since 1955, but our customs and traditions are much older, and have been around for centuries. It is important that we do not marry within our caste or our mother’s caste. To reflect this reality, the Hindu Marriage Act should be changed,” Baljeet Singh Malik said.

The clans are a sizeable voting bloc, so political parties are wary of losing their votes. Yet any sign of the state giving in to this brutal tradition will not come as good news to Parveen and Minakshi, who still live in constant fear.

“We are forced to hide like criminals in our own home. There are four more family members living with us. While we both sleep, my father-in-law and brother-in-law take turns to remain awake just in case my own father tries to attack us at night,” Minakshi Sanghwan said.

The plight of a young married couple clearly means nothing in rural India, a place still deeply entrenched in tradition.