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The honourable murderers of Haryana

Like many young men, Vedpal fell in love with Shilpa from a neighbouring village, eloped with her in March and got married in court.

india Updated: Sep 17, 2009 00:11 IST

Like many young men, Vedpal fell in love with Shilpa from a neighbouring village, eloped with her in March and got married in court.

For Vedpal (21), a rural medical practitioner who went by one name and handed out homegrown diagnoses, that was as close to a normal love story as he could get.

After the marriage, his wife's Bhanwala khap (clan) in Haryana's Singhwal village, 175 km west of Delhi, issued an order: Kill the couple.

For a few months man and wife lived in neighbouring Punjab. They then went to Vedpal’s village Matour.

On the surface, it seemed both families accepted the marriage. But Shilpa’s family did not. When she went to see her parents, they insisted she marry someone of their choice.

When he received the shattering news, Vedpal went to the Punjab and Haryana High Court and pleaded that his wife be restored to him. The court appointed a warrant officer to do the job.

So when Vedpal entered Shilpa's village on July 22 to take her home, he was escorted by 15 armed policemen and an official trying to enforce a legal marriage contract.

To the men of Singhwal, none of that mattered. Vedpal was lynched by villagers incensed that he tried to break tradition. Some policemen fled. Others watched but did nothing.

The next day Shilpa appeared before a local court and said that Vedpal married her by force.

This dusty land is clan country, a part of India where tradition dictates you do not get married if you and your spouse belong to the same clan. The rationale: If you have the same ancestor — historical or mythical — the relationship is incestuous.

There is no argument with the men who lay down this law, the khap panchayats (councils), and their approval is impossible.

Vedpal fell victim — there could be more cases — to what is now becoming a tricky political issue and a flashpoint between state and the feared clan councils, which insist their ancient laws must override any law passed by Parliament.

These panchayats are found mainly among the Jats and Gujjars, two agrarian castes of north-west India.

Khaps are similar to gotras, sub-groups within a caste with a common ancestor, historical or mythical. Both are exogamous, meaning they marry outside the clan, but gotras aren’t organised.

“The main difference is that unlike gotras, they have chaudhris (headmen) and panchayats,” said sociologist Dipankar Gupta, 58.

The Hindu Marriage Act, 1955, disallows marriage between close relatives, but it makes exceptions for communities where cousins marry. There’s nothing on gotra marriage.

Now, the clans want the law changed to outlaw marriages within one’s gotra.

“Customs and the law are contradictory and not reciprocal," said retired army officer and advocate Chander Singh Dalal, 75. “Unless the Hindu Marriage Act, 1955, is amended, such incidents (killings) will continue to occur in future.”

Urban social activists are incensed. “This is terrorism by illegal panchayats,” said advocate and human rights activist Colin Gonsalves, 56. “No legal cover is possible for this, as the Constitution protects the fundamental right to privacy and choice.”

For centuries, the Jats and Gujjars were tribes governed by their own laws. The warlike Jats, especially, ruled many kingdoms, and when they lost their fiefs, they were known as landlords with swords on their waists.

For centuries they willingly sacrificed lives for clan and honour.

Obviously, old habits die hard.