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Love, honor, death in India

Ved Pal Maun, 27, was something of a catch in this small farm community northwest of New Delhi. But his family members rejected several marriage offers; they said he just wasn’t ready.

Truth was he was holding out for a particular woman, 18-year-old Sonia Banwal of the neighboring village of Singhwal.

Falling in love with the girl next door would be cause for joy and celebration in many countries. But in parts of rural India, ancient traditions are rooted more deeply than the tall corn and lush green rice plants. It’s a land where marital engagements are arranged by families and follow complex rules of caste, clan and community, and where the cost of “dishonoring” one’s community can be your life.

In late July, three months after Maun married Banwal, he was lynched by residents of her village. They hacked at his body with scythes and farm tools until he moved no more.

Nobody has been charged in the killing and the police, who accompanied him to the village that day, haven’t even questioned the family, his parents said.

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Such so-called honor killings occur periodically in several states across India, but Haryana, in the north, is particularly notorious, especially among the ethnic Jat community of Maun and Banwal. To the Jat, marrying someone from an adjacent village ruled by the same small group of male elders known as a khap panchayat is an egregious offense punishable by fines, banishment or worse.

Though there are parallel civil and legal structures, in practice, many police and administrators defer to the khap panchayat, making the aging patriarchy, in effect, a law unto itself.

The restrictive system has forced families to look further afield for marriage partners, in a culture that relies heavily on word of mouth.

Aware of what they were up against -- people answering to the same khap panchayat are considered siblings -- the couple eloped, married April 22 in a civil ceremony and moved to the town of Dirba, about two hours away.

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For a few months the couple escaped their destiny amid the big town’s bright lights and busy shops.

But while towns offer anonymity, villages take hostages. If they didn’t return home, the couple was warned, the khap panchayat would banish their families.

“They returned with a sense of dread that she was going to be killed,” said Mesar Maun, Ved Pal’s mother, who lives in a concrete house with no chairs.

“He had no idea his time was up, not hers,” she said, her long face framed by graying hair tied back tightly.

Khap panchayats -- a medieval institution designed to resist invaders, keep landownership in the community and prevent incest -- generally don’t order killings outright, said K.S. Sangwan, sociology professor at Haryana’s Maharishi Dayanand University, nor do they record their decisions.

“But there’s an implicit understanding that there should be a murder or else it will bring a bad view of the village,” Sangwan said. “If you kill your son or daughter, you’ve done your job and can stay.”

The killing of Maun, who was a traditional medicine practitioner, is hardly an isolated case, though more often both parties are killed. A young couple was found beaten to death under similar circumstances on Aug. 6 in Haryana’s Bahalba village.

Three days later, newlyweds under the same khap panchayat in nearby Siwana were found hanged.

And Sunday, a young couple was arrested, accused of killing seven of the woman’s relatives by poisoning their dinners, then strangling them, after their khap panchayat refused to let them marry. What’s unusual in this latest case is that the lovers, fearful of being killed, are the alleged aggressors, not the victims.

“The vilest crimes are committed in the name of defending the honor of the family or women,” Home Minister P. Chidambaram told Parliament shortly after Maun’s death, even as he resisted calls for specific laws against such killings. “We should hang our heads in shame when such incidents take place in the 21st century.”

Feudal throwbacks such as the khap panchayat exist in an era of slick shopping centers, fast cars and streaming video, experts said, because Indian politicians -- keen to solicit rural votes -- dare not challenge their authority and because villagers appreciate the rapid, rough justice meted out in a country with a creaky, often corrupt, judiciary.

“Who rules Haryana, the law or the khaps?” the local Tribune newspaper asked in a recent editorial.

The couple had stayed a night with Maun’s parents -- the first and only time his parents met her -- before learning that the khap panchayat had ordered her to return to her family.

Maun, eager to protect his wife and wary of the elders’ motives, agreed on the condition that they free her within 20 days, his parents said.

As the deadline approached, however, he got word that her parents wouldn’t release her, didn’t recognize their civil marriage and were trying to marry her to someone else.

On July 23, armed with a civil court order for her release and accompanied by a court warrant officer and 14 police officers, he set off for her village three miles away to bring her back. When he arrived, a mob attacked him, authorities said.

Maun’s parents suspect that the police were paid off to lure their son into a trap, scheduled the trip after dark to obscure their actions and ran away during the attack.

B. Sateesh Balan, the local police chief, said that his 14 officers were in a separate car behind Maun, didn’t know that Maun was ahead of them, didn’t see the attack and didn’t warn the mob that they were coming.

In a deposition shortly after Maun’s death, Banwal said she had been tricked into eloping with him.

Maun’s parents, who said they had seen a happy couple, question the veracity of that statement. They believe her family and neighbors forced her to make the statement.

Few residents of her village seemed surprised or sorry about Maun’s slaying.

“If I fell in love and married someone like that, I would be killed too,” said Kuldeep, 19, a college student. “It’s right. It’s our culture.”

Suresh Kumar, a teacher, said the police are powerful, but khap panchayats are more so. “Nobody in the village thinks we did anything wrong,” he said. “Even his village is happy at what happened.”

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Reached a few days later by telephone, khap panchayat member Ajit Singh said that 100 to 200 Singhwal residents participated or watched it happen. Order has been restored, he said, now that Maun has been killed and Banwal married to someone who doesn’t contravene their rules.

“The panchayat decided that whoever is responsible shall not be spared,” he said.

A local police chief has been suspended pending the results of an investigation, and 11 Singhwal residents have been detained by police, including Banwal’s father and several khap panchayat members.

Meanwhile, Maun’s parents said they’ve seen little evidence of a homicide investigation.

“The poor never get justice,” his mother said, as a cow entered the courtyard, licking saucepans cooling beside a dung fire.

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mark.magnier@latimes.com

Anshul Rana of The Times’ New Delhi Bureau contributed to this report.


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