India’s Romeo and Juliet tragedy
By Sanjoy Majumder
BBC News, Phaphunda, India
It was a story buried in the middle of the Indian newspapers.Two star-crossed lovers committed suicide after the local village council, or panchayat, ordered them to annul their marriage or face death. Amreen was Muslim and her husband, Lokesh, a Hindu. Their match was simply unacceptable to their communities. The couple poisoned themselves. Now police have charged the entire panchayat with abetting suicide. ‘Fatal mistake’To find out more, we headed east from Delhi into the north Indian countryside. A little more than two hours later, we found ourselves in the village of Phaphunda.
Like most others in the area, it was small and unremarkable. The villagers, mostly farmers, live in houses built close to each other, with narrow lanes running through them. Horse-carts and cattle amble along – Delhi seems far away. Attitudes here can be unforgiving. I headed first to the house of the village chief, Achan Singh, who heads the village council. A tall, well-built man in his 40s, he was very welcoming, pouring out steaming cups of tea as we sat on his carpet. Yes, he had heard about the incident but no it was not his panchayat that had anything to do with it. “It was a gathering of elders from the two families,” he told me. “The boy and girl were told that their marriage would not be allowed. They would have to leave each other or else they would be killed,” he said in a matter of fact way. Pressed further, Mr Singh sympathised with the couple but said they had made a fatal mistake. “You see, they fell in love and then ran away to get married. They should have stayed away and lived in the city. “In our village, Hindus marry Hindus and Muslims marry Muslims. It’s very sad, what happened but what can you expect? The pressure on their families was enormous. They were being disgraced and dishonoured.” Very nervousOur local contact had arranged for us to meet the family of Amreen, the dead girl. As we left Achan Singh’s house, he said he would join us. He revved up his motorcycle and rode off ahead, while we followed.
When we reached Amreen’s home, the village headman was already there. He had apparently arrived well ahead of us. Her family lived across the highway in a predominantly Muslim part of the village. A mosque was visible over the high walls of her father’s large farmhouse. Inside, buffalo were tethered to posts – he sold milk for a living. “The boy, Lokesh, would come here every morning to buy milk. That’s how he met the girl and they fell in love,” one of the villagers told me. The girl’s father, Salim, soon joined us for a conversation but it was soon apparent that he was very nervous. “I really don’t know what happened,” he kept saying. I asked him if he had come under pressure from the panchayat. “No, no, there was no pressure,” he said hurriedly glancing over his shoulder at the chief. ‘Dishonoured’”Go on, tell them how you were dishonoured in the community,” Achan Singh prompted him gently but firmly.
“We were dishonoured in the community,” repeated Salim. “Neither family wanted them to marry. But no-one threatened them either,” he maintained. The girl’s aunt, Syeda, who had been listening in while tending to her sick mother, decided to speak up. “She was a lovely girl, very innocent and always used to read the Koran. God knows what madness prompted her to run away with that boy. We’re all very sad at what happened.” It was obvious I was going to get little more out of the family so we left and headed to the office of the local policeman for a little more clarity. “We got to hear about the incident and decided to act,” said police superintendent Sharad Sachan. “The young couple were legally married and therefore entitled to live together. Their parents and the villagers had no right to put pressure on them and force them to commit suicide. They are guilty of a crime and we will do all we can to build a case against them.” As we headed back to Delhi, it was clear that with a wall of secrecy descending around the whole incident, the police were going to have their work cut out. They may have the law on their side but the villagers are defending ancient codes and traditions that remain untouched by modernity. And they will fight to keep it that way.