On June 23, 2007, a team of forensic doctors at the government medical college in Rohtak, one of the largest cities in the northern Indian state of Haryana, received two dead bodies for examination. One corpse, a nineteen-year-old woman, had been recovered from a canal near the village of Sandlana. The other, that of a twenty-three-year-old man, was found ten miles downstream in a village called Kheri Chopta.
Both bodies were bloated and had been decomposing inside tattered gunnysacks for more than a week. In their report, the doctors wrote that the woman’s body was covered in maggots. The legs and hands were tied with a rope. Fingers and toes were missing. There was no neck. The man’s face was disfigured. There was a plastic rope around the neck. The loose ends of the rope were tied around the feet. The eyes, ears, and mouth were deformed. The genitals had been disfigured.
The doctors sealed part of the woman’s silver anklet and a scrap of the man’s shirt in plastic bags and handed over the bodies to the police to cremate as unclaimed destitutes. A week later, they were identified as Manoj and Babli Banwala from Karora, a village an hour’s drive from Neetu’s and Dawinder’s Kakheri.
Two years earlier, Manoj and Babli met at an electric repairs shop in their village and fell stubbornly in love. Manoj, who had a mop of furious, thick hair and darting eyes, worked there as an apprentice. Babli, who had a swinging plait and a smiling face that often conveyed a hint of boredom, belonged to an influential family of landowners.
They were both Banwala Jats by caste and shared the same gotra, or clan, which traced them to a common ancestor. In the eyes of their community, even though they were not directly related,
they were brother and sister.
When murmurs of their relationship began circulating, Babli’s family fixed her wedding to a stranger after harvest season. Weeks before the harvest, Manoj and Babli eloped to Chandigarh, the state capital, and married in a temple. Manoj’s family thought he was spending the night at the shop, and Babli’s family thought she was asleep in her room.
In the days after their elopement, Manoj’s mother tried to lodge a missing person report, but the police refused to register it. Instead, they booked her for conspiring with Manoj to kidnap Babli, as po-
lice feared a local politician and leader from the khap panchayat who came out in support of Babli’s family.
Across the northern Indian countryside, villages continued to be run by khap panchayats that represented the interests of gotras. Khap panchayats upheld social customs, including the belief that
men and women within the same gotra and the same village were brothers and sisters. The Banwala khap panchayat, the gotra to which both Manoj and Babli belonged, held power in roughly forty villages around Karora.
On June 15, two months after they eloped, Manoj and Babli appeared at the district court in Kaithal, a town thirty miles from their village, to attest that they were legally married and no kidnapping had taken place.
They knew it was dangerous to go back, but it was the only way to convince the police to drop the false charges against his mother. The couple had applied for police protection and were granted a police party to escort them back safely to Chandigarh. No one from Manoj’s family attended the trial, so that Babli’s family would not get to know that the couple was in the area. But to their surprise, Babli’s brother, Suresh, and cousin Gurudev arrived at court at the exact time of their hearing.
Afterward, a team of five policemen initially planned to accompany the couple to a bus stand in the town of Pehowa, where they would catch a public transport bus bound for Chandigarh. But
when the couple pleaded that Babli’s uncles and cousins and the khap leader were allegedly following them in a car, a police department superior instructed two of the five officers to board the bus and ride with them.
However, at Pipli, a town sixty miles from their destination, the officers abandoned them, declaring that they could not travel beyond the boundary of their jurisdiction. Manoj and Babli scrambled onto another bus leaving for New Delhi, eighty-five miles to the southeast, in the hope that they would
lose her relatives, but halfway there, just as the bus was about to pull into a toll plaza near the town of Karnal, a van swerved in front of it, forcing the driver to stop. Manoj and Babli were abducted, and
they were never seen again.
In the days after Manoj’s and Babli’s disappearance, Manoj’s mother, Chandrapati, filed a case of kidnapping with the intention of murder against Babli’s brothers, cousins, uncles, and the leader of the khap panchayat.
She told the police that her son had called from the Pipli bus stand to inform her that the escort party had abandoned them and Babli’s relatives were following them. That was the last time she would speak to Manoj. When Chandrapati returned home to Karora after registering the police complaint, the village council decreed that Manoj’s family would be punished with economic sanctions for bringing dishonor to the village by filing a police complaint against respectable members of the community. Anyone who talked to them or did any business with them would be fined twenty-five thousand rupees and risk being ostracized themselves.
“Marry a Muslim if you must, marry a Christian, marry an old man, marry a cripple. Marry whoever you want, but always marry outside the village,” Chander Singh Dalal, a khap ideologue, told reporters when Manoj and Babli’s disappearance started to make headlines. “Never marry in the same village and the same gotra.”
“If a marriage takes place within the same gotra, the consequences are bound to be harsh,” Panwanjit Barwal, a leader of the Banwala khap panchayat, said at the All India Jat Organisation two weeks after Manoj’s and Babli’s bodies were found.
“To the leftist organisations who are espousing their cause, I would like to ask them to marry their sons to their daughters.” When Manoj’s mother and his sister Seema returned home after identifying a scrap of Manoj’s pink shirt and a piece of Babli’s anklet, a stench had lodged itself deep beneath their fingernails. The autopsy report said that Manoj had been strangulated to death, and Babli hadbeen forced to drink pesticide. The stench in their fingers did not leave no matter how much they scrubbed and washed their hands.
Days later, when they brought the ashes of Manoj and Babli from the municipal cremation ground, no one in the village agreed to sell them the mud urns needed to perform their last rites.
Excerpted with permission from The Newly Weds: Three Couples Who Risked Everything For Love, Mansi Choksi, Penguin Viking.