Amit Goyal, 22, is an unlikely Romeo. The diminutive, wiry, tousle-haired tempo driver wears a timorous air that doesn't dissipate except when he speaks of his estranged love, Seema Saini, 21. But then, the stern-visaged ssp of Muzaffarnagar, Vijay Maurya, is an unlikely cupid. The soft-hearted cop has undertaken—once he's satisfied the two are legally eligible—to bring the young pair together, parental opposition be damned.
It's not easy falling in love and tying the knot in Muzaffarnagar—especially if the boy and girl belong to different castes or religions. In a macabre throwback to medieval times, a kangaroo court comprising the panchayat and the families ordered the hanging of a young couple in Alinagar-ka-Majra village in public view on August 6. Their only crime: daring to love each other despite belonging to different castes. This is not the first time that casteist vainglory has come in the way of love in the Uttar Pradesh countryside: two similar murders of young couples had already been reported in 1993 and this March. This set Maurya and district magistrate Manoj Singh thinking. How could such atrocities be prevented and awareness generated to tell the people that coming in the way of couples wanting to share their lives together was a heinous violation of human rights?
The duo have hit upon a solution. On August 23, Singh passed an order setting up an Adult Rights Cell in each sub-division of Muzaffarnagar district which would entertain applications from the lovelorn. The police brief was to get them married with the help of the local administration in the teeth of social opposition. And most importantly, ensure that they live to tell their tale after the nuptials. Within two days of the "love-marriage" order being notified, the police received 11 applications. Amit and Seema are one of the lovestruck young couples who have asked to be married under police 'protection' because of parental intimidation.
Seema, according to Amit, has been incarcerated by her family. In a desperate letter smuggled out through a relative, she pleads with him: "Please talk to mama (uncle) and get me out this evening. These people will kill me otherwise." She signs herself Seema 'Goyal'. The two were neighbours in Sisona village, accustomed to popping in and out of each other's houses until Seema's parents, sniffing romance, locked her up recently. The Alinagar case fresh in their minds, Amit, his brother and uncle, hotfooted it to the Adult Rights Cell.
Thanks to co-education and cable TV, young men and women in the countryside are scripting love-stories that would put Bollywood to shame. Caste barriers and social ostracism are no longer deterrents for these youngsters. The large number of hoardings sporting condom advertisements along National Highway 58 appear to reflect the prurient turmoil in the sugarcane fields of western UP. It's even rather romantic, except when the opposition gets out of hand, and ghoulishly filmi to boot, as in the Alinagar-ka-Majra case. Vishal (20) and Sonu (18) were hunted down and hanged, allegedly with the approval of both families and the entire village.
Few romances end in murder, but a lot do end up in police stations. Going by police figures, it's an epidemic out there, despite the fact that love is a rather risky business: since January this year, the Muzaffarnagar police has received 47 complaints from parents of girls who claim their daughters have been 'abducted' by boys.Most often, the girls are majors who have decamped with their lovers, fearing harassment by their families. Of the 47 cases, all currently under investigation, 25 involved inter-caste romances while nine involved Hindu-Muslim alliances.
One particular tragi-comedy was played out in the Allahabad High Court this July. Gurmeet, 23, a school teacher, eloped on July 20 with her colleague, Sunil Kumar from Ramraj village. Her father kicked up a ruckus and tried to get Sunil arrested but the quickwitted youth obtained a stay from the Allahabad High Court. He hadn't imagined, however, that his prospective in-laws would kidnap Gurmeet from the premises of the chief judicial magistrate's court itself on August 2, when she showed up to tell the judge her side of the story. Last heard, she had been spirited away to Punjab and had written her husband a desperate letter asking him not to imperil himself by following her. The disconsolate Sunil has filed a complaint with the police.
"We have to create awareness that for a major to marry without her parents' approval may be a social solecism, but it is not a crime. The parents, or the entire village, is free to ostracise the couple or even to throw them out of the family home but not to physically harass them," says Maurya.
In a way, he adds, the eruption of tender passions in the countryside is a positive sign. It means that girls are moving out of the home, acquiring an education and with it, a measure of independence. That they're daring to fall in love, albeit filmi style, indicates emancipation and the dilution of an archaic social ethos. What's more, caste barriers are thinning, as school and college students mingle with each other irrespective of their backgrounds. Outside of politics, caste appears less and less relevant with young people wanting to know "what's caste got to do with it?"
The sharp and often violent responses by the village establishment are a backlash, a kind of "the empire strikes back" syndrome. It strikes back all the harder when a dominant caste is involved. "In Alinagar, the Jats hold sway. They aren't opposed to their sons marrying out of caste but never permit their daughters to do so. The Brahmins are far less aggressive. So, if the girl had been a Brahmin and the boy a Jat, instead of the other way around, the incident may never have taken place," says Muzaffarnagar denizen Bhagirath Sharma.
Fear of the law hasn't deterred self-appointed guardians of public morality. At tea shops in Kandla, people still talk of Satish and Sarita of Khandrawli. He was a scheduled caste, she wasn't. Reason enough for the village panchayat to execute them. Their throats were slit in broad daylight in August 1993 with a crude farm implement called a 'ganda'. The two chief perpetrators were sentenced to death and are now serving life terms. Another such murder took place in Muzaffarnagar city's busy Meenakshi Chowk in broad daylight. The runaway couple, Naaz Parveen and Jaman, were "hacked to death" at 11 am on March 30 this year, apparently because her family didn't approve of the marriage.
Says local trader Tribhovan Mittal: "This is a particularly crime-prone area. The people here are very aggressive and are ready to commit murder on small issues. There are eight to 10 murders every day. Incidents like the Vishal and Sonu case are just part of an overall violent trend."
The immediate impact of the "prem vivah (love marriage)" order has been that several couples who had gone "underground", afraid of being found out and killed, have emerged and asked for police protection.Sandeep and Renu Sharma are one such pair. Renu's mother and brother, who had made several death threats, were summoned to the police station and warned to leave them alone.
The police, too, have become more sympathetic in handling such cases. Shikha Ahuja and Dhoom Singh married in Saharanpur without parental sanction and escaped to Muzaffarnagar. At the instance of Shikha's father, the Saharanpur police asked their Muzaffarnagar counterparts to pick up the two. But when Shikha produced proof that she was well past the age of consent, the police treated the pair to tea at the Shiv Hotel and warned off their pursuers. Only time will now tell whether matchmaker cops will continue to do their job fairly and not succumb to casteist pressures themselves. After all, love is more than a dangerous game in the heartland—and caste it's worst enemy.