What Will It Take for India to Stop Honour Killings?


What Will It Take for India to Stop Honour Killings?

Illustration: Akshita Monga

Monika Godhara remembers her wedding night well. Earlier in the day, she and Vikramjeet Singh had registered their marriage at the Punjab and Haryana high court in Chandigarh. Exhausted from the pressures of the day, they retired to their friend’s home in Bijjuwali village of Sirsa district. It was well past midnight and everybody was asleep – except Monika, who was in the grip of a strange fear.

It was not unfounded. The silence of the night was pierced by a ruckus, but in that melee was a familiar voice. Monika looked out of the window to see her brother leading a group of men: Armed with sticks and sharp-edged weapons, they were baying for the blood of the newlywed couple. This was their cue. Monika woke Vikramjeet, and together, they scaled the rear boundary wall of the house and ran through the pitch blackness of the night, refusing to look back and face the demons following them.

By morning, they’d boarded a bus and reached the village of Mandi Dabwali, 40 kilometres from Bijjuwali. They were thankful that their bodies were unharmed – but the mental battle had only just begun. That escape from certain death on that 2005 night would continue for the next 12 years.

In some ways, Vikramjeet and Monika had been preparing to run since the day they first met. Monika was born to a family of rich Jat farmers in Kaluwana; Vikramjeet in a Dalit household in Bijjuwali. In most parts of the country, that accident of birth ensures there are boundaries around a person that become impossible to breach. They knew relatives and neighbours could become deadly enemies at the turn of a dime, especially because their “izzat” rested on the figure of a woman. A Dalit man marrying a Jat girl around these parts was challenging the ego of the entire village, where elders take charge of these decisions over hookah at the village chaupal. It was an open invitation to death – no judge, no jury, only executioners.

Even then, Monika and Vikramjeet could not have imagined that their nightmare would last over a decade. The two had first set eyes on each other in a Haryana Roadways bus, which Monika would take to her school in a nearby village, and Vikramjeet to his college in Sirsa. Their journey together would last only about 10 kilometres, but that was enough for the two to fall in love. They met every day for about a year and slowly graduated to exchanging letters and gifts. “I was a teenager and flush with emotion,” Monika told me. “Although my friends warned me about the repercussions of our relationship, I was ready to sacrifice anything for Vikramjeet. I had no idea it was going to have such disastrous consequences for us.”

The threat of violence always loomed – in the form of a stray phone call, a raised voice on the other end.

They knew their love was “taboo” and that if their secret became public knowledge, there would be hell to pay. But word of their affair did reach Monika’s mother, who wasted no time in getting Monika engaged to a Haryana Police inspector, with acres of land. The young girl did not even dare to raise an objection – she had seen enough bodies floating in canals and rivers in cases of honour killings. And her father Krishan Lal was a “key person” in the village panchayat with close ties to prominent Sirsa politicians. When she did try to explain, Monika was quarantined at home, her mobile phone confiscated. With the help of their upper-caste cousins, Monika’s family began to intimidate Vikramjeet’s parents, who also wanted no part of the trouble.

When it became impossible to convince either of their families, the two did the unthinkable and eloped. Monika was 19, and Vikramjeet 23.

After that first escape, the newlyweds changed hotels every other day. They refused to contact their friends or family because they knew their calls would be monitored closely. Back in the village, Monika’s parents had registered a case against Vikramjeet for having forced her into marriage, so now, they were also fugitives on the run.

Over the next couple of weeks, their bills mounted and money began to drain out. There were days when there was nothing to eat. With no options for help, and the fear of Monika’s deadly family in their hearts, the pressure was on Vikramjeet. He ran from pillar to post, doing odd jobs, while Monika lapsed into a deep depression and became a recluse. “There were moments when we thought of committing suicide,” Monika said. “But we had no option but to fight it out.”

In 2006, however, there was a small ray of hope. The Haryana state government, which promotes inter-caste marriages, has a programme under which it awards an inter-caste couple with ₹26,000. Through a friend who alerted them to the scheme, Monika and Vikramjeet got the monetary award – which they had to spend in daily expenses from changing locations every few days.

And yet, the intimidation would not stop. The threat of violence always loomed – in the form of a stray phone call, a raised voice on the other end. The two first moved to Yamunanagar, where Vikramjeet got a job with a private firm. But he was forced to quit that and move to Mandi Dabwali. From there they left for Delhi, and from the capital, they went to Hisar, switching jobs, leaving no trace of their identities behind. Over the next few years, they moved to Gurgaon and then finally to Sirsa in 2009, where the two live to this day.

Sick of all the moving, they finally lodged an FIR against Monika’s parents and other family members that year. The police was forced to take action and Monika’s parents finally broke. They contacted her and pleaded with her to withdraw the case. Monika, in turn, only asked them to hand over her education certificates.

Today, Vikramjeet and Monika live in a residential colony in Sirsa with their nine-year-old son. Vikramjeet has a stable job in Gurgaon, while Monika is studying for a second master’s degree at the Chaudhary Devi Lal University. They’ve paid a heavy price for their peace, but are well aware that this delicate equilibrium could be upset any day. Monika remains a light sleeper – she knows her attackers could return any day, sticks in their hands and murder on their minds.