On the 5th of August, Meenakshi Kumari, a 23-year-old lower-caste woman, filed a petition with the Supreme Court of India to save her and her 15-year-old sister from rape. It was a month of firsts: Meenakshi had never visited the capital before the 30th of July, when a council of village elders in Uttar Pradesh, known as a khap panchayat, allegedly decreed that the sisters be sexually assaulted and paraded naked through the village with blackened faces.
Meenakshi and her family are Jatavs, a supposedly “untouchable” caste in India’s ancient and restrictive caste system. Three years ago, her brother Ravi had eloped with his neighbor, Krishna, who belongs to the dominant Jat caste, in blatant violation of the village’s illegal, but omnipresent caste norms. The rape of Meenakshi and her sister, in the eyes of the khap, was fitting punishment for her brother’s forbidden love affair.
Until a month ago, it would have been difficult to imagine a young, lower caste woman from this deeply patriarchal milieu, traveling all the way to New Delhi to file a case, demanding that her rights be protected, while refusing to turn against either her brother Ravi or his lover, Krishna.
More than 300,000 people have signed online petitions circulated by Amnesty International sections around the world. People have taken action in countries that include the United Kingdom, U.S., France, India, Australia, New Zealand, and Spain.
While recent reports claim that Meenakshi is living in perpetual fear, her lawyer Rahul Tyagi told Women in the World his client’s silence was strategic. “She will speak again once her family is safe. For now, we have made our point,” he said.
Turbaned, elderly khap leaders have frequently been in the news in India for making absurd, regressive pronouncements despite being decreed illegal by the Supreme Court. Protecting caste privilege is a primary preoccupation of these cabals of unelected dominant caste leaders, and so its members are fixated on controlling female desire in an attempt to guard familial ‘honor’ — which they believe is lost when women marry outside their caste group. In the past, khaps have asked state governments to ban women from wearing jeans, owning cellphones, and have blamed India’s increasing rape statistics on the consumption of spicy food, such as chowmein.
But in several parts of India, their diktats bear serious consequences — young couples that disobey caste norms are killed by their own families to avoid social censure, families whose children elope face social and economic boycott, if not outright physical assault.
While it is tempting to herald Meenakshi’s petition as a sign of changing times and a liberal, more outspoken youth — a closer reading reveals that across caste, women still bear the brunt of tradition, their oppression aided by the men of their family, the police and the state.
“The stranglehold of tradition is still very, very tight,” said Chander Suta Dogra, journalist and author of Manoj and Bubbly: A Hate Story, a book that explores the societal dynamics of honor killings in India. “Men benefit from existing norms, and women are punished very severely for questioning them. No government wants to antagonize caste blocs and lose votes, police officers themselves belong to dominant caste groups and believe in the authority of khaps,” she said.
A close reading of the events immediately preceding August 5, when Meenakshi finally approached the courts, reinforces Dogra’s analysis. The trouble began in 2012 when Ravi and Krishna, both in their early twenties, met at a computer class in Sankrod village and exchanged phone numbers. While caste segregation meant they could not meet outside class, they courted each other through covert phone calls made over three years, before their families discovered the affair.
When Krishna’s family finally learned of her relationship this February, they married her off to a Jat boy in a neighboring village, hoping the matter would resolve itself. Unable to accept another man, Krishna returned to Sankrod weeks after her wedding on the pretext of visiting her parents, and eloped with Ravi.
The couple’s happiness was short-lived — just a few days after they left Uttar Pradesh, they were picked up by the police in New Delhi on the basis of a missing persons report filed in Sankrod. This part of the story explains why Meenakshi’s petition names members of both the UP and Delhi police for failing to uphold the rule of law and constantly working for the benefit of khaps.
At the station in New Delhi, Krishna submitted a written statement to the police asserting that she wanted to live with Ravi. She also added that her family had forced her into marriage with another man whose parents routinely abused her, and that on two occasions, she had tried to commit suicide in her matrimonial home.
“I will live with Ravi, otherwise I will die because I want to give birth to the child of Ravi. Child of Ravi is in my womb. I do not want to go to my home as I have danger from my family members as they will kill me,” she wrote.
Despite this threat to her life, and the fact that she was an adult, in April, Delhi police officers overrode Krishna’s wishes, and sent her home with her maternal uncle back to the village, where she was placed under house arrest. On this occasion, Ravi was allowed to leave the station unharmed.
Love laughs at locksmiths — and by May, Krishna and Ravi had managed to run away from UP a second time. This time, allegedly at the behest of Krishna’s family, a member of the UP police cadre, Sub Inspector Aman Singh, began to arbitrarily pick up members of Ravi’s family, detaining and torturing them for details of the couple’s whereabouts.
In late May, the couple was found by Delhi police once again — this time, Ravi was sent to UP where he was arrested under the National Drugs and Psychotropic Substances Act. Krishna was sent home to her parents.
In a recorded conversation between Ravi’s brother Sumit and Singh, whose transcripts have been submitted to the court, Singh admits that he fabricated the drug charges on Ravi.
“The girl’s family was asking me to arrest him for possessing cannabis, or charas, but I just wrote poppy husk,”he says. No one stays in jail for that, so don’t worry. He’ll be out soon. Just let the matter quiet down … he’ll be out soon.”
When contacted for this story, Singh told Women in the World that Ravi was a lout and a drug addict, and that the charges against him were completely true. Singh added that it was Meenakshi’s allegation of a rape threat in the village that was concocted, and that no such edict had ever been passed by a khap.
“This is simply a ploy to pressurize the police to release Ravi,” he said, “I’m not worried. I’m a man of the law, and the state will appoint a lawyer to prove that I’m innocent.”
When I mentioned Singh’s comments to Dogra, she agreed that the police would never be able to find evidence of an actual khap panchayat in Sankrod village.
“A bunch of four-five men get together and decide what should be done to a woman, or a family. No one is around to witness it, and even if they were, no one would ever speak up against people so powerful,” she said, “these orders are passed by word of mouth, and simply carried out without any fuss. A khap does not deal in paperwork, or record minutes of their meetings.”
Shortly after Meenakshi and her family left for New Delhi, their family home in Sankrod was looted and possessed by Jats, leaving them homeless. Dhanpal, Meenakshi’s father, has only just managed to return to the village under police security, where he will gather family belongings and start trying to free his son from jail. Despite the fact that Ravi was cleared for bail in May, no one from the village was willing to cross the Jats by standing in surety for Ravi’s release.
In a week’s time, the court will consider the girl’s petition afresh, along with findings submitted by the UP police. Meanwhile, the sisters are biding their time at an undisclosed location in New Delhi, unwilling to give up the fight.