The 19-year-old and her boyfriend have been detained by Indian police after confessing to murdering seven members of her family ? her mother, father, grandmother, brother and three cousins ? in a move they believed would allow them to marry in contravention of local custom that forbids people belonging to the same clan or gotra from becoming man and wife.
After drugging her family’s food with sedatives slipped into the flour used to make their evening chapattis, the couple looped a rope around the necks of their victims and ? each of them taking one end ? strangled her relations one by one.
The crime has stunned the remaining members of the young woman’s family and triggered a wave of disbelief across the quiet flat farmland of rural Haryana where she grew up. But as more details of the murders emerge, the killings have also focused attention on the controversial role played in this part of India by khap panchyatts (unelected social councils) in controlling people’s lives, including who someone is allowed to marry.
During a remarkable confession to The Independent at the police station where she is being held, the slightly-built Sonam tried to explain what had pushed her over the edge. “I think that if people are in love, whether or not they are from the same gotra, they should be married,” she said. “I thought that we could be together.”
Sonam and Naveen, 20, grew up in the village of Kaboolpur, 60 miles west of Delhi and set amid fields of sugar cane and rice paddy that are home to eggshell-white egrets and kingfishers. The pair lived next door to each other on a small, unmetalled lane bisected by an open drain and heavy with the smell of cattle. They had known each other since they were children but about 18 months ago their relationship took a different, and ultimately more dangerous turn.
Despite living in a community where all young people were told they would have to look outside of their clan and beyond the village boundaries for marriage, Sonam said she was attracted to her next-door neighbour, especially his gentle nature.
When the young woman’s family learned of the relationship, they strongly forbade it. While such a ban may have been enforceable in the small farming village, in the city of Rohtak where the lovestruck pair were students (she studying humanities and he enrolled at a computer college), their love could continue away from public reproach.
When, earlier this year, Sonam’s family learned that the affair was continuing despite their warnings, they decided to withdraw her from college and the young woman who may have been set for a very different future, was brought back to the village and set to work in the home the family shares with its animals.
This summer, apparently unable to endure the prohibition any longer, Sonam began to think of an escape from a world of rapidly diminishing options. She hit upon a solution that seems scarcely believable.
“I had no suspicions towards the girl… I could not believe that my granddaughter would do this,” said Takdir Singh Dagar, one of Sonam’s grandfathers, sitting in the simple home with other stunned relations. Her uncle, Bhupinder ? whose eight-year-old son and two daughters, aged 12 and 14 ? were among those murdered, appeared utterly dazed. His wife died two years ago, he explained, adding: “I have nothing left.”
In the days immediately after the killings Sonam was treated in hospital, after apparently taking sedatives herself in order to cover her tracks. “For the first five days we thought she was innocent,” her uncle said. “Had we come to know that the girl had been involved in the murders we would have killed her instantly.”
The young couple have told police they believed that killing their family was the only way they could be together. Indeed, Naveen said they feared that they themselves might be killed for their relationship, even if they had fled the village.
Members of the family dismiss this, although Sonam’s other grandfather, Zila Singh Jakhar, confirmed that tradition prevented them from marrying. “We have some customs and tradition,” he said. “It means that someone in this village cannot marry anyone else in the village. The whole village belongs to the gotra. This has come from our forefathers. It is to stop inter-breeding.”
But whatever common-sense intentions such customs may once have served, in an India where traditions are increasingly colliding with a shift towards modernity, the rulings of the panchyatts have often had deadly consequences.
Earlier this summer in the Jind district of Haryana, 30 miles south of Kaboolpur, a man was lynched by his in-laws after marrying a woman from the same gotra and receiving a death sentence from the panchyat. The man was murdered despite a High Court order permitting the marriage and even though he was accompanied by 15 police when he went to collect his wife from the village.
Reports suggest there have been at least five similar “honour killings” in the region since then. “This is the heartland of Haryana. The people are killing their own sons and daughters,” said a police source. “This is the first time there has been a reverse case.”
Members of the khap panchyatts deny having ever issued such death sentences but instead say that when rules governing intra-gotra marriage are broken, a couple will be banished.
“We have some social rules, customary laws,” said Ameer Singh, a member of the Kaydyan panchyatt, who lives in Rohtak. “The younger generation may be ignorant about the rules, or else arrogant and break them on purpose.”
Senior Supt Anil Kumar Rao, who is heading the murder investigation, has little doubt the couple were driven to their crime as a result of the influence exerted by Sonam’s parents. “It was social pressure,” he said. “The parents did not want to allow them to live together and that is why they have taken such a step.”
Naveen, also being held in police custody, said Sonam had come to him with the idea of killing her family two weeks before the murders. Initially, he said, he had rejected the proposal but when she raised it again with him the same day he agreed. “It was her insistence. It was because I love her,” he said, sitting on the floor beneath a gently clattering ceiling fan. “I knew we would be in trouble and that sooner or later we would be caught.”
Police say the couple obtained a powdered sedative and on the night of 14 September mixed it into the flour the two families used to make their chapattis. Once Sonam was sure her family were unconscious, she called Naveen on his mobile phone and he slipped out past his slumbering parents. At her house they first killed Sonam’s grandmother, and then her father and mother.
They had not initially planned to kill the children but decided to do so in case they woke up and called for help. “We strangled them with the rope,” Naveen told detectives. “I had fear in my mind when I was doing the killing.”
The young Romeo said that once the murders had been carried out the couple tried to have sex, but that he was unable to do so. They then went their separate ways, with Sonam apparently then swallowing sedatives so that it would appear she too had been drugged. The following morning, when other family members discovered the seven strangled corpses, Sonam was semi-conscious on the floor and was rushed to hospital.
Though the young woman declined to talk about the specific details of the killing, she said Naveen had agreed to her suggestion “immediately” and that the pair had planned it together. “I love my parents, and my brothers and sisters, but my family planned to marry me forcibly,” she said. “I will not say I’m innocent,” she added. “I will accept whatever punishment.”
As they wait to be taken for their second appearance in front of a magistrate, the young couple have not been allowed to see or speak to each other, even though they are being held in the same police station.
Both say they now regret what they did in pursuit of their relationship. “I am repenting it now,” Sonam said.
Power to control: Unelected councils
* For generations the khap panchyatts of Haryana and Punjab have maintained control over many of the social traditions of the community. Believing that everyone from the same clan is a brother or sister, they say there should be no marriage between anyone with the same surname although their decisions have no legal status.
* Some analysts believe that the increasingly harsh positions taken by the panchyatts reflect their fear of losing their status in India’s changing social order. To try to counter this, the unelected councils are seeking to have the government amend the 1955 Hindu Marriage Act and incorporate their traditions into law.
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