On 21 December 2016, Seema, a 20-year-old woman, married Pradeep, a 28-year-old man, at a local court in Rohtak, Haryana. Both Seema and Pradeep lived with their families in Rohtak’s Amrit Colony, in opposite houses. They belonged to different castes: Seema was from the Jatav community, a Scheduled Caste which is also known as Chamar, while Pradeep was a Brahmin. Anticipating opposition to their decision, the couple decided to keep their wedding a secret, and continued to live in their respective homes. According to Pradeep’s maternal aunt, on 4 January 2017, he broke the news of the wedding to his parents. They appeared to be amenable to his decision, and informed Seema’s parents the same day. Pradeep's aunt said her family claimed that they had no objection either, adding that they told they would send Seema to Pradeep’s house “apne hisab se”—when they felt the time was appropriate. In the afternoon of 5 January, members of the Haryana police rushed to a crematorium in Rohtak, reportedly following a tip-off they had received from Pradeep. There, they found that Seema, who had allegedly died the previous night, was being cremated by her family members. The police poured water over the funeral pyre and recovered her body. It was already half-burnt.
Later that day, the police arrested Khushi Ram, Seema’s father, and Angrezo Devi, her mother, for allegedly killing their daughter. Rinku, Seema’s brother, was arrested two days later. They were all charged under Section 302 and 201 of the Indian Penal Code, for murder and causing the disappearance of evidence. The police suspected that Seema’s death was an honour killing. They believed that Seema’s parents and brother had murdered her because they were enraged by her decision to marry Pradeep.
Naveen Kumar, the investigating officer in the case, who is also the station house officer at Shivaji Colony police station—which has jurisdiction over offences committed in Amrit Colony—told me over the phone that Seema’s family had been opposed to her decision to marry outside the family’s caste even though Pradeep’s parents had tried to convince them otherwise. “They wanted her to marry within the Dalit caste itself,” Kumar said.
According to Kumar, Seema’s family found out about the marriage on 4 January. At about 3 pm in the afternoon, they decided their course of action, Kumar said, and murdered her at around 8 pm that evening. “Ladka jo tha na, woh naak aur munh band karke rakha tha, taaki aawaz na ho. Aur baap ne gale mein chunni daal rakhi thi aur uske hath pe baith gaya tha, maa chunn imein maroda de rahi thi”—Seema’s brother forcibly held her nose and mouth so that she could not make any noise. Their father put a scarf around her neck and sat on her limbs and their mother was tightening the noose, Kumar told me.
In Haryana, like much of India, a great amount of emphasis is placed on caste and the pride that is associated with belonging to a particular community. Surinder Singh Jodhka, a professor at the School of Social Science of Jawaharlal Nehru University, said “If women were to start marrying outside [their community], caste won’t survive.” Honour killings, typically carried out by those belonging to dominant castes, are seen as a way to assert and maintain this identity. In 2014, the National Crime Records Bureau began recording murders under the category of “honour killing.” It recorded 251 such cases in 2015, a significant jump from the 28 cases recorded in 2014. Of the 251 cases recorded in 2015, two took place in Haryana. According to Rajkumari Dahiya, the president of the Rohtak unit of All India Democratic Women Association (AIDWA), the women’s wing of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), incidents of honour killing in Haryana often go unreported. Even if a first information report is registered, she added, it would be “under sections of suicide, rape or dowry deaths. The actual number of incidents of honour killings could be much higher than what is reflected in the NCRB data.”
Dahiya added, “Samaj bilkul nahi kahenge ki unhone apni beti ko mara. Wo kahenge ki apni izzat bachayi”— Society will never say that someone killed their own daughter. They would say that they protected their honour. Dahiya belongs to a Brahmin community and her husband to a Jat community, which is considered to be lower than the former in the caste hierarchy. Since their marriage, which took place 34 years ago, Dahiya and her family have not visited each other.
On 7 January, I set out for Rohtak from Delhi in a taxi, with Naveen Rana, its driver, who hailed from Sonepat, in Haryana. As we made conversation during the journey, I asked him whether he thought honour killings were justified. He said that they were not, but added, “Manta hun ji, k ladki ho ya ladka ho, khule vichar ka sabko hona chahiye. Lekin itne khule vichar bhi na ho ki un khule vicharon ke karan, hamare parivar walon ko jhukna pad jaye samaaj ke aagey”—I understand that whether it is a boy or a girl, everyone should have liberal thinking. But this liberal thinking should not be to the extent that a family has to hang its head in shame before the society.
At around 1 pm, we reached Pradeep’s home in Amrit Colony. It was a single-storey building with two small rooms and an open area inside, with a toilet and hand-pump at the entrance. Pradeep’s mother, Ishwanti Devi, answered the door and told me that her son was not at home. She refused to speak to me about the incident.
Seema’s home, a rented flat on the ground floor of a building facing Pradeep’s house, was locked. A small pushcart that held a load of tomatoes—presumably her father’s, who sold vegetables—stood outside the house. Rana and I called out to the residents of the first floor, but they declined to speak to me as well. We approached the next house and then another, and so on, but to no avail. None of Pradeep and Seema’s neighbours were willing to speak to me, even under the promise of anonymity.
Around 100 metres from the couples’ homes, group of around 12 elderly men sat, playing cards and smoking a hookah. The group comprised members from both the Jatav and Jat communities. The men unanimously sided with and expressed sympathy for Seema’s family. Although they did not wish to go into the details of the incident, they seemed convinced that Seema had committed a mistake that was indefensible. “Ilaake mein koi ladayi na kariya, ghana shareef tha. Behad shareef tha”—Seema’s father never fought with anyone, he was an upstanding person, quite upstanding, one of the men said, as he threw his card. A second man from the group added, “Pura parivar hi shareef tha”—the entire family was upstanding. The men seemed to believe that Seema had provoked her family, causing them to retaliate in anger and accidentally cause her death. “Thappad-wappad mar diya ho chori nu, ho gaya hoga kuch accident. Warna aadmi toh shareef tha”—[The father] must have slapped her and something must have happened by accident. Otherwise the father was upstanding, one of them said.
Soon after this, one of the men invited Rana and me to his house for tea. On the way to his house, he said, “Humein toh koi doubt hi nahi tha family pe, wo toh ladki ne aisa kar diya”—we had no doubts about the family, it is the girl who did something. While having tea in his house, one of his friends who joined us, reiterated this viewpoint. “Ladki ne galat kariya”—The girl committed a wrongdoing.
During the conversation, the subject of caste came up. The two men, both of whom belong to the Jat community, denied that it had played any role in Seema’s death. “Caste ka kya hai ji. Ab wahin dekh lo doh Chamar aur Pandit sath baithkar taash khel rahe the”—What does it have to do with caste, sir. Look there, two Chamars and a Pandit were sitting together and playing cards, our host said, referring to the group I had met earlier.
Our host’s friend chipped in, “Ab dekho, aap ho, main hun, ya koi bhi biradari ho, ladki agar galat kaam karegi toh kaun maaf karega”—See, whether it’s you or me or someone from any other community, if a girl commits a wrongdoing, then who will forgive her? Both Rana and our host nodded in agreement.
A head constable I met at the Shivaji Colony police station also echoed this sentiment. Speaking to me on the condition of anonymity, the head constable disagreed with Naveen Kumar’s premise regarding the motive of the murder. The head constable said, “Biradari ki toh koi dikkat na thi. Inhone toh ye kaha hamari ladki corrupt thi, dekh na sake usko, gandi thi boley”—There was no issue concerning caste. Seema’s family said that she was corrupt, they could not bear to see her, she was dirty, they said. I asked the head constable what the family meant by “dirty.” “Chaal-chalan thik na tha uska, wo kahen”—Her character was not correct, the family said.
According to Prem Chowdhary, an independent researcher and the author of Contentious Marriages, Eloping Couples: Gender, Caste and Patriarchy in Northern India, the practice of honour killings may be appropriated by members of the dominated castes in some instances, as it appears to have been in the case of Seema’s murder. Chowdhary said that such acts were a result of the constant pressure that the oppressed communities face to observe social norms, the failure of which leads to dominant-caste communities accusing them of having no honour. As a result, Chowdhry told me, Dalits feel compelled to assert that they conform to the village norms. In the case of a marriage such as Seema and Pradeep’s, Chowdhry continued, “The only power that a Dalit would have is on their girl.” “An upper-caste killing would have included both, but the Dalits cannot touch the upper-caste boy,” she added.
As I was unable to contact either Seema’s parents or her brother during my time in Rohtak, I could not ascertain whether or not such a dynamic had played a part in Seema’s death. However, I did find that the residents of Amrit Colony, in Rohtak, were openly resentful of a woman who had defied cultural norms by marrying without her parents’ approval.
After meeting the elders in Amrit Colony, I went to the local court, hoping to meet Kumar, the SHO, who was bringing Seema’s father to court that day. He had already left by the time I reached. Instead, I met Sandeep Shalad, the family’s defence lawyer. “Welcome into Rohtak,” he said, shaking my hand.
Shalad’s account of the events that had led to Seema's death differed from Naveen Kumar's. According to him, she had died because of a medical emergency. “No one was at home that day, she died of a heart attack,” he said, “The family members were engaged in wage labour and were out working.”
Whenever I responded with the alternate account that the SHO had told me, Shalad would change his own narrative of the events. During the course of our conversation, he first told me that Seema committed suicide, then that she suffered a heart attack, and finally that she died due to anxiety because Pradeep was pressuring her to get married. At one stage in the conversation, he pointed his finger at me, half in jest, and said, “Bhai, jo keh raha hun wahi likhna, warna …”—Write only what I’m saying, or else.
Before meeting Shahlad, I had visited the PGIMS hospital at Rohtak, where the postmortem on Seema’s body had been conducted. The postmortem report, which had not been released at the time but I gained access to independently later, indicates that Seema died on the night of 4 January, when her family would have presumably been at home. SK Dhattarwal, the head of the forensic-science department, under whose supervision a team of three doctors had conducted the postmortem, told me, “It is certain from the postmortem that she was killed first and then burnt.” Gaurav Sharma, one of the doctors who conducted the postmortem, told me that the neck area was the most charred part of the body. Seema’s teeth and bones have also been sent for DNA test for identification of the body, Dhattarwal said.
On 8 January, I spoke to Varun Pathak, the public prosecutor in the case, over the phone. Pathak told me that he believed the prosecution had a strong case even though there were no eyewitnesses to the murder. He said that the postmortem report would clarify whether it was a natural or unnatural death, and that if it were unnatural, the family would be deemed guilty of not conducting a postmortem before cremating the body. I asked him how he would prove that there was a motive for Seema’s family to kill her. “Inter-caste marriage apne aap mein motive hai”—The inter-caste marriage itself is motive, he responded.
The postmortem report, dated 6 January, states that the cause of death would be confirmed after “the receipt of chemical analysis of viscera, scene of crime visit report and photographs.” It adds, “However, burns described over the body are postmortem in nature.” The report also mentions the police’s opinion on the cause of death, “Apparent cause of death as per police inquest report column no 20: Chunni dwara gala ghot kar”—death by strangulation of neck with a scarf.