Manoj, Babli and the Question Left Behind

Originally published in BLAH magazine, 6th April 2011. For the published article – Click Here.

The Manoj-Babli murder case or as popularly phrased ‘Honor killing’ case hasn’t yet become a long term obsession, whether with the Indian media or the larger Indian public. It isn’t even something we’d think about unless we were watching a video or reading an article about it. Something happening in a remote village in Haryana shouldn’t really affect us living in the NCR or another big city, right? Or at least that’s what we like to think.

Manoj and Babli were a couple from Karora village in Kaithal District, Haryana who were kidnapped and murdered after the Khap Panchayat of their village annulled their marriage and declared it unnatural. Since they belonged to the same ‘Gotr’ (clan), they were declared to be siblings and hence in an incestuous relationship. Besides the entire village being involved in the boycotting of the boys family and the entire Khap passing judgment on the marriage, there were seven people involved in the murder of the couple. Five of them were directly related to Babli, out of which one was her real brother. The key conspirator of this murder -Ganga Raj, was the leader of the Banwala Khap Panchayat.

Besides being the first case in which charges were filed against those involved in an ‘Honor Killing’, the other striking feature of this case was that both people who registered the F.I.R. and were fighting for justice were women and directly related to the one of the deceased. Chanderpati, Manoj’s mother was a widow with 4 children and Manoj had been the only working member of her family. Her daughter Seema who was only 19 when her brother died, despite being offered bribes and then death threats has continued demanding justice for the couple.

The case and evidence seemed to be clear cut, but despite that it took 33 months for the verdict to be decided. During this time the Khap made sure it was heard and did everything it could to pressurize the boy’s family to withdraw the case. After the initial bribes didn’t work and neither did the subsequent intimidation, the Khap in a desperate attempt to silence them placed a social and economic boycott on the family. The boycott entailed that anyone who talked or did business with the family would have to pay a fine of Rs.25,000 and face a similar situation themselves.

With such enormous pressure being built on the family to withdraw the FIR and it being impossible for them to live under the circumstances that Ganga Raj and the Khap seemed to creating for them in the village, it was at this stage that several activists from the DYFI and AIDWA, who had been working with the family ever since the murder had to step in and appeal to the state administration and the Women’s Commission for rehabilitation of these women. All throughout this period there were several Panchayats being held all across Haryana in favor of Ganga Raj and issuing warnings against his arrest. It was clear that this was having an affect on the state because despite the clear evidence the police was still refusing to arrest Ganga Raj. Funnily enough, despite the Khap openly accepting its actions with pride, the news channels seemed to have tired of the wait for the verdict and moved on to the ‘next big thing’. In one video by NewsClick, Panwanjit Banwala, the president of the Banwala Khap, openly talks about the murder and the reasoning behind it. He assures people on record that anyone who transgresses the traditional code will not be spared and even more stringent measures will be taken the next time. When asked if that meant that they would go ‘beyond murder’, the reply was “Murder? No big deal. If sons and daughters start marrying each other… masturbate together, what’ll be left of society? And you talk about murders?”

The first verdict of the session court finally came out on 29th of March 2010 but not before another couple had fallen victim to the Banwala Khap. The verdict was regarded as a much welcomed breakthrough and celebrated by everybody who supported the family as it convicted all seven of the accused. The five relatives were given death sentences and the driver of the car in which they were taken to the scene of the murder was awarded 7 years of imprisonment. Sadly, Ganga Raj, who was the key conspirator was not given death sentence but was given life imprisonment. But even though the session court had caused a major setback to the power the Khaps thought they held and provided hope to their countless victims and their families, the High Court verdict that followed created just as much of the opposite effect.  On the 11th of March, the Punjab and Haryana High Court converted the death sentences awarded to four of the accused into life imprisonment. It also acquitted two others accused, including Ganga Raj for ‘lack of evidence’. This decision was taken despite the fact that there had been an assassination attempt on Seema inside the premises of the police academy where she worked. The hired killer just out on parole, later confessed that he’d been recruited by Babli’s relatives when he was in jail with them.

Now this article isn’t there to question the functioning of our legal system or the ideologies of the Khap and their way of imposing them. It isn’t there to question why the top news channels chose to show us clippings of the comedy circus for 6 hours at a stretch, but broadcast this issue for a period of 20 seconds or maybe not even that; even though all these questions need to be addressed just as much! And the sooner, the better.

But when you see the Khap leader talk openly and defiantly about their actions and so convinced about their motivation, it is bound to leave you a little confused. They seem to be just as convinced that they are right as we are. In two women standing up and fighting against a caste-based council that destroyed their family, we see bravery but they see a mistake. A mistake of a more serious kind then we could even begin to imagine.

In 2011, we live in a society that at most times seems to accept that we are not defined by our mistakes, but the question that still seems stuck in my mind is who defines our mistakes?

All our systems seem to be based on the prevalent opinion and state of the society but when society is as fragmented into camps in times such as these, with each camp refusing to even think of the possibility of them being wrong, then what? While someone like me can sit here in a discussion and harp about how utterly ridiculous the mentality of the Khap is, at the same time another 18 year old boy in a village who has been brought up to believe in the very same ideology I ridicule can be sitting and talking about how my way of thinking is harmful and wrong in itself. We both can believe the other to be the enemy while equally believing in the truth of our own stands. What is an act of courage to one is a mistake for another.

There are plenty of other cases that will make us think about these questions. Plenty of incidents that have happened and others that will. Some might take place right next door and others might take place at the other end of the world. But unless we answer this question and then stick by it, the possibility of finding clear solutions to anything seems bleak. So I’m ending by putting forward the question again –

Regardless of whether we are defined by our mistakes- Who has the power to define what a mistake is in the first place?

For more information about the Manoj-Babli case, the High Court verdict and to hear what the Khap Panchayat, Seema and Chanderpati have to say, watch-

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=S5cNvZbG-g0&feature=player_embedded – (Courtesy Newsclick)

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