It was a national debate on a news channel. Tempers were running high, so were the decibels. The subject was explosive - Haryana's khaps and their diktats. In the midst of this charged atmosphere, a voice rose above the rest, silencing them all. Seema, a law graduate and resident of Karora village, made an allegation that changed the course of the debate. Her brother had been executed for marrying a woman from the same gotra, but that was not what Seema wanted to talk about on the primetime show. It was another shameful reality of Haryana villages she wanted to expose - incest.
"Khaps should look into their homes before passing fatwas on lovers and crying hoarse about honour. Incest is rampant in the state and virtually every home is affected. Where is the honour anyway ?" she screamed.
Early this week, the state was shocked when a pregnant girl was strangled by her parents and her body dumped on the outskirts of Bahadurgarh in Jhajjar district. Her crime: she was reportedly having an affair with her brother-in-law and her vengeful elder sister had complained to their parents.
In another embarrassing case earlier this year, a farmer in his early 50s developed a sexual relation with his 30-year-old daughter-in-law in a village in Kaithal district. Their liaison continued for almost a year. The matter even reached the village panchayat, which ordered separation of the two unlikely partners so that the woman could go back to her husband.
And only last month, Sonepat was jolted by the gruesome murder of two minor girls, just 12 and 14. They were killed and their bodies flung in a canal by their uncles and grandmother after their "affair" with a cousin was exposed. The police said the kin of the victims were enraged when they allegedly caught the minors getting intimate with their cousin. In Yamunanagar, a girl complained to the police that her father-in-law had raped her just a few months after her marriage.
These are not isolated incidents: incest is reportedly a real part of life in rural Haryana. "It's a menace nobody wants to talk about. Even the elders are setting a bad example, " says D R Chaudhary, member of the Haryana Administrative Reforms Commission. The elders, predictably, blame this perversion on the growing sway of the west over the state's youth.
When Kurukshetra-based Ramesh Kumar's daughter married a close relative, he blamed it on urban influence. Now he is fighting a legal battle to have the marriage declared null and void, terming it a contravention of the provisions of the Hindu Marriage Act, 1955. The mothers of the newly-wed couple were apparently related, being granddaughters of the same person.
The incidence of incest may be higher in rural areas. "Social mores in villages are different. People here are very conservative and there is no scope for interaction between men and women and boys and girls outside their homes. So, they often end up having relationships with members of their accessible, extended family, " says Balbir Singh, a social activist in Fatehabad district.
Experts believe that such relationships have survived behind closed doors for many years. But given the modern means of communication and the proliferation of the media, the skeletons are now tumbling out of family cupboards.
The youth, interestingly, believe that incest is a traditional practice and not a new reality. "Yeh to hame virasat mein mili hai (incest is a part of our tradition), " says Naresh Kumar, a villager in Rohera in Kaithal district. Sociologists, in turn, say that the ethnic history of the region is full of such instances.
"In the pre-Independence era, in some parts of north India, the father-in-law almost had the right to physical relations with a daughter-in-law, and in most cases the female was not in a position to resist much. The very young husband also had no say in the matter. Widows would routinely be married to a brother of the dead husband. Sharing of the wife by brothers was also not uncommon, " says Ravinder Kaur, a professor at IIT-Delhi.
What adds to this problem in Haryana is its skewed sex ratio caused by rampant female foeticide. "Its effects are now being felt on intimate relationships within and without the family. The shortage of marriageable women can have many unintended consequences, especially when only one out of four men find a bride (as in the case of Haryana) in their own community, " adds Kaur.
Kumar's 35-year-old nephew, Roshan, is yet to get any offers for marriage. "We are at a loss, wondering what to do, " says Kumar. A growing army of bachelors has become a problem in the state, leading to more illicit relations.
Yet, there seems little the government and social organisations can do about this. Haryana has not seen any strong social movement in recent years and there are very few NGOs working on such issues. While a Haryana court was quick (it took three years) to deliver the death penalty to five khap members accused in the sensational murder of Manoj and Babli in March this year, it took aBhiwani court around five years to give its verdict in a shocking case of incest that surfaced almost a decade ago.
In a letter to Bhiwani senior superintendent of police, an 18-year-old girl spoke of how her father and cousin exploited her sexually for seven months. "My father used to rape me. Not only this, my uncle and his son too sexually assaulted me, " stated the girl.
"My mother was usually sent to sleep in another house and I was made to sleep with my father. My mother was not aware of all this. When I told my boyfriend and he objected, my father and cousin beat him up and also got a false case registered against him. When I threatened to go to the police, I was locked up, " she wrote in the letter.
It was only after the girl said she would tell her mother that she was released from her confinement. The girl then ran away with her boyfriend and a case of abduction was slapped on the boy. Nobody knows where the couple is today.
Chilling tales of incest and abuse have been pouring in from all over the state. Inquiries reveal that physical relationship with a husband's brother is not considered 'unusual. ' "Such relations are not objected to. They are considered a family's 'internal affair', " says Prem Singh, a farmer-leader from Kaithal.
In a study conducted by the UNICEF in 2001 to gauge the context of abortions involving 83 adolescent girls in the age group of 10 to 19 years in Rohtak district, it was found that incest was a common cause. "It was responsible for pregnancies in 16 per cent of the cases. We have even had cases of girls getting pregnant through their kin, including fathers and brothers, " says Sonia Trikha, who's associated with the UNICEF. Many feel the situation has worsened in the last decade.
Leaders of gotra-based khap panchayats blame the law for protecting those who are guilty of incest. "A scheduled caste girl had run away with a boy from her family. Later, they married and even got police protection, " says Badan Singh, leader of the Kalayat khap. Another prominent leader, Om Parkash Dhankar, president of the Dhankhar khap, complains about new social trends: "Illicit relationships are on the rise. Even a Supreme Court ruling spoke of permitting live-in relationship without marriage. "
But Seema blames the khaps for shifting the focus from the real problems. "The problem, " she says, "is not of love marriages, or marriages within gotras and villages, but incest. Marrying out of choice is not a crime, incest is. Khap leaders should be addressing the problem of incest and check this evil instead of hounding people who are in love. "
INCEST IN MYTHOLOGY
If you thought Greek tragedies such as Odeipus Rex were embarrassing in their details of incest, our own epics and mythological texts are no less. They, in fact, abound with instances where men and women have conjugated with close kin. For instance, in the Mahabharata, Arjuna was married to Subhadra, the daughter of his aunt Rohini. Then there is the union of Yama with his twin sister Yami;Manu, son of Vivasvat, and his sister Sraddha;Prajapati and his daughter Ushas;Pushan and his sister Surya;Sukra and his three sisters;Satrajita and his 10 sisters;Nahusha and his sister Viraja. Purukutsa's queen Narmada after her husband's death obtained a son through her own brother
WHY IN RURAL HARYANA?
Skewed sex ratio; 860 girls for 1,000 boys
Very conservative society;girls and women are allowed to speak openly with only close relatives
A large number of girls and women don't work outside their homes
Social resistance to love marriages