The teenage lovers lynched for talking

Last Updated: Sat, Aug 18, 2001, 01:00

The village of Alinagar, in the fertile north Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, is an unremarkable place. On either side of the small main square, a handful of brick houses face each other. Beyond them, fields of tall green sugar cane unfold into a rural landscape of water buffaloes and sluggish jade rivers.

In the sultry afternoons, villagers doze in the shade on string charpoys to the desultory barking of pye-dogs. Alinagar is, in short, the kind of place that would scarcely feature on any map, or in any chronicle, were it not for the gruesome events of last week.

Everybody in the tiny community knew about the romance between Vishal, a 15-year-old boy, and Sonu, a 16-year-old girl. Their families, after all, lived less than 20ft apart.

Late on Monday night the week before last, a neighbour caught the pair together as they chatted on the roadside next to a bush. She accused them of having "suspicious intentions" and dragged them into her shed. And then she summoned their families. It was not that the teenagers had been caught in flagrante - they were not even holding hands. Their crime was far more primal and ancient: they were from different castes. Under India's enduring system of social stratification, a relationship between the pair was unthinkable.

Vishal was an upper-caste Brahmin; Sonu was a lower-caste Jat. Though it was not generally known, Sonu had recently been expelled from school for skipping lessons and, it seems, being galat - the Hindi word for immoral.

The girl's parents, Surender and Munesh, decided there was only one way to escape the terrible social humiliation their daughter had heaped upon them - they would kill her. And so, aided by three neighbours, they proceeded to strangle her in the dark shed, with its abandoned bicycle and mattresses, in front of her terrified boyfriend.

"The boy's mother told them: 'Don't do this.' The girl's parents then scolded her, so the boy's mother went and stood outside," says local police officer Raispal Singh. "After that, they got a rope. They made a noose out of it and hanged the girl. They then told the boy's mother and brother and sister-in-law: 'Now you kill the boy.' They replied: 'We can't kill him. You only kill him.' At this, the girl's parents hanged the boy."

By this stage the entire village knew what was going on inside the shed. The villagers dragged the teenagers' bodies out and dumped them on the back of a buffalo cart, hidden under sacking. At 3 a.m., a procession merged into the darkness. The villagers walked silently to the local cremation ground 10 minutes away. There they burned Vishal and Sonu on a joint pyre made from cow dung. Sonu's parents tossed on paraffin for good measure - against all the traditions of Hinduism - so the corpses would burn more quickly. They then surreptitiously threw the ashes into the Katha river.

The next day, the village got up as usual and pretended that nothing had happened. What is remarkable about Sonu and Vishal's story, which owes more to the bloody revenge tragedies of Webster than to Shakespeare, is not that the murders took place - but that the police ever found out. That and the fact that none of the family members who carried out the murders have so far shown any remorse.

"What we did was right from society's point of view but wrong from the point of law," Sonu's father, Surender, said last week, speaking from police custody.

"It seems strange to me too," her mother added, when asked how she could kill her own daughter. "But there was such anger at the time."

Alinagar is now almost deserted, most of the villagers having fled for fear of arrest. The buffaloes are unfed; Vishal's house is ransacked and empty. We find only Sonu's sister, Babita, and elderly aunt, Dagiyayi, sitting outside the family home. Neither sees much wrong in Sonu's brutal demise.

"I'm not happy. But Sonu was on the wrong path," Babita tells me, as she soaps a bucket full of clothes. "My parents did what they had to do. We were under compulsion."

Did Sonu love her parents? "Sonu used to love her parents very much," she says. "Sonu's mother had told her to break off the affair. She had been counselling her daughter lots and lots, and told her that after two months she would get her married [to someone else]," Dagiyayi says.

"But she would not listen. After that, Sonu's mother thought: 'OK, fine. Both of you die.' "

Was there a suitable groom lined up? "They had not found any boy for her. But they were going to start looking for one," the aunt says. "But in the end she just brought shame upon our family."

In Alinagar, as in most villages in northern India's rich rural heartland, children have little say about whom they marry. Instead, the parents of a prospective bride and groom agree everything between themselves. There has to be compatibility, not of temperament or personality but of caste and horoscope.

Inter-caste marriages or "love marriages" - where the boy and girl pick each other - are regarded with horror. As are girls who refuse to do what their parents tell them to.

"Some parents have heart attacks, others are forced to take sleeping tablets if their daughters disobey them," Sonu's aunt says. "In our case, the village considered that Sonu had been disrespectful. Her parents had no choice \other than to kill her."

To understand why, you have to go back a long way - back to the cattle-rustling Aryans who arrived on the subcontinent more than 3,000 years ago. The Aryans subdued the indigenous Dravidian peoples (although some historians now describe the process as more akin to assimilation). They introduced their own model of society: a priestly elite, a strict code of social classification, and the Sanskrit language. The Vedas, the collection of sacred Hindu hymns composed in the second millennium BC, sanctified this code. According to the Vedas, the gods chopped up a sacrificial figure representing mankind into four pieces. Out of its mouth they made the Brahmins, the highest priestly caste. The arms were turned into the Kshatriya, or warrior caste. The figure's thighs became the Vaisya, whose job it was to create wealth and who include the Jats to which Sonu belonged. Finally, the Sudra were produced, from the feet. The Sudra were - and still remain - at the bottom of the pile.

Remarkably, a system devised by a group of ancient colonists was to survive 300 generations. Indeed, recently it has been enjoying something of a revival. The Indian government is so touchy about caste that it has refused to include the subject in a UN world conference on racism to be held shortly in Durban. Indian politicians have realised the importance of the caste vote, and have begun cultivating vote banks along caste lines. Nowhere is this truer than in Uttar Pradesh, a state characterised by murky politics and communal volatility. UP, as it is known, boasts a population as big as Brazil's.

"This district is one of the most agriculturally prosperous in Uttar Pradesh," says Manoj Singh, the magistrate for the Muzaffarnagar area, which includes Alinagar. "We have eight sugar-mills. The farmers are having almost day-by-day increases in their farming income. They are becoming socially mobile.India has a strong pattern of social stratification based on caste. In this district, you find caste and class converging."

Sonu's father, a sugar-cane farmer, owned a Maruti jeep, now discreetly hidden, Singh points out. "We have one of the top rates for murder. There are two per day. There is a growing sense of lawlessness, which increased after agrarian movements launched from this district. The farmers are traditional in outlook and still adhere to old social practices. They are feudal."

Sonu and Vishal's murder, then, took place not against a background of poverty but of increased prosperity and unprecedented social change. Delhi, with its movie halls showing romantic Bollywood blockbusters, is only four hours' drive away. In urban India, inter-caste marriage is broadly accepted, and a clandestine sexual revolution is afoot.

The Alinagar murders, it emerges, are not an isolated case. In 1993, a Muslim couple who were eloping against the wishes of their parents were pulled off a rickshaw and had their heads cut off. At least three other similar cases have been reported in recent years; and many more have been hushed up.

"This happens in all the villages round here, but we don't want to talk about it," Sonu's aunt says. Most dismally, nobody ever seems to get punished. The conviction rate for murder in India is only 2 to 3 per cent. It is almost impossible to get witnesses to testify for the prosecution - fear, bribery and the threat of ostracism see to that. India's criminal justice system moves with tortoise-like speed: by the time a verdict is delivered, the local administration has changed and everyone has forgotten the original crime.

So far the police have arrested 11 people, including the girl's parents, in connection with the killings. But nobody from Alinagar has made a formal complaint, nor are they likely to. The crime is therefore denoted as "victimless", since there is n o victim in a position to complain. Detectives only found out about the murders following an anonymous phone call the next day. Most observers expect all of the accused to be quietly let out on bail in 18 months' time. They will return to their lush sugar-cane fields and to their buffaloes, and carry on much as before.

Sonu and Vishal's murders carry a blunt cautionary message: obey your parents or face the consequences. Many people in this conservative district would agree with it. The day after the killing, there was only a gruesome reminder of what might have been. Several of the lovers' bones were still visible on the pyre, bleaching in the fierce afternoon sun. The bones were jumbled up together.