Romeo must die and so must Juliet, if she and her star-crossed lover happen to belong to different castes--or to the same "gotra"--and decide to get married. The so-called "honour killings" have become a macabre trend: a new incident is reported almost every day in some part of North India.
It is often remarked that though India has only one official time zone--Indian Standard Time--in actual fact different mental time frames--often a century or more apart--jostle each other and, not infrequently, collide headlong with fatal results. Increasingly rapid urbanization is one of the main factors involved. Not only are more and more people--particularly younger people--moving into towns and cities in search of livelihood, but urban areas, under the strain of migrant populations, are expanding to swallow up what was once the rural hinterland. The result is often not just a physical but a massive cultural dislocation in which traditional norms and taboos are inevitably challenged or broken. Equally inevitably, there is a backlash in which the self-appointed custodians of a community's moral and social codes--in this case the Khap Panchayats--take it upon themselves to punish those who transgress such codes.
Most, if not all, of these traditional codes relate to caste, particularly when it comes to marriage. Inter-caste marriages is widely seen--and not just by the newly urbanized or semi-urbanized--as a cultural pollutant that defiles the caste purity not just of the immediate families involved but of the entirety of the two communities concerned. However, with urbanization--and the relatively greater emancipation of women that often, thought not always, comes in its wake--these age-old caste barriers are becoming increasingly porous, or irrelevant.
Unlike in villages and rural areas where caste is your unalterable destiny, in the melting pot of urban India, the contours of caste are less rigidly defined. Your gram panchayat certainly knows your caste and expects you to behave accordingly; your BPO employer and your call centre colleagues may well be ignorant about it, or indifferent, about your caste, leaving you free to marry or to socialize with whoever you will.
This is the source of the conflict that leads to the murder of inter-caste couples, the revenge of tradition against the heresy of modernism. How is it to be combated, and potential victims protected from such cruel atrocities? The first thing is to stop calling such despicable acts "honour" killings: there is nothing whatsoever honourable about them; if anything, they bring dishonour to the perpetrators and to our society as a whole for allowing such crimes to take place. These "dishonourable" killings are a premediated murder and ought to be treated as such by law enforcers.
Deplorably, thanks to vote-bank politics, a number of politicians, including the current Chief Minister of Haryana, have taken a supportive view of the Khap Panchayat's ban on same-gotra marriages. If same-gotra marriages are "incestuous" , as the Khaps insist they are, shouldn't by extension of this logic inter-caste marriages be preferable to same-caste marriage to prevent inbreeding?
The Supreme Court has taken the lead by issuing a notice to the Centre and to the eight northern states, including Haryana, to explain what steps they have taken to prevent caste and gotra related murders. Social activists, in Haryana and elsewhere, are raising awareness about the issue through Public Interest Litigations (PILs), street theatre and other means.
Perhaps, what is needed is organized mass marriages, conducted under government auspices, where irrespective of caste or gotra, nuptials can be solmenised by the mutual consent of couples and the blessings of a truly secular state. Such a state could not promise that marriages are made in heaven. But it could guarantee that caste-controversial marriages can be made in a sarkari haven.