A different rule of law governs behavior in rural Indian village Lovers' deaths a cruel indication of the lasting power of India's caste system.


MEHRANA, India -- It was at the entrance to this little village of mud and brick, beside an ancient shrine to Lord Shiva the destroyer, that Mehrana's star-crossed young lovers ended their lives side-by-side last week.

From a sturdy limb of Mehrana's holy banyan tree, Roshni, 16, and Bijendra, 20, were hanged just after 8 a.m. for all the village to see, a symbol of order, the elders had said, of tradition and of the village's izzat -- chastity and honor.

The young woman, Roshni, was a high-caste Hindu, after all, one of the Jats who owned the land, the village and the power over the likes of Bijendra and his fellow Jatavs. Bijendra, with whom Roshni had chosen to elope three days before, was from a "backward" caste, traditionally so impure and inferior they became known as Hinduism's "untouchables."

So separate are the Jats and Jatavs -- not unlike Shakespeare's Montagues and Capulets, only centuries older and with a feud far more stubborn -- that each has their own well in Mehrana. The Jats live on one side in houses of stone and tile, the Jatavs on the other in huts of mud and straw. Their separate realities intersect only when the Jats need a Jatav to pick the crop, build a house or mend a shoe.

For both sides, Roshni's and Bijendra's was a love impure.

They had to die. With that, even Roshni's father, Ganga Ram, had agreed.

"For me," the Jat elder had said at the night-long meeting in the village square that condemned the couple to hang last Wednesday, "the girl is dead already."

And so he helped string up his daughter, her lover and the couple's best friend from the centuries-old banyan tree. But even after three strong tugs on the rope, Roshni and Bijendra refused to die. So the Jats gathered a heap of dry wood, then dragged the young couple, writhing in pain, to the makeshift funeral pyre they had built nearby. And in a final ritual of ancient village justice, the elders burned them to death, Jat and Jatav together, so that none would forget this day.

A single Jatav escaped the village, dodging armed Jat sentries posted all around Mehrana. It was Amichand, the uncle of Bijendra's best friend, who reported every detail to the nearest police station, 10 miles away.

Now Mehrana's modern-day Romeo and Juliet have become a symbol of a far-different sort for India, a grisly illustration of the magnitude of the forces defying its march into the modern age -- forces increasingly outstripping logic and the rule of law as the divisions in its society grow ever deeper.

Decades after India's caste system was constitutionally banned, the lynchings of the lovers in Mehrana triggered an outcry from Indian liberals and intellectuals in the nation's capital. The prominent national daily, the Indian Express, condemned it as "savagery at its appalling worst" in an editorial with the headline, "Monstrous!"

Under unprecedented popular pressure, the politicians and police this week ordered the arrest of 37 Jat elders who approved and executed the lynching; 21 of them are now in jail.

But in deeply polarized India -- again poised on the brink of yet another bloody national election, in which the ancient caste system already is a prominent issue -- the village elders of Mehrana who ordered the hangings have drawn an unprecedented number of defenders, as well.

One state government minister paying a condolence visit to the village this week, for example, lavished his greatest gift, not on the Jatavs, but on the Jat mother of Roshni -- a pledge to free her husband from jail within days so he can supervise the spring harvest.

And in a politically paralyzed country where three national governments have come and gone in 18 months and where the institutions of government and its bureaucracy have all but ceased to function at the grass-roots level in many regions, defenders of the elders of Mehrana assert that they are to be commended for keeping a semblance of order in a village that seems centuries removed from the ideal of a modern Indian state.

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