Elopement Wedding

Haryana’s runaway couples find themselves in a financial knot

Tina only had 50 in her pocket when she defied her family and ran away with her childhood friend Sukhjit.

Not only Tina, staying in a single-room safe house under police protection, a majority of the runaway couples taking refuge in such government-run houses across the state have to battle financial burden that weighs them down.

And worse still, most of these couples are exploited by some institutions for solemnizing their marriages. “Neither any document is asked for nor any record maintained but hefty amounts are charged,” the Punjab and Haryana High Court had noted in a recent order related to the case of a runaway couple.

Most of the runaway couples are school dropouts and daily wage earners. Neither they can bank on their family for support nor step out to earn a living.

Before landing in these shelter homes, the runaway couples often in their wedding garments first reach the high court for protection fearing “honor killing” as their inter-caste or same gotra (clan) marriages trigger hostilities.

For instance, in Kaithal district, a khap panchayat in 2007 had ordered the killings of Manoj and Babli who married each other despite belonging to the same Banwala ‘gotra’. In 2008, pregnant Sunita and her husband Jasbir were murdered in Karnal’s Balla village as they hailed from the same village and violated the norms.

The 20-year-old Tina, who has studied till Class 12 and is staying at Karnal’s shelter home, says her relationship with Sukhjit, 24, was forbidden as they come from different castes and live in the same village in Karnal district.

“My family was dead against the relationship. It didn’t help that Sukhjit is a mason. Although Sukhjit is a daily wager, he makes 1,500 per day and more than my government employee brother-in-law,” says Tina.

The couple says they have already spent 40,000 since September 25 when they ran away from home. Exacerbating matters, Sukhjit cannot return to work until he is sure that Tina’s family will not harm them.

Cops guarding the shelter home at the Karnal Police Line say the government has provided the couples shelter and security, but they have to bear other expenses from their pocket. They are charged 40 per meal, and 15 per person for tea and snacks.

Among the eight couples at Karnal shelter home are Manjeet Singh, 23, and Anu, 19, who escaped without much forethought or planning. “Anu’s family was forcing her to marry a man 13 years older than her. So one night she turned up at my house, without any belongings, and threatened to end her life if I didn’t run away with her. We fled to Delhi on my bike at 1 am and sought police protection after getting married,” said Manjeet, who is an electrician and makes around 25,000 per month. “However, Anu’s family will not accept our alliance as we belong to the same village. It would be foolish to return,” he added.

Inter-caste couple Mandeep, 21, and Kajal, 18, had been planning to elope for four years, and they ran from home soon after the latter was of marriageable age. “We had saved around 35,000 when we left. We paid 24,000 to the advocate for our marriage and security, and our daily expenses are around 300 per day,” said Mandeep.

Asked if the young couple planned to return home anytime soon with their funds dwindling by the day, Mandeep says, “We can’t go back just yet as my father and uncle are livid because Kajal belongs to a lower caste.”

Identical are the worries of Rohit, 23, and Reena, 27, who are distant relatives and have been disowned by their family after running away from home. Rohit, who left school after Class 8 runs a hair salon, while Reena, a middle school dropout, is planning to seek employment as a tailor.

“Fearing that we may stake claim on the ancestral property, my widowed mother recently transferred all properties, including a plot, a shop and house, to my elder sister,” says Reena.

Meanwhile, Shubham, 24, and Sheetal, 22, are hopeful that their families will eventually come around. The elders in the family had fixed the alliance two years ago, but things turned sour when Shubham’s family demanded a car in dowry. Komal’s father is a mason and cannot afford it, so the couple decided to get married against the family’s wishes.

“Since I am the only son, my father will have to come around,” says Shubham, who holds an ITI diploma. Sheetal holds a BBA degree.

One of the safe houses of the state is witnessing a peculiar story of Sujan Singh (28) and Sarita (32). Both were already married but decided to leave their spouses and children behind to live together. Sarita belongs to an upper caste while Sujan comes from a backward community.

Protection houses in six divisions

According to Dr Puneet Grewal, state mission coordinator in Haryana’s women and child development department, the state government has approved an ambitious proposal to set up shelter homes having latest and necessary amenities.

“The chief minister has cleared the proposal and the finance department has released the budget. These shelter homes will be set up within the complex of police line at Ambala, Hisar, Rohtak, Karnal, Gurugram and Faridabad,” Dr Grewal said, adding this project will be entirely funded by the state government.

“The building plans are being readied and the construction work will start soon.”

The protection house will have separate rooms with attached washrooms to accommodate five couples. It will cater to the primary needs of ‘couples in distress’ such as shelter, food, clothing and care. Legal, medical aid and counseling services for the couples, their relatives and other stakeholders will be offered until the couples are successfully rehabilitated.

As per estimates, the construction cost of each shelter home will be about 70 lakh and it will be spread across 300 sq mt plot. The financial annual liability for running one protection home has been pegged at around 42 lakh that includes salary of staff to be hired on contract basis and per visit fee of a lawyer and a doctor.

Haryana’s plan for setting up protection houses to combat honor killing envisions a supporting institutional framework to ensure safety and security of runaway couples. It envisages that shelter, food, clothing, safety and social security are ensured for such couples.

Concerns of high court

In what is referred to as ‘Lovepreet Kaur’s case, the Punjab and Haryana high court has underlined that “the non-acceptability of inter-caste marriage is a social problem which needs to be dealt at multifarious levels” and that since it is a social issue it “needs to be handled with care.”

“…Number of petitions still being received from both the states is an indicator that effective working of the steps claimed to be taken has not reached the grass root level as yet,” Justice Avneesh Jhingan of the Punjab and Haryana High Court said in a December 21, 2021, order, which is at the core of numerous steps Haryana is taking to deal with issues revolving around runaway couples.

The court had stated that the balance between social responsibility and legal right needs to be maintained and that providing protection would be an interim measure that cannot continue for life long.

“It is ultimately counseling and mediation between the affected parties which will ensure that there is a redressal of root cause…,” the high court had said in Lovepreet Kaur’s case.

Haryana has set up constituted committees and special cells in all the districts for receiving and registering complaints for harassment and threats to couples of inter-caste marriage. The special cell provides necessary protection to the couples while women and child development department has been made the nodal department for setting up of protection houses.

Khap panchayats’ diktats

Not only the parents and the relatives but khap panchayats also oppose same gotra (clan) marriages. The Supreme Court had termed these khap panchayats interference in marriages of consenting adults as illegal. The khaps also oppose marriages within the same village.

There were instances when those who dared to disobey the diktats paid with their lives.

It is this fear of being killed that forces these couples to approach the high court for protection from where they are sent to a ‘safe home’ under 24/7 police security.

Each district has single room safe home for such couples in Haryana.

Officials say on an average at least 10 runaway couples can be found taking shelter in these safe homes where the couples are initially kept for two weeks and later the stay is extended.

Most of the safe homes have one room for all couples. Barring a combined washroom, mattresses and ceiling fan, the shelter homes offer no other amenity.

(Names of couples changed to protect identity)

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