Dharminder Singh, 27, remembered hiding in a small hotel room for 15 days in the northern Indian city of Chandigarh, in the state of Punjab. With no access to his phone, all Singh had was his identity documents, some money and a woman he wanted to make his wife. Outside, there were men from his girlfriend’s village trying to hunt them down.
“There were around 10 men from [my wife] Harmeel’s village,” Singh, who was 26 last year when this incident unfolded, told VICE World News. “They had sent death threats to me, to my family. They told my parents that they will kill me, and take Harmeel back home.”
Singh is one of the hundreds of eloping couples in Punjab who make headlines every year, for not just running away but also seeking protection from their families who disapprove of their relationship. An increasing number of them are turning to district and state courts to save them.
Often, the disapproval of families comes at the cost of the lives of young couples. Honour killings or honour crimes—defined as incidents of violence and harassment caused to young couples who want to marry or are married against the wishes of their community or family—is common in South Asian countries. Official data from 2018 recorded over 300 honour killings between 2016 and 2018 in India.
Human rights bodies note that honour-related murders are often underreported, or even misreported as suicides or accidents. Most victims of honour-based violence are women, while most perpetrators are family members. India does not have a specific law for honour killings.
In Punjab, courts are given the directive to hear out urgent appeals of couples who often seek protection from their communities before or even after they’re married. Before the pandemic hit this year, the Punjab & Haryana High Court—a judiciary institution that covers the states of Punjab and Haryana, and the Union Territory of Chandigarh—was hearing over 100 cases of runaway couples almost every day. During the COVID-19 lockdown that lasted for more than 100 days, that number was around 25 runaway couples every day.
In Ludhiana—a city of over 3.4 million people in Punjab— the district court heard cases of around 4,500 runaway couples in the last five years. In 2020, this court saw over 500 couples seeking protection from their families.
Rakesh Gandhi, an advocate from Ludhiana who has been representing runaway couples for the last six years, told VICE World News that most couples choose to run away because of caste and economic differences. “Especially in Uttar Pradesh (UP) and (eastern Indian state of) Bihar, caste is a major factor. There are cases where young couples are even murdered,” he said.
Religion also plays a major role, too. In an ongoing movement, some groups of the Hindu faith are resorting to a Hindu right-wing conspiracy theory of Love Jihad, in which interfaith couples involving Muslim men and Hindu women are targeted, vilified and attacked. Last week, an interfaith couple fled their hometown in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh and sought protection from their families from the Delhi High Court and the police.
Every other month, these courts are compelled to direct families and communities on how young couples cannot be attacked for choosing a partner of their own choice. In September, the Punjab & Haryana High Court observed that a runaway couple is entitled to protection even if one of them is a minor, or they’re in a live-in relationship. The same court also routinely extends protection to same-sex couples, who face harassment and threats to life by their families.
In June this year, the Punjab and Haryana High Court was so overwhelmed by pleas of runaway couples that it said these cases were “draining” the court’s resources.
In some parts of the country, the police run shelters or safe houses where couples can seek refuge from their families and villages while their court cases are on. In some cases, these shelters have turned out to be exploitative or shady. Last year, the Delhi Police arrested the head of a shelter for runaway couples called Love Commandos for illegally confining and extorting the couples.
The statistics are a testament to an everyday story in India, where falling in love can be a dangerous proposition for some. With limited recourse and resources available to them, runaway couples rely on courts to live their lives without fear.
Singh got married last year to his girlfriend of eight years after eloping. “When Harmeel’s parents did not agree, we decided this is what we had to do,” he said. Harmeel’s family immediately filed police complaints against Singh after they eloped. Singh alleged that the police harassed his family based on those complaints.
“They came, raided our house without permits, and harassed my family,” he said. “They drummed up all kinds of lies, including how I have killed the girl I have run away with.”
Singh had approached the Punjab & Haryana High Court not just to get protection but also to send a legal notice to Harneel’s village that if he was found dead, Harneel’s family would be blamed. “I’m educated, so I could understand what’s happening or could happen,” he said. “They were death threats, after all. After that, the police took our side, and gave us reassurances that all is safe.”
Gandhi said that runaway couples seeking protection is “routine” in this part of the country. “During the pandemic, there was a rush, especially in April, of such cases because the courts were shut and the couples wanted relief,” said Gandhi, who has been practising for almost a decade.
In the meantime, couples continue to be attacked. In August this year, a young runaway couple was allegedly murdered by the woman’s family. The woman’s father had allegedly packed the couple’s bodies in a plastic bag and thrown them in a canal. In another case from last year, a couple from different castes were attacked outside a court in UP, allegedly by men hired by the upper-caste woman’s father.
Last year, a study found that socially weaker couples, with less financial resources or employment prospects, are more likely to end up dead in honour killings.
Singh said that the prevailing patriarchy and gender bias in India have a big role to play in the acceptance of love and relationships. “If it’s a girl’s decision, it’s wrong. If it’s a son, then the family is okay with it,” he said. “My parents had totally accepted our relationship, but it was her family and even her village head, who were baying for my blood.”
Singh added that his wife has now gone to Canada to work and that he will join her very soon. “Runaway couples are not criminals, you know,” he said. “My wife’s family has accepted our marriage now and we’re safe. But we want to build our futures where people are open-minded. That will happen only once we’re both out of here.”
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