NEW DELHI — Five months ago, Devanish Meena, a young Indian man from New Delhi, eloped with his longtime girlfriend. Now he is a widower. Adding to Devanish's anquish is his belief that the young bride, Pratibha Gujar, was murdered — by her own family.
In India, approximtely 1,000 young people are murdered each year in name of saving a family's honor. The "honor killings," as they're known, are often committed when a forced or arranged marriage is rejected.
Pratibha's death seems to fit the profile. The young woman's relationship with Devanish was very much opposed by her family. And so they killed her "by electrocuting her in a water tank," some of her cousins told the widowed husband.
Sharing his story with journalists and activists gathered at a press conference in Rajasthan, Devanish explains how his wife's family didn't even take their daughter to a hospital. No post mortem was conducted, he says.
The couple married in secret this past May, far away from their homes in New Delhi. They had been in love for many years, but their parents forbade the relationship because they are from different castes.
They first met in the sixth grade. "After that we became very good friends," Devanish says. "But when we were in 11th grade, her father found out about our relationship. As we belong to different castes he got angry and punished her to the worst extent." Devanish says Pratibha was tortured mentally and physically by her father, leading them to elope.
The widowed husband says he has presented evidence of the killing to the police, including letters and emails from his late wife saying her life was in danger and that her father was threatening her. But is doubtful he will get justice.
"I have submitted all the documents and proof to the police, but the police are asking for eyewitnesses," Devanish says. "From where can I bring the eyewitnesses?"
Women's rights activists have come forward to support Devanish and demand the case be thoroughly investigated. Kavita Srivastava, the secretary of the People's Union for Civil Liberties, says Devanish is distraught over his loss.
"This is a kind of denial of the right to choice. Plus, to eliminate her because of the honor of the family — as if women are the repository of the honor and men are controlling it," says Srivastava. "These are the shocking details and the state refuses to engage."
Evidence of such honor killings continue to pile up. But convictions are few and far between. Nisha Sidhu of the National Federation of Indian Women says that India badly needs a specific law against the crime. The Supreme Court of India has formulated guidelines intended to prevent honor killings, but right now they are only guidelines, not a hard-fast law, and some police officers are not even aware of them.
"Until a new law has been adopted, the guidelines of the highest court of the country against honor killings are to be strictly followed," Sidhu says. "But the problem is that our police are not acquainted with these guidelines."
Tales of torture
Before new laws are in place, Sidhu says that young women continue to seek refuge at her rescue center. Many tell stories of the violence they have endured at the hands of their parents and relatives because of whom they choose to marry.
"The daughters who come to me are tortured in cruel ways by their own parents. Some of them are punished by having iron rods put onto their genital organs. Some are burnt by cigarettes," she explains. "One of the girls was forced to drink acid, which caused irreparable damage to her vocal cords."
Devanish is listening to a Hindi song that Pratibha sang to him once, on his birthday. "Every body has to go one day ... Their value will be that of the soil," the song goes.
"I will bring justice to my dear wife," says Devanish. "I will fight for justice till the end."