BALLA, India (Reuters) - Five armed men burst into the small room and courtyard at dawn, just as 21-year-old, 22-week pregnant, Sunita was drying her face on a towel.
They punched and kicked her stomach as she called out for her sleeping boyfriend “Jassa,” 22-year-old Jasbir Singh, witnesses said. When he woke, both were dragged into waiting cars, driven away and strangled.
Their bodies, half-stripped, were laid out on the dirt outside Sunita’s father’s house for all to see, a sign that the family’s “honor” had been restored by her cold-blooded murder.
A week later, the village of Balla, just a couple of hours drive from India’s capital New Delhi, stands united behind the act, proud, defiant almost to a man.
Among the Jat caste of the conservative northern state of Haryana, it is taboo for a man and woman of the same village to marry. Although the couple were not related, they were seen in this deeply traditional society as brother and sister.
“From society’s point of view, this is a very good thing,” said 62-year-old farmer Balwan Arya, sitting smoking a hookah in the shade of a tree in a square with other elders from the village council or panchayat. “We have removed the blot.”
Growing economic opportunities for young people and lower castes in Haryana have made “love marriages” more common, experts say, and the violent repression of them has risen in tandem as upper caste Jat men fight to hold on to power, status and property.
Sunita’s father Om Prakash has confessed to murdering his pregnant daughter and her boyfriend, police told Reuters. An uncle and two cousins were among four others arrested.
But in Balla many people believe the father confessed merely to underline that he supported his daughter’s killing, to satisfy honor and protect the real culprits among his family or village.
At their house, Sunita’s mother did not emerge to talk. Instead, a young man on a motorbike tried to intimidate the Reuters team into leaving. It turned out he was another of Sunita’s cousins, his father and brother held by police.
“We are not ashamed of it, absolutely not, we have the honor of doing the village proud,” he said.
“We would not have had a face to show if we had not done this. It was the act of ‘real men’.”
The relatively prosperous northern state of Haryana is one of India’s most conservative when it comes to caste, marriage and the role of women. Deeply patriarchal, caste purity is paramount and marriages are arranged to sustain the status quo.
Men and women are still murdered across the villages of northern India for daring to marry outside their caste, but in Haryana the practice is widespread, and widely supported.
Here, women veil their faces with scarves in public. The illegal abortion of female fetuses is common, the ratio of women to men in Haryana just 861 to 1,000, the lowest in the country.
Anyone who transgresses social codes, by marrying across caste boundaries or within the same village, is liable to meet the same fate as Sunita and Jasbir.
Many such murders are never reported, hardly any result in prosecution, says Professor Javeed Alam, chairman of the Indian Council of Social Science Research.
“People from the same village are treated as siblings in Haryana,” he said. “So this is treated as incest.”
Without any law to prohibit this kind of marriage, “the only way you can punish it is by taking the law into your own hands. People believe people who commit incest should be killed.”
Nor do politicians ever renounce the practice, Alam added, because if they did, “they would not win elections.”
And the legalization of property rights for women in 1956 made love marriages within a village even more dangerous for this elite, as daughters living close to home could in theory claim a part of the family land, sociologist Prem Chowdhry says.
Sunita and Jasbir, sweethearts in the same class at school, had little chance. When he left school a couple of years before her to become an photographer’s apprentice, he would often hang around at the school gates to collect her.
She was married off to another man, but left her husband to elope with Jasbir a year-and-a-half ago, and while the families tried to keep them apart, they realized it was a losing battle.
“They were madly in love even to the last day,” said Jasbir’s 16-year-old sister-in-law Lalita in the house where they lived in Machhroli village, around 35 km (20 miles) by road from Balla.
To make matters worse, Jasbir was from a lower sub-caste, and she was pregnant outside marriage. Sunita’s parents in Balla found themselves virtually ostracized.
“Nobody would drink water in our house,” Sunita’s mother Roshni is reported to have said. “My daughter’s action made us aliens in our own land. But we have managed to redeem our honor. She paid for her ill-gotten action.”
But among Jasbir’s family, split between Machhroli and Balla, grief is mixed with fear.
“Why are you talking to the media?” shouted a female family member at one point. “This will only bring more trouble.”
At the small police post in Balla, a constable admitted the case was unlikely to ever reach prosecution, with the village putting enormous pressure on the police, and especially Jasbir’s family, to quietly drop the case.
“We are being pressurized into reaching an agreement, a compromise, without even being given time to grieve,” said Jasbir’s 25-year-old sister Neelam. “We have been told that if we don’t compromise, we will suffer the same fate.”
In the narrow alleyway outside their tiny house, women wailed in grief. A few hundred yards away, the panchayat sat in quiet self-satisfaction.
“The people who have done this should get an award for it,” said 48-year-old Satvir Singh. “This was a murder of morality.”
Editing by Alistair Scrutton