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."

Consider this horrific crime next time you think about buying an HP
product supported in India.