The murder of photographer Ankit Saxena by the family of his girlfriend Shehzadi in New Delhi on 30 January clearly sent shock waves through the country. It’s a relatively unusual case of an upper caste Hindu man being the victim of a so-called “honour killing”, and newspapers are full of gory details about how Shehzadi’s mother faked road rage to help Shehzadi’s father and uncle get away with killing Saxena with an eight-inch knife.
The Saxena case was also brought up in a simultaneous, separate case being heard in the Supreme Court on 4 February. While the court declined to extend the ambit of the petition in question to cover discussion of the Saxena case, perhaps the details of the case contributed to the climate that inspired the apex court to make some very strange suggestions for couples.
During the hearing of the petition, the Supreme Court highlighted the extreme pressure couples face from khap panchayats, families and other forces. It observed, “Where two consenting adults agree to enter into matrimony, no individual rights, group rights or collective rights shall interfere therein or harass the couple”. So, to this end, it’s asked the Centre to submit its recommendations on whether we need actual police committees to protect couples from “opposing forces”. (On an aside, given that the Kerala HC annulled Hadiya’s marriage because they didn’t approve of her choice of spouse, do High Courts feature on the list of ‘opposing forces’ too?)
Whatever the case may be, it feels like we’re soon going to be in the absurd position of having police committees play the role of the ageing Anglo-Indian aunty-uncle that helps the hero and heroine elope in Bollywood movies from the 90s.
If that isn’t an absurd enough comparison, think of it this way: If the Centre decides to take the court up on its suggestion of constituting this committee, we’ll be living in a time where we simultaneously have police committees to protect couples, while Uttar Pradesh’s still-functional government-mandated anti-Romeo squads (let us call them ARS for abbreviatory and phonetic purposes) continue to roam the streets and harass couples. What happens when the Romeo Committee meets the anti-Romeo squad? What sparks will fly, and who will emerge victorious? Nobody knows.
But on a serious note, let’s make it clear that this is certainly an area that needs action and attention. Disturbing statistics show that there was an 800 percent rise in “honour killings” between 2014 and 2015, and it feels like you can’t crack open a newspaper without reading a new report of murder or violence being meted out to inter-community couples.
Just this weekend, Ankit Saxena shared headlines with reports of a Hindutva group based in Karnataka publishing the Facebook profiles of over 100 Hindu girls that they claimed were soon to become victims of “love jihad”, urging group members to “hunt” the women’s lovers and bring the women back into the fold of Hinduism. It’s clear that inter-community marriages are subject to overwhelming opposition and hatred, from both within the family and outside of it.
And there are already groups working in this sphere. Artist Max Pinckers’s gorgeous photobook Will They Sing Like Raindrops or Leave Me Thirsty (chronicling different facets of Indian marriage), for example, contains snapshots of the Love Commandos, a small group based in Delhi whose slogan is “no more honour killings” and whose work consists primary of trying to afford protection and solace to embattled couples. But what is the difference between concerned citizens banding together to help embattled couples, and the government constituting a police committee to do the same thing?
Well, for one, the police don’t exactly have a stellar record when it comes to leaving couples alone. Back in 2005, police in Meerut launched the infamous, violent ‘Operation Majnu’, where they invited the media to cover their attacks on peaceful couples sitting in parks. Since then, we’ve seen numerous reports and viral videos of police harassing couples sitting in public spaces, from Delhi to Haryana to Kerala.
In 2014, we even saw complaints of harassment from a runaway couple in Haryana that approached the police for help, and it feels like a week doesn’t go by in South Karnataka without a news report on vigilantes hauling inter-community couples to the police, who, in turn, harassthem. How are we to trust that the same individuals who harassed couples for a living can suddenly turn around one day to protect them?
More importantly, there are spheres in which police interference and influence need to be taken with a huge pinch of a salt, and romantic relationships and marriage certainly make that list. It feels a bit ominous to think that a police committee would be responsible for ensuring the safety of all embattled couples, because if precedent is anything to go by, we have no idea how they’ll ensure that this is done. Do we want to create a situation where policemen can take it upon themselves to surveil us, or tell us where best to live, or even know exactly where we are all the time?
And finally, how can increased policing be the State’s automatic response to anything that happens in the country, regardless of whether that’s what the situation really demands? While the State does have a responsibility to ensure the safety of its citizens, safety isn’t ensured only through increased interference in civilian life from armed outfits.
From rapes (to be solved with CCTVs) to Kashmiri girls taking to the streets to voice their political protest (to be dealt with by new all-women police battalions) to “eve-teasing” in UP (to be tackled by ARS) to now a social climate that’s increasingly hostile towards inter-community weddings, why does it feel like the government’s default answer to any kind of problem is increased surveillance and policing of citizens?
This propensity feels particularly ironic given that one of the catchphrases that the current government is trying to make a thing is “minimum government, maximum governance.” Given how much of the government’s actions seem to be electoral bids for the future, and given the disproportionate impact of the new government machinery they’ve already newly created, it really does seem to be a case of minimum government, maximum governance: Just not quite the way they meant it.
Co-published with Firstpost.