Indian lovers pay with their lives for breaking taboo

WHILE villagers gazed in mute approval, two runaway lovers in India were beheaded last week by the girl's relatives. Their murder has outraged many Indians, for nobody among the 250 villagers who witnessed the beheading tried to prevent it - even the couple's families, who later expressed no remorse.

Satish Singh, 21, and his bride, Sarita, 20, were hacked to death because they had broken a taboo. Despite their closeness in age, they were uncle and niece, and sexual relations between blood relatives in northern India are considered incestuous. Even the police were less than sympathetic. Inspector Rajvir Singh in Khandarawali village, 55 miles from the capital, New Delhi, told an Indian daily: 'The couple had broken the rules of respectability. How did they dare come back?'

It was a case where Indian justice clashed with the laws of the clan. The Singhs belonged to a village of 'Untouchables', the scavengers, waste removers and sweepers who are at the bottom of Hinduism's complex and ancient system of social hierarchy. Five months ago, Satish eloped with Sarita. They ran off to Delhi. He found a job and they were married. In the city, at least, the stigma of 'untouchability' is not as severe as in the countryside.

Five months later, on 6 August, they returned proudly to their village. Sarita wore a new sari along with glass bangles and the crimson stripe in her hair that marked her as a Hindu wife. According to some accounts, Satish had been lured back by his father to defend the family's honour before the clan's elders.

As the unsuspecting couple were marched to the green where the elders sit, the villagers left their huts and began to file behind them. Their death was pre-arranged. Once on the green, Satish and Sarita were surrounded by her family. Sarita's closest relative, Ram Dhan, who had raised her after her own parents died, stepped forward with an axe and swung it at Satish. Wounded in the neck, he staggered and tried to escape. But Ram Dhan and other relatives chased him down, beat him with sticks and then severed his head with a second axe blow.

Some witnesses claimed that Sarita stood stone still, waiting obediently for her death. But others claim that she first tried to defend Satish against the murderous assault by her family. Ram Dhan then stepped forward with the axe. 'Her head came off in just one blow,' said Charan Singh, Satish's father.

Four days after the beheading, police gathered all the villagers for questioning. All remained silent. Inspector Singh commented: 'Anyone whose dignity was offended like that of Ram Dhan would have been furious. But yes, what he did was not completely right. You can't kill people so openly. He could have tried poisoning them instead.'