Life and death (and faith) in India

About a year ago, during a book tour to promote "Blind Spot: When Journalists Don't Get Religion," I had a chance to take part in a forum for young journalists at a media institute in Bangalore, India. As you would expect, the topic for the day was improving mainstream media coverage of religion. Obviously, the media scene in India is different than in the United States. For one thing, growing literacy rates are increasing the power of print-on-paper news sources, in a culture in which televisions and newspapers are available in far more settings than high-speed Internet access.

However, I was struck by one consistent response from the audience, which I would estimate was about 50 percent Hindu, 25 percent Muslim and 25 percent Christian. When asked what was the greatest obstacle to accurate, mainstream coverage of events and trends in religion, the response of one young Muslim male was blunt. When our media cover religion news, he said, more people end up dead. Other students repeated this theme during our meetings.

In other words, when journalists cover religion stories, this only makes the conflicts worse. It is better to either ignore them or to downplay them, masking the nature of the conflicts behind phrases such as "community conflicts" or saying that the events are cased by disputes about "culture" or "Indian values."

I flashed back to that forum a time or two while reading a Washington Post news feature that ran with the headline, "5 sentenced to death in honor killing of Indian couple from same clan." Here is the opening of the story:

KARODA, INDIA -- No one in this village visits Chanderpati Banwala's home, which stands at the end of a lane full of sleeping buffaloes and overturned wooden carts. The boycott began three years ago when her son eloped with his sweetheart, a neighbor from his clan.

But the marriage was short-lived. Village elders declared the relationship incestuous, a violation of ancient Hindu rules of marriage because the two were descendants of a common ancestor who lived thousands of years ago. As the couple tried to flee town, the young woman's family chased them down and dragged them out of a bus on a busy highway. The groom, Manoj, was strangled, and his bride, Babli, was forced to drink pesticide. Their bodies were dumped in a canal.

"My son did the honorable thing by marrying the girl he loved. But the village council said the boy and girl belong to the same clan and are siblings. They said the couple had brought dishonor," said Banwala, sitting on her porch kneading dough. "It has been three years, nobody invites us to marriages or funerals, and no shop sells us groceries."

The grieving mother did a rare and dangerous thing -- she took the case to court. This meant that an event that ordinarily would have been ignored or downplayed went public, with mainstream coverage. As the headline noted, five defendants were eventually sentenced to death, which the Post notes is the "first time in India that capital punishment has been ordered in an honor killing."

This is a major story about hellish events that are far from uncommon, even in modern, rapidly urbanizing India. In this story, we are shown a clash between traditional taboos and the rising tide of modernization and, to some degree, globalization. However, many in India are fighting back to defend the "complicated system of marriage restrictions" that remain in place. The power of the "clan councils" and the caste system keeps coming up.

Does religion have anything to do with this, even with the "Hindu rules of marriage"?

Apparently not. If you are looking for information about the roles that faith and religious tradition play in this complex and highly emotional story, you'll need to look somewhere else. The team at the Post seems to have decided that it is too dangerous or too complicated to cover the religious content of this story -- in one of America's most important newspapers.

Is this story still relevant? Later in the story we read:

Last year, officials in Haryana recorded about 100 honor killings of young people caught in the war between clan, caste, culture and cupid. Banwala's case is the first honor-killing trial to secure a verdict, although a similar trial is underway. In that case, four people are accused of beating and hacking a young man to death with sticks, sickles and scythes last year after he married a woman from a neighboring village, a relationship villagers also regarded as incest.

In 2008, a judge in Haryana and Punjab, Kanwaljit Singh Ahluwalia, said the number of "couples hiding themselves in the corridors of court" had risen in recent years. In response, the government set up hotlines and opened shelters for the runaway couples.

Mewa Singh Mor, the president of all clan councils in Haryana, said the councils do not order killings but often ostracize and boycott the defiant couples and their families.

"It is a shame that so many girls and boys are eloping nowadays, under the influence of TV and movies. Our constitution tells our youth what their rights are but says nothing about their social duties," he said. "These couples are like an epidemic. They are destroying our social fabric."

Once again, we have the safe phrases that I heard the young journalists using in Bangalore -- phrases such as "social fabric" and "social duties." I asked the students if this was code language for religion. Of course, they said. In India it is almost impossible to separate religion and culture. Religion is everywhere. It is a subject that is too big and too powerful for the mainstream media to cover.

That sounded familiar.

At the very end of the story, religious language did make a brief and haunting comeback.

... (The) court has posted two security guards outside Chanderpati Banwala's home. She has a fresh battle ahead when a higher court hears the defendants' appeal. "I will not give up. I want to teach them a lesson, so that innocent young couples are not killed again in the name of tradition," she said. "Now I trust only the court and God."

It might have been appropriate to ask about this conflict between "God" and "tradition" in the life of this Indian woman. However, I understand that doing so would have been dangerous.

Photo: Manoj and Babli Banwala on their wedding day.

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