Beena and Savita followed their hearts in Baghpat. And their love story is now the stuff of international headlines.
The media, especially gay media abroad, have jumped on the story. 'Lesbian Newlyweds Flee Honor Killing Threats' makes for good headlines. It has all the ingredients of a masala story. The illicit, secret love affair. The girl forced into an arranged marriage. The runaway couple. The patriarchal khap panchayat and its honour killings. Enter the sympathetic judge. Rumours of suicide attempts in front of a moving train. Hiding in a safe house under police protection.
It’s a made-for-TV movie about big bad old feudal India trying to snuff out the love of a modern day Laila-Majnu. Except this time it’s Laila-Manju.
But this is really a far more complicated story. In their headlong rush, Beena and Savita have crossed more boundaries than just the ones around their khap panchayat. Most of us just don’t know what to make of their mad bid for love against all odds. The more we learn about it, the more questions it raises.
Here are three important ones the story raises for all of us:
One, is this truly a lesbian couple? The incessant headlines about “lesbian marriage” only tell part of the story. Beena does not just look like a man. This is not just a butch-femme lesbian couple. Villagers said Beena lived as a man. Her family treated her as a man. She drove a Pulsar and dropped Savita to school everyday. The four children of her brother who died in 2007, call her “Papa".
Biologically, Beena is a woman. But how does Beena identify? Is “her” even the right pronoun we should use to describe Beena? Or is this a story about a person of one sex trapped in the body of another? That, in effect, would make it, at least in their eyes, not a lesbian marriage at all, but a straightforward hetero-style “husband and wife” situation.
Two, is the real story here really about Beena and Savita? Over the years there have been many tragic stories about lesbian couples. Unable to be together, and forced into marriages they did not want, they killed themselves by insecticide, by fire, by jumping in front of trains. There were 24 documented lesbian suicide pacts in Kerala alone between 1996 and 2004.
Beena and Savita's story is hopefully headed in a happier direction, but why? The big difference in this case is Additional Sessions Judge Vimal Kumar. Kumar has not spoken about the ruling. But in accepting their claim that they were married, by assigning them police protection, did Kumar truly intend to set a legal precedent? Was Kumar thinking about gay rights or just doing what felt humane?
What is clear is that the legal basis for this remarkable decision is a 2009 Punjab and Haryana high court judgement that directed all district and sessions judges to “ensure help and assistance to runaway couples.” That law was meant to protect couples fleeing the wrath of the khap panchayat in the wake of honour killings. The Punjab and Haryana high court surely didn’t intend its directive to cover same-sex couples – and yet Kumar seems to think it does.
Who knows what went through the judge's head? Would Kumar have done the same if two men had come to the court with the same plea? Or even two women, where one didn’t look quite so “boyish”?
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Three, if this is indeed India’s first legally recognised “lesbian marriage,” where is the band baaja baraat? The kind that accompanied gay marriages in New York and California. “The reason why it was low-key as opposed to the NYC gay marriages is because these girls could be killed. This happens all the time,” activist Vikram Doctor told TOI. He is right. Malar and Rukmini burned themselves to death in Chennai in 2008. Their charred bodies were found hugging each other. An activist group in Hyderabad claimed to know about 13 cases of lesbian suicides in the city in 2009.
Gay activists are rightly dubious about the long-term implications of this case. “In India, where sexual politics is in a terrible state; and issues like khap panchyat, honour killing still exist; homosexuals tying the knot is like inviting trouble,” activist Monish Kabir Malhotra told the Asian Age.
Whatever the case, this is no reason for a victory parade. Yet. There are more pressing issues. How long is a safe house safe for the young couple? Can they hope to lead a 'normal' life, as they so naively claim, under police protection? Beena’s brother-in-law says the parents have forgiven her and have “no objection to their marriage now.” Even so, there are many others who will be less forgiving. Irrespective of the immediate outcome, their future hardly looks rosy, with or without death threats.
But whether or not they set a legal precedent, what this odd couple offers is moving testimony to the courage of the human heart. Savita and Beena told the media, they just wanted to get married so they could raise the four children of Beena’s deceased brother.
These young women from Baghpat are no different from Kolkata-based designer duo Dev and Nil who want to raise a child. They think of their marriage as just the next step in their relationship. “When we are in the midst of our close straight friends, we are always told that we guys should get married. People are supportive,” said Nil.
What this story makes clear is that the line between marriage and “same-sex marriage” is in many ways an artificial one. Beena and Savita don’t want a “lesbian" or "gay" marriage. They don't want to make a statement, but make ordinary choices the rest of us take for granted – a home together with their children.
This young couple have unwittingly forced us to recognise the fact that people fall in love with each other whether or not society approves or is ready for them. There is nothing to indicate the Delhi High Court verdict about gay sex reached this young couple in their village in Baghpat. There is no reason to believe that cable television put all these ideas in their head. Yet against all odds, in the middle of the khap panchayat, these two women decided they want to live together and raise a family.
It can be read as a story of incredible foolishness – or of amazing courage. But there is something incredibly touching about a young runaway couple who sought protection from the court set up by the very society they were running from. And a judge decided to see them not as a lesbian couple, not as a minority, but simply as two human beings who needed the protection of that court.
And in this small and unfortunately uncommon act of human decency, however short-lived and legally shaky, there is something to rejoice.