Book Review: Manoj and Babli: A Hate Story | Chander Suta Dogra

Manoj and Babli: A Hate Story is based on a murder in the hinterlands of Haryana and the role of the khap panchayats in it. It explores the workings of a very intolerant society, quick to lynch people for its long-held medieval beliefs and exalted notions of family honour.

The book, journalist Chander Suta Dogra’s first, unravels, with impressive research, what khap panchayats can do to young people in love—Manoj and Babli, in this case. To Chandrapati, an ordinary woman who discovers her zest to fight for justice after her son Manoj’s brutal murder. To Ompati, helpless mother of Babli who is never heard beyond the walls of patriarchy that confine her. To Vinod, Manoj’s brother, who drops out of school to write his exams privately. To Gangaraj, the resourceful local politician who made it possible for the murderers to twist the law.
The story unfolds with the discovery of the mutilated bodies of the two lovers from an irrigation canal in the village of Balasamand, and follows its destructive trail through the lives of the families involved.
The dark side of the male-dominated Haryana hinterland has been alluded to in literature and cinema, but in Dogra’s book, its macabre depths assume chilling proportions. It is in the village of Karoran that Manoj and Babli, belonging to the same gotra, fall in love. But marrying into the same gotra is taboo, which can have grave consequences, as they realize within days of their marriage.
They flee Karoran, hounded by Babli’s bloodthirsty relatives, their rage compounded by support from Gangaraj, who exerts an unwieldy influence over the area. Within hours of Babli deposing before a Kaithal court that she had married Manoj of her free will, Gangaraj and his goons tear apart the police protection around the couple through deceit and meticulous planning and lynch them.
What follows is a sordid tale of shoddy police investigation. Manoj’s family’s struggles for justice amid their social boycott in Karoran, repeated death threats from Babli’s family, and daunting fury of the Jat councils across north India.
What emerges amid all the negativity is the unprecedented courage of Chandrapati, a village woman not ever known to have a temper. From being a docile woman to a mother driven by a ferocious need to get justice for her dead son, Chandrapati is the anchor in the agitation that follows, supported by women activists and the media.
The fields of Karoran witness the march for justice, but not without provoking a deeply patriarchal society. The men hate the women’s guts and their independent ways, fathers write off properties in sons’ names, while women activists are given a short shrift.
The last chapter is at once about hope and hopelessness. Chandrapati casts the lone vote in the zila parishad elections defying a boycott by the khap panchayats, but her children continue to live under fear of threatened assassinations, while the court cases continue.
Dogra’s book reminds us of the dilemmas India faces, especially of the perils of a society that still can’t make peace with the advances that a nation has made. Dogra does what a writer of true crime should effectively do—make us relate to the crime that happened, however separated from us by distance or beliefs, and feel anguished by it.
In Manoj and Babli’s failed attempts at living life with the love they believed in, the kind of love that so effortlessly thrives in India’s cosmopolitan cities, lies a sad picture.
This was originally published in Mint.

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