When Savita “married” her childhood friend Veena Dhama, it was simply a matter of choosing life over death. She did not know that in the process she would become one half of India’s first officially recognized lesbian couple, as the media hailed them, after a Gurgaon court ordered the Haryana police to ensure their security in the face of death threats from Savita’s relatives.
In its order on 25 July, the court of the additional sessions judge stated that Veena and Savita had filed an affidavit that they were married, but did not comment on the validity of the marriage.
Five days later, on a muggy Saturday morning, the women, who had been in hiding, turned up at the court to claim protection. Dressed in a light blue salwar suit with the dupatta draped demurely over her head, 25-year-old Savita could have been any newly-wed young woman—the parting in her hair was marked with dark sindoor, a mangalsutra hung around her neck and on her arms were the trademark red bangles. But the stiffness of her shoulders and her tightly pressed lips, as she stared straight ahead, ignoring the assembled media, underscored the fact that she was aware of her unique status. Veena, her thick hair cropped short, was dressed in a man’s full-sleeve shirt and dark brown trousers. A couple of Veena’s male relatives formed a protective ring around them.
It’s official: Savita (standing) and Veena; and (below) a photo of their ‘marriage’ filed with their petition. Photographs by Pradeep Gaur/Mint
As they waited to appear before the judge, Savita blushed when asked if she’d like to change anything about her spouse: “No, nothing.” As the response was met with sceptically raised eyebrows by the 20-odd listeners—relatives, lawyers and journalists—crowded around her, she added: “Not any more. I’ve changed whatever I had to.” As Veena glared a warning against spilling secrets, she giggled that she had made Veena give up gutka. “I told her I wouldn’t live with her if she chewed gutka. She listened to me. We’re friends. We’ve been friends always. I’m alive today because of Veena,” she said.
The final-year BA student of Chaudhary Charan Singh College in Baghpat, Uttar Pradesh, insists there’s nothing more to the relationship. They have no sexual relation, claims Veena. But according to their petition, filed in the court of the additional sessions judge, the friends, who had been in hiding since mid-June, “married” before a notary public on 22 July. “It’s just a way to shut up society. Marriage is a powerful word, a convenient word. We are friends and we want to spend our lives with each other,” adds Veena, the quieter of the two.
To them it had seemed like the most natural choice. Growing up together in Khekada village in Baghpat, the women have been friends for as long as they can remember. “Our families were very close. We practically grew up in each other’s homes. We were playmates and grew up to be our closest confidantes,” says Savita. The families drifted apart somewhat after the Dhamas sold their land in Khekada last year and moved to Doghat, about 2 hours away, but the girls’ friendship continued unhindered. When Savita took up a job as a teacher in a private nursery school, it was Veena, a school dropout, who ferried her to and from the school on her Bajaj Pulsar motorcycle.
When Savita was married to a UP police constable in December, it was Veena who visited her. And it was Veena who discovered that Savita was being treated brutally by her in-laws and was contemplating suicide. She informed Savita’s family, and despite their initial objections, convinced them to intervene. Savita denies that her relationship with Veena affected her marriage. “We did not have any ‘relationship’. I was happy and excited when my marriage was planned. Veena too was happy for me. Every girl dreams of marrying, so did I,” she says.
The dream soured when her husband, mother-in-law and sister-in-law started abusing her. “He was a policeman, and he knew I would not dare to go to the police against him,” she adds. However, with Veena’s support she complained to the local panchayat, which dissolved the marriage in May. Savita returned with Veena to her parents.
Within a month, matters worsened. Savita’s maternal uncle tried to get her married again, alleges Veena. Savita swore she would kill herself if forced. Veena stepped in to save her once more and proposed she move in with her at her family home. “Her family was trying to get her married again and she was threatening to commit suicide. She had tried that once before. I was afraid she would succeed the next time,” says Veena.
For 22-year-old Veena, the youngest of six siblings, who has always been treated as a son by her parents and has shouldered the family’s responsibilities since the death of her elder brother more than three years ago, convincing her parents wasn’t difficult. “They had no objection to our staying together. But Savita’s family was livid. Especially her uncle. They swore to kill us. Her uncle even turned up with a few goons. We decided to run away and get married,” Veena says.
The couple hid at the home of Veena’s cousin Jaiveer Singh, near Manesar, Haryana, and moved the Gurgaon court seeking protection. Singh says he had no objection to the women staying with his family: “We’ve known Savita since childhood. And if two friends wish to stay together, what’s the harm in that?”
The court granted them security citing a March 2010 order of the Punjab and Haryana high court “to ensure help and assistance to runaway couples”. The couple’s counsel, Durgesh Boken, says that contrary to reports, the court has not married them. “The court has not remarked on their status—whether married or live-in partners. It has simply called them a runaway couple, and a couple could simply mean two people,” explains senior counsel T.K. Bhatnagar, who was also consulted by the women.
Even as some reports in the media hailed the order and went to town saying the court had married them, the gay community remains sceptical. LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) rights activists and legal experts too say the court order cannot be read as legalizing same-sex unions. “There’s a difference between decriminalizing and legalizing. The Delhi high court verdict of July 2009 read down Section 377, which criminalized same-sex relationships. As far as LGBT rights go, that was the big step forward. My understanding of the Gurgaon court order is that it has merely accorded protection to two women who claim their lives are under threat. As individuals they are already guaranteed such protection by the Constitution,” says advocate Gopal Shankaranarayan, who is not connected with the case. He adds that the women only cited marriage as the reason they were being threatened, but did not move the court to validate their marriage. The court too left the question open.
At the court, as they waited for the police to complete the paperwork and deploy a bodyguard, Savita and Veena appeared to be settled in their new life. They say they now discuss future plans. For the moment, they will be at a Gurgaon police safehouse. “They will be there till 16 August, the date of the next hearing,” their counsel said.
The couple wants to return to Doghat soon—Veena needs to be at the family’s farm and Savita wants to complete her BA before she begins looking for a job in the government. And waiting back home are “their children”—Veena’s brother’s four children, whose mother abandoned them when their father died. The youngest, three-year-old Vansh, can’t wait to meet Veena, whom she calls “papa”.