Last updated Sunday, Apr. 28 2013, 10:26 PM EDT

Six months ago, Mahinda Pal warned his son, Surya Kant Pal, to ‘stay on this side’ of the town. ‘We used to tell him, ‘Don’t do it, you’ll get in trouble.’ (Simon de Trey-White)

  • In Pabnawa, a siege is under way. One quarter of the town is blanketed in an unearthly silence: There are no children in the lanes. No goats, no buffalo, no chickens. Almost no women – no one sweeps, hangs laundry or sifts lentils – and just a few men, standing around. Outside the neighbourhood, a ring of bored police in khaki uniforms lounge on charpoys in the shade. They are there to keep the ill-intentioned out, although the net effect is also to keep the few occupants in.

When a couple of Pabnawa college kids in love ran off and got married earlier this month, it thrust the village, about three hours’ drive north of Delhi, back to the Middle Ages, prompting a riot, a threat of mass rape and now this standoff.

The newlyweds, Meena Kumari and Surya Kant Pal, are living in a police shelter under 24-hour guard, because people on both sides of the conflict have vowed to kill them. The mayor of Pabnawa is meant to be brokering a truce, but he faces charges of attempted murder, among other crimes, for his actions in recent events.

Ms. Kumari is 21 years old and her new husband a year older, and no one might have taken much notice of their elopement except their surprised parents. But Mr. Pal is Dalit, from the group once known as “untouchable” at the bottom of the Hindu caste system; he grew up in a stifling one-room house, while his father worked construction for two or three dollars a day to put his three sons through school. Ms. Kumari, meanwhile, is from a dominant, land-owning caste, the Rors, and grew up in a balustraded two-storey home 150 metres and a world away from her new husband’s.

The standoff in Pabnawa is an allegory for a modernizing India – where young men from poor families work their way to good jobs at multinationals and young women ace their college exams, yet ancient rules remain in force. The silence is a blunt reminder that the old India and the new co-exist in an often painful way.

Police refused to let Ms. Kumari and Mr. Pal speak to reporters, saying it might compromise their safety. According to people in the village, they met in high school, have been sweet on each other for years, and ran off together on the morning of April 8.

When Ms. Kumari’s family realized she was missing, men from her caste summoned Mr. Pal’s bewildered family and demanded that they “give back the girl.” They said they had no idea what girl, and their own son was missing. That night Ror men went into the Dalit quarter and, police say, threatened to rape and abduct all the Dalit women if Ms. Kumari was not brought home the next day, prompting hundreds of women and children to flee.

The next night, an estimated 400 Ror men descended in a mob the police couldn’t or wouldn’t stop. The men allegedly carried pistols and knives, disabled the electrical connection for the neighbourhood and then smashed doors, looted shops and homes, ripped water tanks off roofs and beat people up.

“It was absolutely dark and there were more of them than I could count,” recounted Nimboo, who uses only one name and believes she is about 70 years old. She sat in the dark of her small house, filled with a choking pall of cooking fire smoke, because she is too afraid to cook outside. “We stuffed the babies’ mouths with cloth so they would not cry out and the men could not hear them and they could not hit them.”

Kamla Satpal said she smashed a hole in the side of a large tower of drying dung cakes and climbed inside with her husband and son, then covered the gash with straw. They hid there for five hours, she said. When they got home, they found their possessions ransacked and the money they had just made selling their buffalo – 70,000 rupees, or $1,400, several years’ income – missing.

“It’s because that boy ran off with that girl,” Ms. Satpal said angrily. “It’s very wrong. How can he think of marrying the daughter of a zamindar [landlord]? We are suffering and that boy should be punished.”

Police have arrested 17 people so far and are investigating 52 others for participation in the riot.

At Ms. Kumari’s house, her uncle refused to speak to a reporter, saying, “Go away – there’s nothing to tell you about them.”

At Mr. Pal’s house, his father Mahendar, 47, has the look of a man trying to figure out what has just happened in his upended world. He will have to move, very soon, he said. They can’t stay in this village that has been their home for generations. “That girl’s family – they haven’t done anything yet but in their eyes I am the target and I’m afraid of what will happen.”

His son was beaten up a lot over the last year, he said, set upon by boys from Ms. Kumari’s caste; at the time, the elder Mr. Pal didn’t understand why. Six months ago he caught wind of the romance, and warned his son to “stay on this side” of the town. “We used to tell him, ‘Don’t do it, you’ll get in trouble.’ He said that he wasn’t having an affair, nothing like that was going on.”

Surya Kant Pal has finished one year of a commerce degree by correspondence course, his father said. Three months ago he was hired in a clerk’s job at a British-registered firm in the district capital, and started to commute. On April 8, he went to work and didn’t come back.

The couple, it seems, sneaked off to the high court, to be married and obtain police protection. Intercaste marriages in this region invariably cause a furor and at least three times in the past year have resulted in the “honour killing” of the couple.

When Ms. Kumari’s family learned where they were, delegations from both sides and the sarpanch, or mayor, went to talk them into a divorce. Ms. Kumari, by all accounts, handled those meetings with dispatch: she threatened to eat rat poison if her family didn’t stop pressuring her, and when it seemed her new husband was wavering, she threatened him too.

Mr. Pal appears more taken aback with the determination of his new daughter-in-law. “We never realized that a girl who used to walk with her head down,” he said, miming a deferential dropped chin, “would turn out like this.”

“I don’t know what’s going to happen to my son. The first person who sees him when he comes out [of police protection] will kill him.”

On the other side of town, the mayor, Husan Singh, spends his day receiving petitioners, wearing a spotless white kurta and smoking a water pipe. He said he was at home the night of the riot and professed his dismay at events in the town. Asked about criminal charges against him, his face hardened, but then, with a slight smirk, he rattled off numbers: 307, 506, 295, 148. They are statutes of the “Prevention of Atrocities” act meant to protect India’s Dalits and aboriginal people; he is charged with violating seven. The charges include attempted murder and forcible entry with a weapon. Asked if he is concerned, Mr. Singh gave the disinterested shrug of a man confident the law is on his side.

He said that a village committee had brokered a near-truce between the Dalits and the others, but a few hot-headed young people refuse to accept the deal. (Under its terms, the Dalits would drop criminal charges and demands for compensation, and the dominant caste citizens would end the siege and the threats to kill them.)

“The older generation, 50 and above, they understand. But part of the youth, they’re educated and they know there is a law that two adults can marry [but] they don’t understand that reality is different, the laws of the village are different,” Mr. Singh said. He said he is confident a deal will be reached.

Only two cases of intercaste violence have resulted in convictions in Haryana in the past decade, according to the National Committee on Dalit Human Rights.

Either way, the mayor said, Meena Kumari and Surya Kant Pal are never coming home. “They’ll never be able to live here safely.”