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Ill. fire deaths raise Hindu caste system question

A blaze that killed a couple and their 3-year-old son in their suburban Chicago apartment may have had its point of origin on the other side of the world, in India's ancient Hindu caste system.
/ Source: The Associated Press

A blaze that killed a couple and their 3-year-old son in their suburban Chicago apartment may have had its point of origin on the other side of the world, in India's ancient Hindu caste system.

Prosecutors say Subhash Chander, an immigrant from India, doused the place with gasoline and set the fire — killing his pregnant daughter, son-in-law and their child — because he believed the young woman had married beneath her station.

While some family members dispute such a connection, the weekend deaths served as a reminder that the caste system — a rigid set of social strata in which status is determined by birth, with the Brahmins being the highest caste — is still honored by people from India more than 60 years after it was outlawed.

"His son-in-law was beneath him, in his opinion," prosecutor Robert Milan said of the 57-year-old Chander.

He was jailed without bail on charges of murder, arson and intentional homicide of an unborn child in the deaths of 22-year-old Monika Rani, her 36-year-old husband, Rajesh Kumar, and their son, Vansh.

The public defender's office, which is representing Chander, would not comment on the allegations.

'Deep sense of ancestral history'
The caste system can still trigger violence in India, as in August, when mobs set fire to a bus and stoned police after a man in their community allegedly was killed by members of a higher caste.

And it is a system that remains emotionally charged, especially about the question of marriage between people from different castes. Prosecutors said Chander's son-in-law was from a lower caste.

Richard Shweder, a University of Chicago cultural anthropologist who has studied and written extensively about India, said some families in India would consider such a marriage unthinkable, or at least extremely upsetting.

"There's a deep sense of ancestral history," Shweder said. "So the ancestors of the family are very much on the mind of the people and what they would think."

Chander's sister, though, said family members had no problem with the marriage.

"It's the same culture, same everything," Kamla Devi told radio station WBBM. "Kids marry all the time against their parents' will, but we, the whole family, accepted him as the son-in-law."

Devi told the radio station that the family is from Chandigarh in northern India. Authorities said they did not know when the family came to the U.S., or precisely which castes husband and wife belonged to.

Devi said her brother worked at a Wendy's restaurant but had to quit in September because of liver problems.

Prosecutors: Victims may have been asleep
Chander told police he spilled gasoline at his daughter's apartment Saturday during "a pushing match" with his son-in-law, and ignited the fuel with a lighter because he was angry, authorities said.

But prosecutors said they doubt there was a fight. They said the victims may have been asleep, noting that everyone else in apartment building was able to escape.

Shweder said that if Chander's daughter did marry a man in a lower caste, or "kinship group," a simple visit to the couple's home would have been incredibly tense.

"To go to that other kinship group without being invited is itself a kind of breach and the father would think he was behaving in a way that was kind of humiliating," the scholar said. He added: "It's not hard to see how he would just lose it."

In India, women are commonly killed in disputes over dowries, with the victims often doused with gasoline and set on fire in what the killers sometimes explain away as kitchen accidents.