- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 3, 2008

OAK FOREST, Ill. (AP) — 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 thought the young woman had married beneath her station.

Although 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 — 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 Mr. Chander, 57.

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

The public defender’s office, which is representing Mr. Chander, would not comment on the accusations.

The caste system can still trigger violence in India. In August, mobs set fire to a bus and stoned police after a man in their community purportedly 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 Mr. 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,” Mr. Shweder said. “So the ancestors of the family are very much on the mind of the people and what they would think.”

Mr. 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.”

Miss 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 United States or which castes husband and wife belonged to.

Mr. Chander told police that 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.