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Mainstream Vol. XLVIII, No 17, April 17, 2010

No Honour in “Honour Killing”

Monday 19 April 2010, by Sunita Vakil

It is a matter of national shame when arguments condoning crimes like “honour killings” come in the form of tradition.

A. Marten says: “If we would know the political and moral condition of a state we must ask what rank women hold in it.” It needs no reiteration that patriarchy runs deep in Indian society and crimes like female infanticide and foeticide still haunt the country. It is therefore not surprising that different societies in India are increasingly facing the problem of “honour killing” which continues to be our national shame. Central to the theme of honour and violence is the subordinate position of women of all castes and communities. A woman is supposed to be a carrier of family reputation and has no sovereign right over her body. It is for her to uphold the “honour” of the community at all costs and for male members to set it right if it is lost. The retribution is swift and brutal if she as much dares to cross the caste and class barrier by choosing a low caste man as her life partner. Nothing illustrates our apathy and indifference better than the fact that crimes against women are being perpetrated with impunity. Mostly we tend to go with the flow and look the other way for the sake of our convinience. The question is why do we call this “honour killing” when it is sheer premeditated murder?

“Honour killings” are acts of voilence, usually murder, mostly commited against females by male members of the family who think that women are no more than dumb cattle and must marry, live and die the way menfolk want them to. A woman is put to death, killed by her own family members for a host of reasons including refusal to enter into an arranged marriage, being victim of a sexual assault, seeking a divorce or commiting adultery. These crimes perpetrated under the garb of saving the “honour” of the community, caste or family target women for violating what is interpreted as a moral code and not conforming to the Khap Panchayat decrees. For example, these inhuman acts that take place at the bidding of khap panchayats target those who choose their boyfriends, lovers or spouses outside their family’s ethnic or religious community or marry members in the same gotra. Such medieval prejudices have been bolstered by the totally illegal but powerful kangaroo courts which reserve the most dreaded punishment including exile, social boycott and even death for the offenders, as happened in the case of Manoj and Babli of Karoran village near Kaithal. Yet another case of honour killing was reported a few days back from Haryana when 16 year old Usha Rani Kashyap was allegedly hanged to death by her brother for falling in love with her neighbour Rakesh Kashyap, whose dead body was also found hanging from a tree four days later. Incidently, Usha and Rakesh belonged to the same gotra. The tragic murder of another couple Prabhjot and Pradeep at Patti in Taran Taran district of Punjab barely hours after the conviction of seven persons in the Manoj-Babli case serves as a grim reminder that so far, this system of medieval oppression is operating with near impunity. This feudal mindset again came to force when a panchayat at Khehra town in Baghpat district allegedly pronounced death sentence for lovers and directed villagers to socially ostracise them, only six days after the Haryana case verdict. These tradition backed acts of violence also include public lynching of couples, murder made to appear as suicides, public beatings, humiliation, blackening of faces, forced incarceration and the levying of fines. The preopensity of caste councils of the villages to flaunt “cultural practices” as an excuse to perpetrate human rights violations and get away with everything can no longer be allowed to go on. Violence prompted by an exaggerated sense of the so called family or community honour should make people sit up and take notice of the criminality of such actions. In some cases intercaste couples have been forced to live like brothers and sisters because they belong to the same gotra. Such rulings are downright outrageous and should be condemned by all. It is high time to enact legislation to halt this barbarity.

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Though the Haryana court’s judgement on “honour killing” has set a benchmark and will send a right signal to those who have become a law into themselves, it is too premature to celebrate this judgement as the offenders will most probably challenge this verdict in a higher court. Also, it would be foolhardy to believe that this one verdict will bring about a sea change in the thinking and behaviour of the society. As the Karnal court has said, these khap panchayats are nothing but a notorious group of people clinging to archaic ideas of right and wrong who dole out taliban style justice. For instance, it has been estimated that more than hundred men and women are murdered or forced to commit sucide every year by Khaps for breaching the barriers of caste and community. The largest number of cases were found to have occured in Haryana, Punjab and Uttar Pradesh. In Muzzaffar-nagar district in western UP, at least 13 honour killings were reported within nine months in 2003. While ten such killings occured in 2002, more than 35 couples were declared missing. It has been estimated that Haryana and Punjab alone account for 10 per cent of all honour killings in the country.

And yet the convictions rates continues to be abysmally low in such cases. It is a known fact that criminals in India manage to go scot free with the help of power and pelf. Too many times have the upholders of law looked the other way when tradition is used as an accuse to protect perpetrators of honour killing. Local politicians as well as policemen often sheild Khap Panchayats as they belong to the same social milieu. At the same time, politicians of the day are able to exploit them as a dependable political tool and votebank. Given the fact that the Haryana honour killing was the first case in the State in which the victim’s family decided to seek justice against the traditional diktats, it’s not surprising that no such category of crime exists in government records. A data for such crimes is rarely available. Most of the cases go unreported. Even when reported, often enough no FIRs are filled and post mortems are unheard of in such cases.

‘’Honour killings’’ constitute a scar on the face of India and such incidents show our country in a poor light. The government must ban these Taliban style Panchayats that promote caste based politics. All political parties must unite to rein in Khaps irrespective of there vested intrest and votebanks. We all must change our mindsets and rise above narrow caste and religious considerations.

It is worthy to note that the government is considering ammending the Indian Penal Code to make “honour killings” a seperate offence with appropriate punishment. Though law is an effective detterent if implemented properly, we should also try to put in place education policies, health strategies and community based programmes that promote gender equality. Also, people need to come out against these illegal diktats and report them to the police in order to irradicate such barbaric practices in our societies. Though the court ruling is a welcome step, enforcement of law must compliment a change in mindset.

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