Youngsters in certain parts of India today cannot choose their partners. If they still do and the choice violates arbitrary, extra-legal norms set down by caste panchayats, the consequence can be death. Isn't it time we built a popular movement against the medieval practice of honour killings, asks Ammu Joseph
A newly-wed bride and her mother-in-law were killed and the groom seriously injured by the girl's relatives in the Tarn Taran district of Punjab on May 11, 2010. According to the police, 19-year-old Gurleen Kaur's naked body had deep cuts in the neck area, and her shoulder and fingers had been mutilated. Her father, brothers and uncles obviously thought this was fit punishment for her crime: marrying 25-year-old Amarpreet Singh against their wishes.
Around the same time, an 18-year-old girl, Rajni Sahu, was murdered by her family in Allahabad (Uttar Pradesh) after they discovered she was pregnant. Although her death was initially sought to be passed off as a suicide, her elder brother subsequently confessed that she was killed because she was determined to marry a neighbourhood boy despite her family's disapproval. He told the media that he killed her “to safeguard the honour of our family.”
These are among the latest in the series of gruesome murders in the name of honour that have been reported from various parts of the country in recent months.
Will such so-called “honour killings” stop if the Hindu Marriage Act, 1955 is amended to prohibit marriages within the same gotra? Unlikely. That may be the most publicised of the demands and threats issued by the Khap Mahapanchayat — a congregation of caste Panchayats from Jat strongholds in Haryana, Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan — in Kurukshetra on April 13, and subsequently elsewhere. But it was not the only one. They have also reportedly called for a ban on marriages within the same village and contiguous villages, as well as de-recognition of temple weddings uniting runaway couples.
The mythical gotra factor may have come to the fore because the Kurukshetra gathering was clearly triggered by the recent landmark judgment delivered by District and Sessions Judge Vani Gopal Sharma in Karnal (Haryana) in the case of Manoj and Babli Banwala, a young couple belonging to the same caste and gotra, who were murdered in 2007 because they dared to marry each other.
But, as scholar and activist Jagmati Sangwan has pointed out, not all honour killings even within Haryana involve same- gotra couples. According to her, the majority of the marriages condemned by Khap Panchayats are of couples who do not share a gotra.
Besides, even in a small state like Haryana, there are apparently areas and castes that permit intra-village and intra-gotra marriages, and do not have caste or Khap Panchayats. So the self-styled Khap Mahapanchayat cannot legitimately claim to represent all Hindu communities in Haryana, let alone the rest of India.
Most victims of “honour killings” reported from various parts of the country are young people who choose to love or marry outside their caste, sub-caste or religion. Not surprisingly, the socially and economically dominant castes are usually responsible for acts of reprisal against inter-caste relationships.
The bottom line is that, even today, many young lovers are punished — often with death — for having the temerity to fall in love across boundaries of caste or religion. Many caste groups, communities and families in several parts of the country still seem violently opposed to the right of young adults to choose a life partner (even though courts have upheld citizens' right to select their significant other, including a same-sex partner). In the name of preserving “social order” and saving the “honour” of the community, caste or family, all kinds of justifications are pressed into service. If the same village or gotra obstacle does not apply, there is always something else: a man was killed in Haryana last year for violating the “customary” proscription of marriage between residents of neighbouring villages.
Against individual choice
Opposition to matrimonial autonomy is so endemic in certain areas that in June 2008 Justice K S Ahluwalia of the High Court of Punjab and Haryana called for State intervention. While simultaneously hearing several cases relating to couples in the 18-21 age group he observed that the court was “flooded with petitions” seeking judicial confirmation of “the right of life and liberty of married couples,” while the State remained “a mute spectator”. “When shall the State awake from its slumber [and] for how long can Courts provide solace and balm by disposing of such cases?” he asked.
The recent spate of deaths attributed to “honour killing” and the aggressive, unrepentant posturing of Khap leaders seem to have pushed at least some in the government into taking a more decisive stand on the issue than was common in the past (under any political dispensation). However, it is no secret that these caste-based, extra-legal bodies enjoy at least tacit support from a number of political leaders, civil servants, police officers, lawyers and even judges. Already two politicians from Haryana — one supposedly enlightened, the other definitely old school — have publicly sought to make peace with the increasingly combative Khaps, albeit with riders (which ring rather hollow).
Sangwan's statement that “A legislature with little political will and a pliant executive will have to be made responsive under pressure of a mass movement” brings to mind a recent book by the woman who was largely responsible for catalysing a popular movement against honour killings in Jordan, one of the many countries where a life — especially a woman's life — appears to be worth less than “honour.”
Award-winning Jordanian journalist Rana Husseini's Murder in the Name of Honour is a passionate, powerful, provocative but remarkably positive and eminently readable book about the struggle against “honour killings” in her West Asian nation and the prevalence of the crime in several other countries, including the US, the UK and Europe. Drawing on her personal and professional experience, it vividly tells the fascinating story of her engagement with the subject from the day she followed up on a four-line report about a 16-year-old girl killed by her brother in one of Amman's poorer areas. Like the “kitchen accident” briefs in the Indian press in the 1970s that turned out to be about dowry-related murders, such reports were common in the Arabic press. As a cub crime reporter with The Jordan Times, Husseini felt the need to further investigate such deaths.
Each terrible tale she uncovered (described in chilling detail in the book) strengthened her determination to become the voice of women murdered by their own relatives and to make so-called honour killings into a national issue. Her relentless reporting of every case she came across from mid-1994 onwards attracted public support as well as opposition — even threats of violence. In 1998 she received the Reebok Human Rights Award for her reporting and activism on the issue. The international spotlight generated a national debate which, in turn, led to a citizens' movement aiming to not only raise local awareness about the horror of “honour crimes” but also demand changes in the law as well as tougher punishment for perpetrators.
Of the many interesting and inspiring aspects of the Jordanian struggle against “honour killings,” the one that impressed me most was the organisers' attempts to involve different sections of society, including the economically and educationally disadvantaged in both urban and rural areas, in the effort to eliminate such crimes.
According to Husseini, “We used every method we could think of to collect as many signatures as possible — the Internet, faxes, free and paid ads in newspapers, as well as TV and radio interviews. It was tremendously exciting; we carried the petitions with us wherever we went and whatever we did, and we always caused a stir… I frequently went with my friends…to restaurants where we approached diners…and many gladly signed as we chatted. Then we asked the waiters, waitresses, cooks, cleaners and managers. Outside one restaurant I bumped into a garbage collector who asked me what I was doing. Once I explained, he said, ‘Of course I will sign. This is against our religion'.” Husseini's mother, a librarian, asked everyone she came across wherever she went to sign the petition. In less than six months, the campaigners managed to collect 15,300 signatures from the general public (55 per cent male, 45 per cent female).
Of course, as she points out, the struggle against “honour killings” has to be home-grown because the nature and manifestation of the crime, the social, cultural, political and economic factors involved, and the legal context, are often distinct in the various places where it occurs, calling for different approaches in different societies. For example, in Jordan — and many other countries — “honour killings” are almost invariably crimes against women and girls. In India, although women are the primary targets, young men who ‘dare' to transgress prescribed social boundaries are often not spared either.
But there are similarities, too. According to Husseini, some influential and powerful people in Jordan, such as parliamentarians, judges, lawyers and policemen, believe that perpetrators of “honour killings” deserve leniency because everyone has the right to protect their family's honour. In India, Sushma (Tiwari) Nochil has had to seek a review of the Supreme Court's recent decision to commute to life imprisonment the death penalty awarded to her brother and his associates, who had murdered her husband and most members of his family. The judgment seemed to suggest that the patriarchal and caste factors motivating the killers could be considered mitigating circumstances.
Likewise, if we have the Khap Mahapanchayat, they have the Islamic Action Front, the political arm of the Muslim Brotherhood in Jordan. If they have their conservative deputies, we have our regressive members of Parliament and, unfortunately, we both face “a great deal of apathy and laissez-faire from various parliamentarians.”
But here's an advantage they have that we don't. According to Husseini, several members of the Jordanian royal family signed the campaign petition; King Abdullah and Queen Raina have spoken out against so-called crimes of honour; Queen Noor has consistently fought to end violence against women in general and honour crimes in particular; the late King Hussein made a passionate plea in Parliament for an end to violence against women, besides pushing for changes in the laws offering leniency to perpetrators of honour killings; his brother, Prince Hassan, was one of the first royals to address the issue in the mid-1990s; two days after the legislative battle was lost in Parliament in 1999, Prince Ali (King Abdullah's brother) called for a public march to Parliament in protest against the deputies' decision to vote against the proposed amendments — and led it himself.
Monarchy may be passé in India but we have no dearth of modern-day royals in a number of fields such as politics, cinema, sports and business. Will they step up and speak out on an issue like murder in the name of honour?
Honour killing is a somewhat misleading term for a ritualised form of murder precipitated by the aggressor's perceived loss of "honour." The perpetrators are generally male and the victims most often female. Some sections of society consider such crimes understandable, if not justifiable.
There is no nationwide data on the prevalence of honour killing in India; the National Crime Records Bureau does not collect separate data on the crime since it is not yet separately classified under Indian law. However, according to the All India Democratic Women's Association (AIDWA) there were 103 cases of honour killings in Haryana alone within a period of four months in 2007. If that figure can be extrapolated to assume that the annual toll in the state is about 300, the total across the three states reporting the largest number of cases at the time (Haryana, Punjab and Uttar Pradesh) would be 900 per annum. If another 100-300 are added for the rest of the country, the figure for India would be about the same as estimates for Pakistan, which some researchers suggest has the highest per capita incidence of honour killings in the world.
This form of violence is prevalent in a number of countries. Ten years ago the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) estimated the annual world-wide number of "honour killing" victims at 5,000. But that is probably an underestimate since many cases go unreported, while many more are disguised as suicides, accidents and disappearances. Between 2000 and 2004 the UN General Assembly adopted three resolutions reflecting international commitment to working towards the elimination of crimes against women committed in the name of honour, with the third acknowledging that girls, too, are victims of such crimes.
Gotra is a term applied to a clan, a group of families, or a lineage – exogamous and patrilineal – whose members trace their descent from a common male ancestor, usually a sage of ancient times. Believed to have begun to consolidate around 10-8 Century BC, the present-day gotra classification is supposed to have been created from a core of eight rishis.
Same-gotra marriages were declared legally valid by the Bombay High Court as far back as in 1945 in the Madhavrao vs. Raghavendrarao case involving a Deshastha Brahmin couple. Two reputed judges – Harilal Kania (who became the first Chief Justice of independent India) and P B Gajendragadkar (who went on to become the Chief Justice of India in the 1960s) – examined several court verdicts, consulted the writings of leading experts and quoted from Hindu scriptures in their ruling on whether a ‘sagotra’ (same-gotra) marriage was valid under Hindu law/custom. They concluded that it was.
Murder in the Name of Honour, Rana Husseini, Oneworld Publications, Oxford, 2009.
(Courtesy The Hindu Sunday Magazine, May 23, 2010).