Here is a question for Prime Ministers-in-waiting, king-makers and youth leaders who talk about a new, resurgent India. Where do you stand on the notion of “honour” that leads to gruesome murders of young boys and girls who wish to marry for love?
Till date, major political parties in this country have had a formulaic response — silence or feeble condemnation — to such “honour crimes”. And there it stops. This political ambivalence continues to impact the lives of millions of young people in vast swaths of the country. There are no official figures for “honour” crimes in India because such crimes are still not separately recognised by Indian law. However, a cursory look at newspapers shows that many young people in India are killed every year simply because they wanted to marry against parental wishes.
Two recent incidents in Haryana and Andhra Pradesh have focused public attention once again on community-sanctioned murders, euphemistically labelled “honour killings”. These incidents reconfirm what many of us know — if unchallenged, skewed notions of honour, rooted in “tradition” but patently illegal, will continue to snuff out young lives.
Barely 100 kms from New Delhi, in a village in Rohtak, Haryana, Nidhi and Dharmender, a young couple in love, were tortured and killed by Nidhi’s family in public view because they defied the family’s wishes. Nidhi Barak, 20, a student of fine arts, wanted to marry 23-year-old Dharmender Barak, a childhood friend. They had eloped but were lured back by the girl’s family with false promises and killed. Billu, Nidhi’s father, and other family members who carried out the savagery have been arrested but remain remorseless. The family says the young couple were from the same gotra (sub-castes that are traditionally believed to share a common bloodline) and the relationship had sullied the family’s “honour”. Going by media reports, villagers who turned up to watch the savagery endorse such a worldview.
While Haryana, especially its Jat community, has often been in the dock on the issue of “honour killings”, this barbaric practice is not confined to the state nor unique to one community. It also exists in other states of northern India, notably Punjab, Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan. Upper castes and dalits are killed alike in the name of saving family “honour”.
Nakul Sawhney, who made a documentary on “honour crimes”, says Haryana is under the scanner because rising female literacy, aspirations and sustained campaigns by grassroots activists are beginning to create pockets of resistance in a landscape where patriarchy was not challenged earlier. Disturbingly, instances of this warped notion of “honour killings” are also being reported from other parts of the country. Last week, in a village in Andhra Pradesh’s Warangal district, a 17-year-old girl who had eloped with her boyfriend was killed by her family after the police sent her back to her parents’ house. The girl’s family members who are in police custody say they killed her to protect their “honour”. The young couple were both from a tribal settlement and shared the same surname. These are not isolated incidents. The spreading contagion of “honour crimes” calls for urgent responses beyond templates.
What should be the role of the state if khaps (caste councils) or other influential groups try to interfere in matrimonial affairs and issue diktats that violate the Indian law? In rural Haryana, the site of many “honour crimes” in recent years, no political party dares to take on the influential khaps. Every time there is an “honour” crime, khap leaders are quick to denounce the act, but their virulent campaign against marriages of choice, especially those within the same gotra, create a dangerous social environment in which such crimes are seen as perfectly legitimate.
The point at stake: whatever be the historical origins of khaps or similar bodies, or their services to the community, no individual or group has the right to enforce strictures which have no validity in the eyes of the law.
What lies ahead?
In 2010, the Supreme Court issued notices to the Central government and six state governments to take preventive measures against “honour killings”. The Centre had asked state governments to take action against bodies like khaps which tacitly support such murders. Some states like Assam, Bihar and Chhattisgarh supported the move. Others like Gujarat, Jharkhand and Maharashtra remain non-committal. The only state which openly came out against the proposed legislation is Haryana where the United Progressive Alliance is in power.
Today, khap leaders blame the government for continuing “honour crimes”. Ramphal Hooda, a khap leader, recently said: “If marriages between the same gotra are banned, the ‘honour killings’ will automatically stop.” The khaps threaten to step up their agitation if their demand for an amendment to the Hindu Marriage Act banning same-gotra marriages is not heeded. There is also an attempt to deflect attention by conflating “honour crimes” with so-called “moral deterioration”. In the khap worldview, a dress code for college-going girls, ban on mobile phones, drinking in public places and the use of DJs in weddings will stop “honour crimes”.
A new law on “honour crimes” can limit khap power, asserts Rishi Kant of Shakti Vahini, the NGO which petitioned the Supreme Court in 2010 demanding the government do more to prevent “honour killings”. Legislation specific to “honour crimes” is a good idea but will achieve little without the police being trained, sensitised and depoliticised. There are also other things which need urgent attention such as fast-track courts to deal with “honour crimes” and more protection homes. In Haryana, protection homes for runaway couples are too few and only offer refuge for about 10 days.
This brings one back to the question of political will. As the poll season draws nearer, it is time to bluntly ask vote-seekers to spell out their stand on crimes in the name of “honour” and what they will do about it if they come to power.
The writer focuses on development issues in India and emerging economies. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org