My latest column (Dev 360) in The Asian Age and Deccan Chronicle
Ten years ago, when I reported the brutal murder of a pregnant 19-year-old for The Guardian , there was the inevitable comparison with Pakistan. Across the border, such “honour killings”, known locally as “karo-kari”, were rampant. In my report, I pointed out that Punjab on both sides of the border shared the same feudal ethos. Prosperity had not had the slightest effect on patriarchy. Amnesty International routinely rapped our neighbour for explaining away women’s deaths on “the flimsiest of grounds”.
The Indian “honour killing” I wrote about caused a sensation because the mother, Bibi Jagir Kaur, was at the centre of the controversy. Kaur, then head of the Shiromani Gurdwara Prabandhak Committee, was the first woman to hold the post. She was charged with murder when her teenaged daughter Harpreet died mysteriously. The story had a familiar ring: the girl had fallen in love with a 21-year-old man who Kaur did not approve of. Harpreet was cremated and her ashes disposed of the same day, breaking Sikh tradition. Her family claimed there had been no marriage and Harpreet had died of food poisoning.
The chilling tale grabbed national and international attention because the accused was a well-known politician. But such crimes were not unusual, a Chandigarh-based lawyer told me. In rural Punjab, a girl wanting to marry a boy of her choice against parental wish was at risk of being killed, especially if the boy is from another caste, religion, income bracket or community. The lawyer had dealt with many such cases. None had led to convictions because such cases are almost impossible to prosecute, he said. Often all traces of the dead body were spirited away.
Ten years down the line, much remains the same. The case drags on. Kaur, out on anticipatory bail, continues to thrive in Akali politics. Pakistan is more of a troubled state while India is a rising economic power. The barbaric crime tagged “honour killing”, where family or community elders kill a young boy or a girl, sometimes both, supposedly to save their “honour”, continues on both sides of the border.
India does not have a separate law for “honour killing” and it is impossible to estimate the scale of the problem with any level of accuracy. But “honour killings” can no longer be dismissed as something that happens mostly across the border as more and more such gruesome deaths are reported from Haryana, Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh, even New Delhi… and every other place where communities soaked in feudal mores are fiercely resisting socio-economic transition. Sometimes, the victims and the culprits are educated as in the case of Nirupama Pathak, a young Delhi journalist whose sudden death in her parental home back in Jharkhand is still fresh in our memory. Sometimes, the sordid crimes happen in places and among communities which normally do not interest our media. A recent fiendish display of such “honour” took place in the bylanes of Swarup Nagar in north Delhi. Two 19-year-olds were beaten with metal rods and then electrocuted by the girl’s family who disapproved of their relationship. The couple were tortured for hours by the family before being killed. The father and the uncle of the girl have been arrested. They remain unrepentant. The neighbours now say they tried to intervene but were curtly asked to mind their own business. But no one alerted the police even though they heard the couple screaming in pain. The police, supposedly in a state of “high alert” due to concerns about terrorism, arrived when the deed was done, and there was no one to save. Last Sunday in a village in Haryana’s Bhiwani district — a three-hour drive from Delhi — two teenaged lovers were found hanging in yet another suspected case of “honour killing”.
Such incidents have become sadly routine. The judiciary has been extremely critical of law enforcement agencies for conniving with the family in most such crimes. But conniving police personnel are not the only ones who should be in the line of fire. No major or minor politician who has to canvas for votes in the “honour killing” belt has condemned such murders or come out in support of young people who transgress the boundaries of caste, religion or clan in pursuit of love. Naveen Jindal, Page Three’s vision of New India, dulcetly supports “khap panchayats”, caste councils that often act as kangaroo courts, sanctioning the killing of young boys and girls who flout their diktat. All politicians, old or new, are so afraid to take them on because khaps can deliver bulk votes.
If the politicians and the police cannot be counted on to stem the wave of “honour killings”, who can be the saver?
Once again, we are forced to turn to the judiciary for succour. As I write comes the news that the Supreme Court has issued notices to the Centre and nine states, including Delhi, where honour killings have been reported in recent times. This is in response to a petition filed by Shakti Vahini, a Delhi-based NGO seeking protection for couples facing threat from khap panchayats for marrying against prevailing social norms in all the states that are witnessing such crimes. Over the past year, the NGO has been researching “honour killings” in Haryana and western Uttar Pradesh on behalf of the National Commission for Women. “Now the pressure is on states where ‘honour’ crimes are taking place — they will have to submit detailed reports on police action in each and every such case”, says Supreme Court advocate Ravi Kant, who heads Shakti Vahini. The NGO has also called for creation of a special cell in each district (in vulnerable states) which young couples at risk of “honour killings” can access.
Patriarchal societies use the fig leaf of culture and tradition to justify “honour” crimes. At the heart of the conflict, however, is economics. Elders feel threatened by rapidly changing mores, the increasing assertiveness of youth, especially women. “The primal fear is that if individual freedom is encouraged, the family as we know it will suffer and there will be turmoil.
Deep down, there is fear of conflicts over land and property”, points out Kant. The Hindu Succession (Amendment) Act 2005, which came into effect on September 9, 2005, treats daughters on par with sons. Many elders fear that if girls are allowed to choose their own partners, they will next start demanding their property rights. What happens then? The state rumbles and threatens whenever terrorists strike. Can it afford not to show the same level of urgency when terror in the name of “honour” stalks such large parts of India?
– Patralekha Chatterjee writes on development issues in India and emerging economies and can be reached firstname.lastname@example.org