In a country popularly hailed as Mother India and in the light of its children’s newfound enthusiasm in deifying the nation as Mata, the frequency of cases where a parent murders her child is a tragic irony. Or perhaps not, for India is notorious for its glaring hypocrisies and convenient contradictions.
As per the annual report of 2015 released by the National Crimes Record Bureau (NCRB) on 30th August, honour killings have seen a seven-fold rise since 2014, which was the first time that the NCRB acknowledged it as a category of crime that warrants specific attention. Uttar Pradesh has bagged the first position with 131 cases in 2015 which is a huge jump from just a single case reported in the previous year. Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh follow.
The spurt in the rate of honour killings reflect a certain degree of awareness which led concerned people to report the incidents. It would be simplistic to assume that there was only one case of honour killing in 2014. Thus the sudden increase in the numbers could be viewed positively from the perspective of law enforcement as this can grant access to justice for victims, albeit posthumously. With that silver lining set aside, it is impossible to deny the gravity of this socially sanctioned crime.
“Honour” or “izzat” is paramount in the Indian family system. “Log kya kahenge?” (What will others say?) is a national adage. The onus of maintaining this honour falls on the women in the family, not surprisingly in a patriarchal society like ours. A case of honour killing typically involves the lynching of a young couple who dared to consider a marriage against the codes of the society they live in. The perpetrators of the crime are usually the relatives of the girl who they believe must be killed to keep the family’s reputation intact. It is a macabre interpretation of amputating the gangrened portion of the body to prevent the infection from spreading further. While the sacrifice of the girl’s life becomes the ‘necessary evil’ for the noble cause of family, the boy becomes victim to masculine angst of a father and brothers who must prove that they are “man enough” to guard the family’s honour.
Honour killings are far more complex than elopement gone terribly wrong. What lies at the crux of the matter is what constitutes honour. India is really a loose composition of several cultures, each of which follow starkly distinct social mores. For instance, the classic reference point for honour killings in India, the Haryana case of Manoj and Babli, saw the couple brutally murdered for marrying within the same gotra(clan) which is considered incestuous in northern India. Contrasting this incident is a murder in broad daylight at Udumalpet in Tamil Nadu where Shankar was hacked to death and his wife Kousalya inflicted with head injuries by the latter’s family. The reason? Shankar, a Dalit man and Kousalya, a Thevar girl had begun a married life, in defiance of age-old boundaries set by caste in the state.
The reasons behind the motives in both the cases has different patterns owing to the respective backgrounds of the communities involved. But caste is the indisputable catalyst, be it Haryana or Tamil Nadu. In the Shankar case, it is interesting to note that Thevars are an OBC group, thus a victim of caste oppression themselves. Brahminic hegemony, which has still not erased itself, now shares its space with caste dominance within each grouping. Even Dalits have their own notions of the high and the low amongst themselves. The anti-Brahminism movement failed to erase caste; in fact, it has successfully assumed varied forms within every strata of society.
The commitment and pride with respect to caste is so strong that an entire institution exists for the purpose of upholding caste consciousness. Khap panchayats, or kangaroo courts, command respect, rather fear, which compels obedience of its decisions stuck in a time warp. It is a diktat issued by such a khap that led to the deaths of Manoj and Babli. Opposition to the system has been one of whispers and murmurs, rather than outright condemnation. The political class is reluctant to act against the khaps as they enjoy much political clout among the Jats in Haryana, an indispensable vote bank during elections. The Khap leader in the Manoj Babli case was himself a prominent Congress politician. Former Member of Parliament, Naveen Jindal, had openly expressed his support for the khaps.
The abandoned attempts at framing a specific law against honour killings needs a fresh breath of life. But any amount of legal recourse will be futile without corrections in the social fabric. An imprisonment of ten years cannot change a mindset that has persisted for over ten decades.
The notion of honour stems from the view which perceives women as property who cannot decide for themselves but must be decided for. Individual assertion on the part of women is so alien to our culture that often, women themselves are unaware of their right to refuse. Here, the issue acquires a feminist tenor.
Caste clearly continues to pervade our society, perhaps no longer explicitly obvious, but certainly through covert means. The idea of a caste Hindu girl cohabiting with a man, whose community is only legally touchable but socially otherwise, remains blasphemous. Note that the question of honour arises only when it is an upper caste girl and a low caste boy involved, hardly the other way round. While Dalit men are killed for touching “their women”, Dalit women are paraded naked and raped with impunity. For a woman, at the cusp of double marginalization of womanhood as well as of a low position in the caste hierarchy, knows no honour.