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Honour Killing: SOCIAL AWAKENING CRITICAL, by S. Saraswati, 30 Nov, 2011 Print E-mail

Open Forum

New Delhi, 30 November 2011

Honour Killing



(Former Director, ICSSR, New Delhi)


Yet another case of “honour killing has distressingly hit the headlines. This time in Rohtak, Haryana, the front rank holder of this crime, wherein an engineering student was put to death allegedly by family members of the girl he was said to be courting. A few weeks ago, a girl was killed for having a love affair with a local boy in Sikar, Rajasthan and the suspects in this case were the girl’s mother and brother. Several such incidents made news, but there may be many more young lives lost, in which the  “murder” per se and the dishonourable motive of “honour” do not come to light.


According to an estimate, about 900 honour killings take place in three States alone, Haryana, Punjab, and Uttar Pradesh, and another 300 in the rest of the country.  In most instances, the murder gets direct or indirect approval of the victim (s)’ family, the local community, and concerned caste or Khap Panchayats, which are illegal institutions that still thrive in scores of villages. And, in many cases, the murder is also executed by the family members themselves.


Indeed, the hold of traditional notions and practices is so well-entrenched that many people lose their sensitivities and are unable to realize the criminality in committing a murder. For them, protecting the family’s honour and caste is more important than the life of their own kith and kin. And, to them “honour” lies in conforming to the traditions and customs of their caste.  Ironically, the very people who willingly adopt many innovations in their material well-being continue to vehemently stick to conventions when the issue relates to marriage and rituals.


Recall that last year, a Karnal court, Haryana pronounced a landmark judgement wherein death sentence was awarded to five persons for killing a married couple for contracting “sagotra” (same lineage) marriage. Additionally, the head of the Khap Panchayat, which ordered the killings, was sentenced to life imprisonment and the driver who kidnapped the couple was given seven year jail term. The judges termed the murder as “rarest of rare cases,” which unfortunately has not acted as a deterrent.


Importantly, the Hindu Marriage Act, 1955 allows “sagotra” marriages.  However, members of the caste panchayat associated with the crime, continue to rigidly stick to their demand that the Act be amended.  Worse, there seem to be a large number of people, particularly in Haryana, who are ever ready to defy the law and carry out “honour killings” if their demand is not met. In addition, we find the Khap Panchayats and local leaders lending support to these people in view of the popularity they enjoy among the locals, a factor that has electoral significance.


Such is the strength of traditional notions which constitute the biggest blocks to social reform towards achieving liberty, equality, human rights, and elimination of all forms of discriminations. It also negates the effect of reformist legislations and encourages defiance of law and commission of crimes in the name of “honour”.


Interestingly, committing a crime for “honour” is not peculiar to India. Honour is the driving force behind many dishonourable crimes all over the world.  In many countries, honour is cherished as a collective property vested in a family, tribe, clan, community, village, etc. It is mostly associated with marriage, love affair, employment, friendship particularly with the opposite sex, dress, etc. And, honour is at stake when a girl’s virginity or fidelity in marriage is suspected.


In many Islamic countries, honour killing is a punishment for women who violate the socially prescribed moral code. In fact, in South Asia, violence against women over self-arranged or love marriages is depicted as “honour crimes”. In the Middle East, the concept of “izzat” gives motivation for violence.  The concept, however, applies only to women and makes them a target for legitimate collective violence.


In Latin American countries too, what is known as “crimes of honour” are targeted at women. However, in recent years changes have been made in their penal codes to remove gender-discriminatory provisions. This apart International women’s conferences deal with crimes against women in defence of their honour as an important task in eliminating discrimination. For the United Nations, it is a problem of guaranteeing human rights to women.


In India, while women are subjected to several discriminatory practices at home and outside on the sheer basis of their sex, honour killing does not spare the men involved in violation of family or caste’s honour. While the female is a sure victim, the victimization of male largely depends on circumstances.


Given the horrific incidents that we have been witnessing, the Union Government is keen to introduce a legislation to curb “honour killings” which at present is dealt by the provisions of the Indian Penal Code.  But, to do so, it has to pass through several hurdles thrown by some States and their Khap Panchayats.


Thus, we find that the draft bill on “Prevention of Crimes in the Name of Honour and Tradition 2010” is yet to be taken up in Parliament. The bill treats “honour killing” as a separate crime beyond the ambit of murder and criminal conspiracy. However, opinion remains divided on the need for such a law. On the one hand, “honour killing” is being seen as a euphemism for cold blooded murder, while on the other it is being argued that it be treated separately because it is supported by traditions and beliefs.


Where then lies the remedy? It is common observation that for any social reform initiated through legislation to be effective must be accompanied by social awakening. And this can come through many routes, school education, mass media, religious and political leaders, civil society organizations, etc.  Of all these, the mass media appears to be more interested in sensationalism and advertisements, political leaders in patronizing prospective vote catchers, and religious leaders are confused between religious teachings and social customs.  Therefore, the mantle of changing mindsets steeped in ignorance and superstitious beliefs, falls on the educational system and civil society organizations.


The task is tough and challenging as vast masses in India lack the knowledge and ability to distinguish between religion, social rituals, customs and conventions, norms and practices. All these are taken as religious injunctions having significance and sanctity.  Hence, there is a fear of other worldly consequences in crossing the dictates of traditional way of life. But, the masses need to come out of this self-inflicted bondage, which can only be by broadening their experience, environment, and social milieu. ---INFA


(Copyright, India News and Feature Alliance)

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