A convention in New Delhi focuses attention on "honour killings" and calls for resolute legal and political action against such incidents.
GEETA wore a woollen cap, which hid most of her face. She was about to narrate how in 2003, within two months of her marriage her husband Jasbir was hacked to death, in front of her. Jasbir was a Jat Sikh and Geeta belongs to the Rajput community. A widow at 20, Geeta has vowed to see to it that the people behind her husband's murder are brought to justice. Today, she is economically and socially insecure and has armed security guards as there is a threat to her and her mother-in-law's lives. They are the main witnesses to the murder.
Geeta's narrative points to the frightening realities that exist in Indian society, despite the ruling group's claims of a "feel-good" factor. "Honour-killings", which are widespread in some of the economically advanced States, is an example. Perpetrated under the garb of saving the "honour" of the community, caste or family, such incidents occur often as the State governments are not keen to take action. The acts of violence include public lynching of couples, murder of either the man or the woman concerned, murder made to appear as suicide, public beatings, humiliation, blackening of the face, forcing couples or their families to eat excreta or drink urine, forced incarceration, social boycotts and the levying of fines.
Concerned at the growing trend of violence, the All India Democratic Women's Association (AIDWA) organised a day-long convention, "In defence of democratic and human rights against barbaric honour killings", in New Delhi on January 11 to focus attention on the issue. The largest number of cases were found to have occurred in Punjab, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh - most of the incidents reported at the convention took place in these three States. One reason for the increased visibility of such crimes is the trend of more and more girls joining educational institutions, meeting others from different backgrounds and castes and establishing relationships beyond the confines of caste and community. Such individuals, both boys and girls, are being targeted so that none dares to breach the barriers of castes and communities. Significantly, in the majority of cases it is the economically and socially dominant castes that organise, instigate and abet such acts of retribution.
In Muzaffarnagar district in western Uttar Pradesh, at least 13 honour killings occurred within nine months in 2003. In 2002, while 10 such killings were reported, 35 couples were declared missing. AIDWA estimates that Haryana and Punjab alone account for 10 per cent of all honour killings in the country. It is not surprising that no such category of crime exists in government records. In fact, there is refusal even to recognise this phenomenon. Data for such incidents are seldom available and they would mostly be classified under the category of general crimes. Moreover, most of such cases go unreported and, even when reported, often first information reports (FIRs) are not filed and post-mortems are not conducted.
The Central government's stand on the issue was clear last year when S.S. Ahluwalia, Bharatiya Janata Party member of the Rajya Sabha, contested the claim of the United Nations Special Rapporteur that honour killings occurred in India. Ahluwalia was speaking in his capacity as the Indian representative at the U.N.'s Social, Humanitarian and Cultural Committee. He is reported to have said: "Selective reproduction of unsubstantiated reports, which are based on hearsay, seriously affects the credibility and importance of the report." He was referring to U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan's report, which stated that the Special Rapporteur continued to receive reports of so-called honour killings from India and other countries.
The incidents narrated at the AIDWA convention were only the tip of the iceberg. The various accounts of humiliation, murder, torture and ostracism were heard in rapt attention. The only apparent crime of the victims was that they had dared to oppose social and caste norms. "It is not surprising that the political class has completely ignored this trend," said Brinda Karat, AIDWA general secretary. She added that the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government did not even acknowledge that such a problem existed and needed to be dealt with firmly. Reinforcing obscurantism were self-appointed caste panchayats that passed death sentences on young people even as the State governments concerned remained mute spectators.
GEETA'S crime was that she married a non-Rajput. "Everyone in the village knew that we planned to get married, but none objected. Neither my parents nor Jasbir's family objected to our marriage," she said. Although she had some apprehensions against marrying a boy from the same village in view of social sanctions, Jasbir reassured her and the couple got married under the Special Marriage Act in a court in Chandigarh. She said that the four persons who had murdered her husband had repeatedly threatened that they would teach him a lesson for marrying a Rajput girl.
In a rare gesture of solidarity, Jasbir's mother, who also spoke at the convention, said that she would keep her daughter-in-law with her and the only thing that concerned her was securing justice. Said Geeta: "I do not care if anything happens to me. I am going to fight it out till the end." She expressed concern that one of the persons named in the FIR, an influential one, was still at large.
Another horrific case was narrated by Rohtas Kumar from Jhajjar in Haryana. Rohtas Kumar, a Dalit, explained how his community was ostracised and humiliated by upper-caste Jats after two Jat girls eloped with a Dalit youth. He said that though it was clear to everyone that the girls had eloped on their own, a case of kidnapping was registered. The village remained tense as the caste panchayat of Jats announced a public boycott of Dalits. Essential supplies were denied to Dalits and they were prevented from drawing water from the village well. Rohtas Kumar, who opposed such measures, was publicly flogged and had to pay a fine. "It was a choice between getting killed and facing humiliation," he said. More important, the girls who returned to the village died in suspicious circumstances. Prolonged harassment forced two Dalits, one woman and one elderly person, to commit suicide.
Caste panchayats have come to play an increasingly important role in Haryana and elsewhere, especially in situations where political patronage also exists. Central to the theme of honour and violence is the subordinate position of girls and women in all castes and communities. A woman's chastity is the "honour" of the community and she has no sovereign right over her body at any point of her life. The retribution is particularly swift and brutal if she crosses caste and class barriers to choose a lower-caste man as her partner. An AIDWA survey found that in the majority of the reported cases where the girl belonged to a higher caste, the girl's family initiated the violence. Jagmati Sangwan, secretary of the AIDWA's Haryana unit, said that the parents of the victims were often bullied into submission. The intolerance often extends to same-caste marriages as well. The boy may be let off but the girl would definitely face some form of punishment. In a survey done in Haryana, AIDWA found that men and women who married outside their caste were those who had dreams of an equal society. "That is why the retribution is even worse," Jagmati Sangwan said.
From Badali Meham village in Rohtak district, Haryana, Kulbhushan Arya narrated how a girl was forced to consume poison after being denied the right to get married to a boy of her choice. The boy, on the other hand, left the village along with his family, fearing reprisal. There was yet another instance where a couple, after getting married, was forced to annul the marriage following a caste panchayat decree that the man and the woman belonged to the same gotra or sub-caste. They were made to declare that they were brother and sister.
Raj Narayan, from Bhawanipur district in Uttar Pradesh, narrated how his brother's wife was gang-raped and burnt to death by influential people belonging to the Yadav community of the same village, in a case of revenge. Her crime was that her son had eloped with the wife of one of the Yadavs. Raj Narayan, who belongs to the barber community, said that the Yadavs forced all the male members of the family to search for the couple and then in their absence assaulted his sister-in-law, Sia Dulaari. Since her house was locked from outside, the Yadavs, who shared a common wall, scaled it at night and raped her. Despite being told about Sia Dulaari's plight, the Station House Officer refused to do anything, he alleged. Zareena, secretary of AIDWA's Uttar Pradesh unit, said that while such incidents occurred in various parts of the State, Muzaffarnagar district accounted for the majority of them. She said that revenge rape, public killing and lynching were prevalent and several murders passed off as suicides.
It was observed at the convention that the views of the authorities at various levels on the question of "honour" were not very different from that of the community. It was evident from the various testimonies that the State administrations were not only indifferent, but also partisan. The record of acquittals in such cases is very high. In fact, the only agency to have taken a serious view of the role that caste panchayats play has been the Rajasthan State Human Rights Commission, which has strongly advocated a control on all decisions of caste panchayats, especially those that go against constitutional rights. But the rule has been that the dominant political parties in States where such tendencies are most prevalent have failed to challenge the unconstitutional dictates of caste panchayats. Even where couples attempted marriage under the Special Marriage Act, often it was seen that the number of registrations accepted were negligible. For instance, in Muzaffarnagar district, where the largest number of honour killings were reported, while 32 people had applied for registration of their marriage under the Act in 2003, only one was accepted. The rest were rejected on grounds of non-completion of procedure.
Only the Left parties and progressive women's organisations have spoken against such killings, mobilised public opinion and demanded administrative action against persons behind such violence. In a resolution passed by the convention, policy interventions at various levels were called for, including a commitment by political parties to uphold the right to choose one's own spouse and ban caste panchayats whose decisions militate against constitutional rights. Simplification of the procedures specified in the Special Marriage Act, magisterial inquiries into the deaths of all women and girls who were victims of "honour killings", and relevant changes in the laws to help courts take suo motu notice of such incidents were some of the other demands made in the resolution. The interventions have to be at several levels and, more important, by those respective State governments where such crimes take place frequently. If a progressive agenda for social change has to be set, then the minimum condition required is to recognise and strengthen the rights of young couples for own-choice marriages.