Monday, 1 February 2016

From Swayamvar to Honor Killing - An Essay

15 June 2007. After testifying before court that they had married in conformity with the law, Manoj and Babli, a couple whose marriage was not accepted by their village’s Khap Panchayat, asked for police protection as they decided to move to Chandigarh. The same day saw police officers assigned to protect them stranding them midway, their relatives kidnapping them and feeding Babli with pesticide while choking Manoj to death. And the only mistake they did was they loved each other.

We were not a society which believed in murder as a resort to any evil. We were not a society which believed in differences among people. And we were most certainly not a society which discriminated between men and women. Consider Swayamvar, the ceremonious and sacrosanct act of a bride choosing her apt groom. It was perhaps one of the earliest rituals practiced in our country, one whose prevalence was seen in epic works such as Ramayana and Mahabharata which dates back to the era before Christ. The mere conduct of providing freedom for a bride to choose the person with whom she should live out her life was considered a genuine priority back then. But those quintessential practices have rather worn out as time passed. Today, when 21st century India is in a path of economic catapults, the freedom of Indian women remains vague.
Withdrawing from our traditions of granting freedom to women we are now drawing veils of darkness over them, the most savage example being those of honor killing. Honor killing is certainly the most stirring and deeply disturbing form of violence practiced in contemporary society. The term broadly deals with the murder of a family member who is considered to have brought dishonor to the family. Even though the definition gives a certain scope of both men and women being victims of violence, as the case of Manoj and Babli shows, it is a genuine matter of concern that it is mostly women who fall into the ambit of this crime.

The historical depth of honor killing goes back to ancient Rome where men had complete control by law and custom to check and control the activities of women and children in their family. Many a times the lives of women and children were at the discretion of male members of the family and instances abound of them utilizing these stray powers. Chinese, Aztecs and Incas empires also resorted to killing as a punishment for adultery. An Amnesty International statement on the historical context of honor killings was drafted quite vehemently:
‘The mere perception that a woman has contravened the code of sexual behavior damages honor. The regime of honor is unforgiving: women on whom suspicion has fallen are not given an opportunity to defend themselves, and family members have no socially acceptable alternative but to remove the stain on their honor by attacking the woman.’

Even though medieval Indian history was rather devoid of honor killings, we now witness a scenario wherein one out of five cases of honor killings reported worldwide is from India and most of the victims are indeed women.
What happened to our previous notions of regarding women with respect? Are we deteriorating as a society in how we look at our female half? These questions will loom ever more as cases of honor killing keeps coming up. Currently we see it showing no definitive differentiation between rural and urban India as cases are being reported extensively from cities like Delhi, Chandigarh and Lucknow. Southern India which seemed rather bereft of such cases is now repeatedly showing that it is very much culpable to honor killings while Haryana, Punjab, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh are found to be in the forefront of this shameful crime. In 1990 the National Commission for Women set up a statutory body in order to address the issues of honor killings among some ethnic groups in North India whose activism has contributed significantly towards the reduction of honor killings in rural areas of the North. Yet the picture is in no way perfect which was visible with the Supreme Court of India demanding responses about honor killing prevention from the state governments of Punjab, Haryana, Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, Jharkhand, Himachal Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh in June 2010 as instances of violence became frequent. The same year saw the government planning to introduce a deterrent bill against the same but as of now nobody has any idea how the bill was muted down. To arrive at any clear solutions we first need to understand some basic features of this crime.

Looking at the history of killings carried out to uphold family honor in India, we clearly see an intrinsic patriarchy which hides itself ever so well within the crime. It is an unspecified rule in most families that the responsibility to preserve honor entirely lies within the hands of women, and men is free of any such burden. Our daughters and sisters are threatened with force and moral suasion to choose a ‘right’ life partner, and any deviation she makes for her love finds herself in dark prisms of adultery. Clearly, honor killings follows suite of male chauvinism which is nurtured generation after generation in our country.
Another interesting fact is that most cases clearly arise due to caste differences (inter and intra caste relationships) and other cultural and religious dogmas. Recent cases have clearly shown there is no respite of caste related violence and Ambedkarian notion of ‘veritable chamber of horrors’ still parasitically holds onto our society. From a casual matrimonial advertisement inviting caste specific proposals to killing a kin who married from another caste, the distance may be extreme but the core is the same.
It is also frightening to think of the authority and the misuse of that authority by institutions like Khap panchayats which contributes to the continuance of discriminatory rituals, most of which are enforced violently. A rough evaluation shows that half of the cases of honor killings happen through the order of such illegal bodies which holds a certain moral command over villages of the North.
The time for us has come and gone to have a drastic revolutionary movement against these evils, but our demographics and vote bank politics continues to keep us in the dark.

Clearly caste related issues and patriarchy forms the base for honor killings through which almost 1000 victims are being claimed every year from India. The path ahead is difficult and long, but we must move on. A four point principle should be rolled into action by government and society alike which includes:
Change in Mentality specifically within ourselves and society as a whole. We should de-link the notion of associating honor with sexuality. For this on a personal level, developing a certain empathy and understanding would serve us good while transmitting the same on a societal level requires some effort. It poses a very good opportunity for the young generation to assume command over the issue and lead the way for others to follow.
Stricter laws against those who practice such atrocities should be brought out as soon as possible. The Honor Killing deterrent Bill should be brought for discussion in the Parliament. It is also important that illegal authorities like Khap panchayats is brought within the ambit of this law.
Casteism should be broken down gradually. Caste related crimes should be clearly identified and tackled specifically. There is a developing trend that most caste based killings are classified as mere acts of murder and is not treated through Prevention of Atrocities Act. Identification of crimes and stringent classification of crimes should be made by the judiciary so that every crime receives its specified punishment.
Spreading awareness on the same through public funding will go a long way in a society which at times fails to judge by itself on what is right and what is wrong. No action of violence is ever justified, and it is important that such a message reaches every last person of our country.

The Constitution of India, in all its Nehruvian idealism and Ambedkarite vision, provides life and liberty as a fundamental right. This automatically asserts the fact that under the rule of the land, no person is given any specific command at any point of time to claim another person’s life. For once it is just a matter of looking back over the years and drawing inspiration from ceremonies like Swayamvar which granted a certain liberty to women. The onus is in every one of us, as responsible citizens of a culturally diverse country seeking unity and harmony, to uphold the liberal outlook of our visionary leaders and to eliminate outwardly nefarious acts like honor killing.

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