Whose Honour?

AIDWA Holds National Convention Against 'Honour Killings'
18 January, 2004 Laxmi
IT is notable that, amid all the rhetoric of a feel-good aura espoused by the BJP led National Democratic Alliance government, increasing violence against women does not even figure as a component in assessments of a society's level of development. For example, violence in the name of "honour" is not even acknowledged by the government, which would like people to believe that this only happens in countries like Pakistan. These incidents do not get mentioned in any "feel-good syndrome" speeches as they could well expose the deep social malaise in Indian society, a phenomenon the political class, especially the BJP, would be reluctant to mention. It is only the Left parties and the progressive women's organisations who have spoken against such killings and also mobilised public opinion and administrative action against these incidents.
Alarmed at the increasing rate of such killings, the All India Democratic Women's Association organised a day-long convention in a bid to focus on this much ignored phenomenon. At what was a well-attended convention on January 11, on the subject of "honour killings" and its implications for democratic India, a cross-section of women from Delhi, Haryana and UP upheld the basic human and democratic right of every adult to choose his or her partner. Subhashini Ali, Kalindi Deshpande, Pramila Pandhe, Manjeet Rathee and Ashalata formed the presidium for the convention.
Subhashini Ali spoke of the multidimensional aspects of the crime. She said it was a crime not only on the people concerned but on democracy and human rights. Dr Vina Mazumdar, in her inaugural comments, made a scathing criticism of the dominant social approaches towards women. Drawing from her own experiences as a young woman in pre-independence India, she said the ideals of the freedom struggle for an egalitarian India have been buried by those who rule India. She said that the constitution is violated repeatedly as far as women's rights are concerned.
Presenting the resolution before the convention, AIDWA general secretary Brinda Karat elaborated the different aspects of honour killings. She said that two years ago the NDA appointee on the UN Committee on Human Rights had strongly objected to any reference to honour killings in India in the UN reports on human rights. Official India wants the world to believe that there are no such killings which, according to them, only occur in Pakistan. She said in the Indian context women's emancipation is closely interlinked with the struggle for the abolition of the caste system. The largest number of 'edicts' against women are issued by caste panchayats that pose a challenge both to the parliamentary processes and judicial structures. These have no legal standing, yet they function with impunity, backed by the narrow caste identity politics practiced by bourgeois landlord parties. Given their utter failure to solve the basic issues of the people, for them a caste means a vote bank; this is why an elected representative of the dominant parties in the affected areas has ever protested in a single case of honour killing. Communal politics has led to direct violence against couples when a Hindu girl decides to marry a Muslim boy, as in Gujarat.
Elaborating on the resolution, Brinda Karat said at the core of such killings was a patriarchal society's felt need to control women's sexuality: women's chastity equals a community's, caste's or family's honour. She spoke of the need to simplify the Special Marriages Act and make appropriate changes in the law.
In the packed Constitution Club hall in New Delhi, incident after incident was narrated at the convention, highlighting the brutalities committed by caste panchayats and dominant caste groups in states like Uttar Pradesh, Haryana and Punjab. Also present were representatives from several women's organisations like the Joint Women's Programme, YWCA, Nirantar, Centre for Women's Development Studies and the National Federation of Indian Women. The audience heard with rapt attention the various testimonies of humilation, murder, torture and ostracism. The only apparent crime of the victims was that they had dared to oppose the existing social and caste norms.
But what shocked the audience were the cases themselves. Geeta, a 20 year old Rajput girl from Hoshiarpur in Punjab, narrated how her husband, a Jat Sikh youth, was murdered in front of her by members of the Rajput community. He was waylaid at the bus stop, his arms and legs were cut off and he was butchered in broad daylight. Geeta had married Jasbir in September last year, only to lose him within a month. Her only crime was that she had married a non-Rajput. "Everyone in the village knew that we planned to get married, but none objected. Neither did my parents nor did Jasbir's family object to our marriage," she said. Even though she had some apprehensions about social sanctions against marrying a boy from the same village, Jasbir assured her. The couple got married under the Special Marriage Act in a Chandigarh court. She told the convention that the four persons who had murdered her husband had repeatedly stated that they would teach him a lesson for marrying a Rajput girl.
Jasbir's mother, Kashmiri Kaur, grieved for her beloved son, the only earning member of the family. With a courage that was inspiring, she said she would keep her daughter-in-law with her; the only thing that concerned her was justice for her slain son. As Geeta and her mother-in-law happen to be the only witnesses and are in constant threat of their lives, armed protection has been provided to them. "I do not care if anything happens to me. I am going to fight it out till the end," she said. Geeta expressed concern that one of the persons named in the FIR was still at large and happened to be an influential person.
Another horrific case was that of Rohtas Kumar from Jhajjar in Haryana. Rohtas Kumar, a Dalit, narrated how his community was ostracised and humiliated by upper caste Jats after two Jat girls eloped with a Dalit youth. He said that even though it was clear to everyone that the girls had eloped on their own, a case of kidnapping was registered. Tension ensued in the village as the Jat caste panchayat announced a public boycott of the Dalits. Essential supplies were denied to them; they were even forbidden to draw water from the village well. Rohtas Kumar, who opposed such measures, was publicly flogged and had to pay a fine as well. "It was a choice between getting killed and facing humilation," said Rohtas Kumar in a choked voice.
But what was even more shocking was that the girls who were found by the villagers were brought back to the village and killed within a day. The boy has escaped but is being hunted. Not only this, prolonged harassment and torture of family members accused of sheltering the boy, forced two Dalits, one woman and one elderly person, to take their own lives.
Caste panchayats have come to play an increasingly important role in Haryana and elsewhere, more so where political patronage accompanies their influence. Kulbhushan Arya from Badali Meham village in Rohtak district, Haryana, narrated how a girl was forced to consume poison after being denied the right to get married to a boy of her own choice. The boy, on the other hand, was forced to leave the village along with his family, fearing reprisal.
Jagmati Sangwan, secretary of the Haryana Janwadi Mahila Samiti, said there was an increasing sense of rebellion and idealism among the youth in Haryana. She said it was precisely these sections which were rebelling against caste norms and were also being persecuted as vested interests were opposed to a change in the status quo. There was yet another instance where, after getting married, a couple was forced to annul their marriage after the caste panchayat decreed that they were of the same gotra.
There were cited some horrific cases of revenge rape also. Raj Narayan from Bhawanipur district in Uttar Pradesh narrated how his brother's wife was gangraped and then burnt to death by an influential Yadav family of the same village. Her crime was that her son had reportedly run away with the wife of one of the Yadavs. Raj Narayan, who belongs to the barber caste, said the girl's family forced all the males of the boy's family to look for the couple and then took advantage of his sister-in-law, Sia Dulari, in their absence. The dwelling where she lived was locked from outside while the Yadavs, who shared a common wall, used to scale it at night and took turns to rape her. The SHO who came enquiring about the missing couple saw Sia Dulari's plight, but refused to do anything. It was only after the AIDWA's intervention that some arrests were made.
Zareena, secretary of AIDWA's Uttar Pradesh unit, said that while there were such incidents all over state, Muzaffarnagar district was the most notorious. She said instances of revenge rape were very common. Public killings and lynchings were very prevalent and several murders passed off as suicides. She had made a study of some of the cases and the statistics she cited, which were also quoted in the resolution, were shocking. Till September last year there were as many as 13 honour killings in the district. The year before, there had been 9 such killings. In one most notorious case where the couple were publicly lynched and hanged, the court indicted only 6 of the 12 accused but now the High Court has released them on bail and they are once again terrorising the witnesses. The Special Marriages Act is more of a barrier than help. She said she found that of the 32 applications made under the SMA last year only one marriage was registered. The conditions and bureaucratic procedures are such that it is difficult to get such inter-caste marriages registered.
The AIDWA convention noted with alarm that at various levels the administration's view on the question of "honour" were not very different from that of the community. It was evident from the various testimonies that administration not only played an indifferent role but was downright partisan. The record of acquittals in all such cases was very high. The convention demanded policy interventions which would include commitment by political parties to uphold the right of own choice marriage; a ban on decisions of caste panchayats which militate against the constitution, the non-intervention by the police in cases of consensual relationships and marriages, and simplification of the procedures of the Special Marriages Act.