Are We Beginning To Normalise ‘Honour Killings’ In India?

In early May 2019, a newly married couple was set on fire in a village in the Ahmednagar district of Maharashtra because the woman’s family was opposed to their inter-caste love marriage. We can trace a series of incidences of honour killings across India every year. While such episodes do make small headlines in the news, they fail to become topics of prime-time debates on national television or part of digital activism in terms of social media hashtag campaigns. These incidents also don’t garner enough attention to lead to candle-light protests. They seem to have become a part of the annual statistics on crimes in India. Have we normalized such killings in our psyche?

In India, often, the “honour (ijjat)” of a family or society is positioned in the ‘purity of women. Hence, instead of being considered as individuals with lives and choices of their own, women’s lives are governed by an honour code. The family honour is considered ‘intact’ as long as a woman doesn’t malign it by marrying someone outside of her caste. As a result, ‘honour killing is related to the perception that an inter-caste couple has brought shame to the family by transgressing societal norms.

The existence of ‘honour killings’ all over the world puts universal human rights under severe duress. It puts the agency of “individualism” and “choice” against the notion of collective social agency and stringent norms. The right to marry comes within the ambit of “right to life” enshrined by Article 21 of the Constitution of India. However,

Hindu Wedding Ceremony
In India, the notion of free will in exercising the right to marry is considered more filial or social in nature, rather than an individual choice.

So, how do families carry out such violent acts against their beloved ones even though they amount to a flagrant violation of the “rule of law“? I believe that they either succumb to social pressure (in India, a social code is often more powerful than a law), or they become trapped in their own value systems which lead them to victimize or kill their own family members.

By the virtue of solidarity and conformity, the family is under constant pressure to comply with the normative order in Indian society. This regressive order when disregarded can cause disrepute and condemnation of the family. It is believed that the only way to preserve one’s honour and remove the stigma associated with losing social status is to eliminate the very source of shame. Also, perpetrators often do not face negative stigma within their communities, because their behaviour is seen as justified as per the collective norms of the society. Thus, the social benefits of killing for ‘honour’ are abstract and permanent.

In such collectivist cultures, punishment is not carried out to dissuade others but to satisfy the collective conscience of the patriarchal society. As per universal and liberal views, marriage is considered a matter of individual choice and freedom; however, in many parts of India, it is confined by ideas of religious conscience, caste, gotra etc. In cases of ‘honour killings’, it is not just the murder which is a point of serious concern but the very reasoning behind such acts that raise alarms.

Informal social systems play important roles in the execution of such crimes. The 73rd and 74th Amendment Acts of the Indian Constitution gave village panchayats constitutional status. However, in some parts of the country, they are still dominated and coerced by such informal systems like the Khap Panchayats which pass harsh judgements based on age-old traditions and beliefs.

Hence, in spite of the Supreme Court’s ruling that any intrusions by Khaps to stop a marriage between consenting adults is illegal, they still order diktats (an order or decree imposed by someone in power without popular consent) against couples. These diktats are not tenable before any court of law but are acceptable to the community in question and are motivated by the need to perpetuate a feudal and patriarchal order.

In the case of Shakti Vahini, the Supreme Court of India had given various guidelines to prevent ‘honour killing’. It includes provisions like immediate FIR against Khap Panchayats if they order a diktat against any couple, safe houses for the couples, along with security, if needed. These must be strictly adhered to.

Police should also take immediate action and provide security to such couples, which they often fail to do. In many cases, they don’t even lodge FIRs for fear of being ostracized by the community or village. The truth is that the police are found to be highly patriarchal in their orientation and tend to view such cases as an aberration from societal norms. They sometimes advise victims not to pursue complaints and instead opt for a negotiated settlement. This calls for greater sensitization of the police force towards better handling of these crimes. Along with a sustained nationwide media campaign to draw attention to the problem, community and religious leaders should be persuaded to speak out against violence based on the concept of saving a family’s honour.

Although India has become a major global power on the economic front, on the socio-cultural front, we are still caught in the middle of an unsettled conflict between tradition and modernity. It is indeed a matter of disgrace that citizens of the world’s largest democracy are devoid of the privilege to exercise their fundamental right to choose a life partner. Unfortunately, this taints Indian social values because it leads to the notion that Indian culture is a culture of crimes. More importantly, by pairing the word “honour” with killing, we view these murders through the eyes of their killers and indirectly justify the notion of “honourable” motives. We must stop doing this as there is no “honour” in killing.

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