It is not often that a man walks into a police station in greater Calcutta wielding a bloody sword, and places the severed head of his sister on the duty officer’s table as evidence of his own outrage at his sister’s adultery. But this is what happened in the outer fringes of the city on Friday, as Mehtab Alam entered his sister’s lover’s home, where she had been staying, pulled her out into the street, almost cut off the arm of her lover’s sister when she tried to stop him, and then chopped off his sister’s head to the horror of everybody outside. He remains convinced that he has done the right thing in order to punish his sister for “sinning” and “dishonouring” the family. Interestingly, the others in the neighbourhood, once they have had some time to get over the shock of the incident, have been showing signs of sympathy for the man’s righteousness — for is it not true that the married sister with two children was “living in sin” with a man she was not married to? Her brother, known to be quiet and hard-working, had brought up the entire family single-handedly, and such a display of passion speaks of how deep his feelings ran for all of them. This seems to be the general sentiment among his immediate neighbours, family and friends.
The crime that is usually referred to as “honour killing” in the subcontinent arises out of an obscure knot of energies held within the traditional family that are profoundly gendered and just as profoundly — though inscrutably — sexual, even when they connect brother and sister, or father and daughter. These energies are necessarily violent, built on potentially brutal inequalities of power and agency. But they draw upon agreements and collusions that are collective, social. Yet, in spite of the seemingly elemental nature of these crimes, modern systems of justice must come down on them with uncompromised clarity and promptness.