Whose Honour is it anyway? - Powerful caste panchayats often stimulate violent reprisals

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By In northern India a woman is better dead than defiled. Avijit Ghosh reports from Muzaffarnagar on the spate of killings sparked off by love (SOME NAMES HAVE BEEN CHANGED ON REQUEST)
  • Published 18.01.04

It was the longest night of her life. A night that still refuses to go away. Even three months later, those moments — being pinned down and violently gang raped by men smelling of hate — continue to haunt and torment her. “This is our revenge for what your brother did to us,” Radha was told. Her brother had eloped with a girl from another community in Muzaffarnagar district’s Basedah village. The 15-year-old sister was made to pay the price.

In several parts of northern India, a community’s honour is often redeemed in such perverse ways as revenge rape and murder. Here young couples are publicly lynched, their severed limbs often delivered back home. Sometimes they are forced to drink poison or pushed in front of running trains; the murders being passed off as suicide. Some are paraded nude in public, made to eat excreta. The luckier ones are heavily fined or simply given a thrashing and driven out of their villages. This is the other side of India Shining.

In these areas, lovers walk the razor’s edge. Be it an inter-caste affair, or a boy and girl from the same village attracted to each other, or someone marrying outside the biradari (sub-caste) — influential family or community members, with the caste panchayat’s sanction and sympathy, often hand out the most barbaric punishments to such violators of tradition and unwritten social codes of the land. It’s called honour killing; murders committed to protect the perceived honour of the family or community.

And the graph of such violent incidents is rising. In western Uttar Pradesh’s Muzaffarnagar district, 13 honour killings took place in the first nine months of 2003, says an All India Democratic Women’s Association (AIDWA) report released last week. In 2002, the figure stood at 10. In all, 68 young couples eloped in 2002. Of them, 35 were declared missing.

Muzaffarnagar, strangely also known as Mohabbatnagar, isn’t the only rotten apple in western UP. In other districts too, Meerut and Saharanpur, for instance, such cases take place. The AIDWA report also estimates that 10 per cent of all murders in Punjab and Haryana are honour killings.

The slayings have a silent social endorsement. Condoned by influential community members, they are also organised by them. Nobody knows this better than Yasmeen Jamal. Her husband Kaasif fell in love with and married a doctor, Naaz Qureshi. Both were Muslims but belonged to different biradaris. You don’t marry outside the biradari in these parts. The two were shot on a March afternoon in a crowded market place. Yet nobody was willing to be an eye witness. The only accused is now out on bail.

Three years after the incident, Yasmeen alleges that the two were murdered by biradari members. “They promised me, they will not harm him. But they betrayed us,” she says in Urdu, speaking from behind a wooden door at her humble home in Muzaffarnagar’s Khalapar mohalla. With no support from the same biradari which was so offended by her husband’s second marriage, she now sustains her family teaching in a local school.

Even today many justify the double murder. “It was a form of insaaf. After all, it was a question of biradari’s honour. How can someone marry outside the biradari?” asks the owner of a sweetshop in the market where the murders took place. His view is echoed by other shopkeepers in the area.

Far away in Jahankhela village in Punjab’s Hoshiarpur district, a similar mindset prevails. Twenty-year-old Geeta Devi’s husband, Jasvir, was slain by sword-wielding assailants last November, two months after their marriage. His crime: he was a Jat who had dared to marry a Rajput girl.

Both families had no problem with the union. But many local Rajputs were angry that she had married into “an inferior community”. “You have disgraced us, they would say and threaten us on the phone. Earlier they had even announced a Rs 50,000 reward for anyone who could chop off my husband’s hand,” says Geeta.

The powerful caste panchayats — informal caste-based courts — dotting the region offer stimulus to such brazenness. In 2002, in Haryana’s Jhajhar district, when a Jat girl eloped with a Dalit youth, taking her sister along, the affair resulted in four deaths. The sisters were killed, as were two Dalit villagers.

The caste panchayat organised the defence for the accused. “The increase in caste identity politics has given a great boost to these formations,” says Brinda Karat, general secretary, AIDWA. With caste panchayats also controlling votes, politicians seldom take a position against them and are happy to patronise them.

And in western Uttar Pradesh, Chowdhary Mahender Singh Tikait’s Jatland, where even police chowkis get burned down during caste demonstrations, the administration prefers to look away. Navniet Sekera, SSP, Muzaffarnagar, points out that certain minimum requirements of law such as a complainant and an eye witness have to be fulfilled before the police can act. But as former Union minister Satpal Malik puts it, “The police and the administration prefer to ignore it because they don’t want to get embroiled in sensitive community matters.”

Back in 2002, the Muzaffarnagar district administration had formed an adult protection cell at the tehsil level to make lovers feel secure. But such measures seem to have made little difference on the ground. Since January 1, 2003, 32 Muzaffarnangar couples have filed applications under the Special Marriages Act (SMA). Only one was accepted. “The procedure of informing the parents and investigating other issues need to be completed by 30 days. Failing which, it is rejected on grounds of being incomplete. The SMA procedure is too bureaucratic,” says local journalist Anil Choudhary, who has written extensively on honour killings.

Ironically, honour killings are rampant in the more affluent pockets of north India. In a report, women activist Zareena Khursheed points out that many families do not protest against honour killings because the victim’s property, including his share of land, gets redistributed. “The acquittals in such cases too are very high, thus encouraging such violent crimes,” says Karat.

At the core of such violence in these areas are residues of a strong feudal character in certain clannish communities such as Rajputs, Jats and Gujjars. Muslims, converted centuries ago from these communities, share similar characteristics. Many still see a woman as a symbol of a community’s collective and congealed honour. “Any departure by her from the traditional norm is treated as sacrilege. There is a sense of defilement,” says eminent sociologist Yogendra Singh. It was this twisted dialectic — that a woman is better dead than defiled — which made many kill their own wives and daughters during Partition. And little seems to have changed since then.

The first reported honour killing in Muzaffarnagar district dates back to 1993. In Khandravali village, a young Dalit couple was murdered. Since then Dr Sanjay Singh, who teaches psychology in Muzaffarnagar, believes there is a spate of similar copy-cat killings. “One honour killing becomes a model for another to emulate,” he says.

Not that everybody condones such action. Local journalist Choudhary recalls that at a recent seminar teenage girls spoke openly against measures that stifled their freedom of choice. College student Nitin Agarwal has a similar view but like most in Muzaffarnagar, he is cynical about honour killings. “They keep happening every other day. What can one do?” he says. With no political party or social organisation ready to unfurl the banner of protest, the dissenters have no option but to fall in line. Or, die.

It’s a strange face-off between the young and the old. Yogendra Singh says that due to the impact of satellite television and other onslaughts of modern life, the new generation in rural India is “psychically” mobile. Which means it is not averse to urban notions of love and romance. “At the same time, these young men and women are physically immobile, being rooted to a place where those who control the community want status quo. What is an act of social deviance for them is breaking barriers for the youth,” he says.

Till both change, the law needs to help out the lovers. An AIDWA resolution last week suggested a simplification of procedures under the Special Marriages Act, magisterial inquiry into the deaths of all women between the ages of 15 and 25 in affected states and relevant changes in law to encourage courts to take suo motu notice of such crimes.

“There should also be a ban on all caste panchayat decisions which go against the Constitution,” says Karat. Interestingly, the Rajasthan Human Rights Commission has challenged the fatwas issued by these caste panchayats through its petition in the Jodhpur High Court.

That is a welcome move. But, unless more such steps are taken, the community’s wish will continue to prevail over the individual’s choice. Cupid’s arrows will continue to cause the death of the young as the 21st-century satellite television ardour confronts 17th-century feudal mores. And in Muzaffarnagar and several other pockets of northern India, love will remain a four-letter word.