T.K. RAJALAKSHMI in Sonepat and Delhi for The Frontline
NOTHING, not even the death penalty awarded by a Karnal court to five people in the Manoj-Babli case on March 30 this year, seems to deter honour killings in India. In the past few months, there has been a spate of murders in the name of protecting family or community honour in areas adjoining the national capital region.
In the latest such incident, Sham Mohammad, 18, a Muslim, and his friend, Reena, 16, a Hindu, were found dead on the premises of a school in Samain village of Fatehabad district in Haryana on July 4. The boy had been bludgeoned to death and one of his eyes was almost gouged out, while the girl had apparently been forced to consume poison. The police arrested the girl’s maternal uncles and a few others in connection with the case.
The youngsters had studied in the same school and when the families came to know of their friendship, the boy was sent away to Punjab and the girl discontinued her studies. Sham had come to his native place for a vacation when the incident occurred.
Significantly, persistent interventions by organisations such as the All India Democratic Women’s Association (AIDWA) have emboldened people to report cases of honour killings to the police. But governments have been accused of showing a lack of will in dealing with the situation. Recently, the Supreme Court too voiced its concern over the lack of governmental action to stop honour killings.
On June 21, taking cognisance of a public interest petition filed by the non-governmental organisation Shakti Vahini, a Division Bench of the Supreme Court issued notice to the Centre and eight State governments – Haryana, Punjab, Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Jharkhand, Himachal Pradesh, Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh – seeking an action plan. The NGO argued that while killing for honour was an extreme reaction, victims were often subjected to long-term, low-level physical abuse and bullying as a punishment for “bringing dishonour on the family”. Such abuse included battery, torture, mutilation, rape, forced marriage, and imprisonment within the home. These premeditated crimes were intended to protect the family honour by preventing and punishing violations of community norms of behaviour, especially sexual behaviour of women.
Many a time, the petition said, harassment and threats drove young couples to suicide. The law enforcement agencies, it said, were mute spectators, intervening only after an incident had happened. They were caught in the “midst of lack of political will to act against such feudal forces as these forces also represent vote banks”, it said.
The petition demanded that the Supreme Court lay down a series of guidelines for law enforcement agencies to deal with such crimes on the pattern of the guidelines for combating sexual harassment at the workplace. It also pointed out how the States had failed to comply with the directions issued by the court in 2006 ( Lata Singh vs State of Uttar Pradesh and Another) to ensure that no one harassed or threatened couples who married out of caste or religion.
The court directed that the police should institute criminal proceedings against anyone who issued or carried out threats of violence. “There is nothing honourable in these killings and, in fact, they are nothing but barbaric and shameful acts of murder committed by brutal, feudal-minded persons who deserve harsh punishment,” it said.
The petitioner contended that as a state party to the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), the Government of India was under obligation to see that discrimination against women in matters relating to family and marriage was eliminated. This included ensuring that informal decision-making bodies such as khap panchayats (caste councils) were restrained from enforcing their dicta and interfering with the right of women to choose their spouses, the petition said. Also, as a signatory to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, India had an obligation to protect the lives, rights and liberty of individuals and protect them from such heinous crimes, it said.
There has been a strident demand, especially after the Karnal court judgment, to amend the Hindu Marriage Act, 1955, in order to prevent same- gotra marriages. This has been at the centre of the latest debate on honour killings. On June 19, the Delhi High Court dismissed a petition demanding a ban on same- gotra marriages. Castigating the petitioner for “wasting the time of the court”, the judges demanded to know which Hindu text prescribed banning of sagotra (same clan) marriages.
The petition in the High Court was filed soon after the Supreme Court dismissed a similar one on the grounds of jurisdiction. Arguing that same- gotra marriages were violative of fundamental rights and against Hindu tradition, the petitioner wanted the court to appoint a commission that would suggest amendments to the Hindu Marriage Act in order to prohibit such marriages.
But not all honour killings in the recent past were instigated by caste councils. For instance, on June 25, two cousins, aged 14 and 12, of Mohalla Kot in the old city of Sonepat district were battered and strangled allegedly by their own grandmother and paternal uncles. Their bodies were thrown amidst hyacinths on the embankment of the Western Yamuna Canal.
Mohalla Kot is a part of Sonepat that is cut off from the city. Its narrow bylanes make access to it in any big four-wheel vehicle difficult. People here keep to themselves and, not surprisingly, very few were willing to talk about the murder of the two children. The grandmother and the uncles are reported to have said that they killed the girls for having an illicit liaison with their 16-year-old stepbrother, who has been arrested and booked for rape.
There has not been much sympathy for the slain children either from the police or the larger society. Media reports have constantly referred to the girls as having had an “affair” with their cousin. Even the police viewed the incident as a normal outcome of a wrong that had been committed by the girls.
“It is not a case of honour killing. It is a case of illicit relations. The family has a history of its members being arrested under the Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances Act,” K.K. Rao, Sonepat’s Superintendent of Police, told Frontline. According to a section of the police, the girls were “of age” and not minors though the post-mortem and school records revealed otherwise. They had been subjected to sexual intercourse as well. But whether the arrested minor boy is the real culprit or not is now under the scanner.
The circumstances in which the girls lived were pathetic, to say the least. The father of the 14-year-old girl was in jail and the mother was living away from home. The parents of the other girl, too, were living away from the family. A relative of one of the slain girls said the children were innocent.
The Wazirpur murders
The triple murders in Wazirpur, near Delhi, were equally horrific. The landed Gujjar and Jat communities in the village, an island in the midst of posh colonies in Ashok Vihar, became wealthy overnight, thanks to the real estate boom. Shops here display the latest brands and swanky cars whizz past its roads. Most of the houses are multi-storeyed. Young boys and girls dressed up in the latest fashion move around with nonchalance.
“The mentality of the residents of Wazirpur village is mediaeval despite all the modern amenities,” said a resident. “The boys here do nothing. They just roam around. There is a lot of easy money as land prices have gone up tremendously.”
The village has a chaupal (a place for panchayat and public meetings), used mostly by the men of the dominant castes, as in much of rural North India, where the elders sit and smoke their hookahs. It was in this setting that Kuldeep, a Rajput boy, and Monica, a Gujjar, decided to tie the knot four years ago. They were the first couple to have married out of caste in the 400-year-old village.
On June 21, two of the girl’s cousins, in their early 20s, killed them in the name of honour. The next day, another girl, a cousin of Monica, too, was found murdered. The boys, who confessed to the crime, said they could not bear the taunts of the villagers after the girls had supposedly “shamed” them, one by marrying out of caste and the other by aspiring to be a model.
Less than a week earlier, a girl and a boy belonging to two different castes were electrocuted by the girl’s parents and maternal uncles in a colony in north-east Delhi. These are not just stray incidents.
In nearby Haryana, on June 21, two teenagers were found murdered in a village in Bhiwani district. Six members of the girl’s family were arrested. The girl was a student of Class XI. Six days later, a couple belonging to two different castes in Dheera village killed themselves by jumping in front of a train following resistance to their relationship.
In April this year, in Bhainswal village in Sonepat, a boy strangled his 16-year-old sister for having a relationship with a boy of the same village. A day later, the girl’s friend committed suicide. In October 2009, a Sonepat couple, who married from the same gotra, had to face the community’s ire. The man was killed and his wife raped after being lured to a place in Delhi.
It is clear that the matter of honour killings cannot be dealt with by law alone. There also has to be some form of social reform plan on the agenda of political parties, in addition to an attitudinal change in the people. Significantly, such crimes are committed more often in States that have skewed child sex ratios and a high rate of crime against women and children, and where distributive justice in both economic and social terms is very low.