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Blood Thirsty Honour

By Githa Hariharan

11 October, 2004
The Telegraph

Eve teasing. Voluntary sati. And now, honour killings. These oxymoron-ridden phrases wreak violence on our language every day. They also mirror flesh-and-blood violence. Coercion, assault or murders continue to be exactly that, no matter how much they are whitewashed with euphemisms about teasing; no matter how well they are dressed up with qualifiers like voluntary and honour.

In the contemporary definition of an honour killing, a woman or a man, or the couple, are victimized for marrying outside their caste or community. It is like a familiar script with the wrong ending. Every other film made in India has a couple in love who are not allowed to marry. Invariably, whether the difference between boy and girl is class, caste or religion, the end is happy. The marriage takes place, and the narrow-minded opponents of the marriage benefit from a lesson on the equalizing powers of love.

Our transgressing young lovers in real life find the story often ends quite differently. Their marriages lead to punishing ostracism, and to violence in a sickening variety of forms. A convention against “honour” killings and violence held in Delhi earlier this year identified some of the types of punishment the couple may be subject to. Public lynching. Or murder. Or, taking a leaf out of the case of “voluntary sati,” murder camouflaged as suicide — say by forcing the victim to drink poison. Less drastic than murder but almost as painful is a long list of honour-driven violence: sexual assault on the women members of the accused family, usually belonging to the lower caste or the “other community” as “revenge;” public beating, stripping, blackening of the face; shaving of the head; forcing the couple or their families to drink urine or eat excrement; incarceration, huge fines, social boycott or being driven out of the village.

What is this terrible “honour” that wreaks such pain and terror on people simply because two young people have exercised their right to choose their partner? It’s an honour that tends to attach itself to rigid codes, usually caste or religious codes. It also tends to be a code formulated by the male elite so their “honour” can flourish in the patriarchal framework. This is the sort of honour that celebrates women committing jawhar or mass sati; I remember an obnoxious sound and light show I took my children to years ago in Gwalior which placed the achievements of Tansen and women committing “suicide” on an equally glorious footing.

It is a useful thing to perpetuate a tradition of martyrdom, especially when women’s bodies are vulnerable to being viewed as the vessels of national honour. It was this unholy honour that provided the motive for otherwise “normal” men to kill their own sisters and wives and mothers during the Partition — “disappearances” and murders which have been covered by a conspiracy of silence, and by the more acceptable belief that these women were abducted or killed by men from the other side. In her book The Other Side of Silence, Urvashi Butalia takes on this myth that the perpetrators of violence were always “outsiders”. She writes about a man she interviewed in Amritsar, Mangal Singh, whose family killed seventeen of its women and children. He refuses to use the word killed; he says they became “martyrs” in keeping with Sikh pride. The women, he says, were willing to become martyrs. “The real fear was one of dishonour.” But, asks Butalia, who had the pride and the fear? It is not a question Mangal Singh was willing to examine. Similarly, in Borders and Boundaries: Women in India’s Partition, Ritu Menon records the account of a partition survivor, Durga Rani. In this account, two types of honour killings occur: one in anticipation of dishonour; the other as a way to cope with dishonour. Consider, on the one hand: “In the villages of Head Junu, Hindus threw their young daughters into wells, dug trenches and buried them alive. Some were burnt to death, some were made to touch electric wires to prevent the Muslims touching them.” On the other hand, Durga Rani gives us an idea of what happened to many women who had been abandoned after being raped and disfigured. They could not be “kept” any longer because their “character” was now spoilt. In some cases, as in that of a girl who was raped by ten or more men, the only way to deal with the dishonour was murder; the girl, says Durga Rani, was burnt by her father.

All these years after Partition, this dishonourable honour still stalks the land, wreaking its barbaric violence on both men and women, but preferably on women. Most cases are reported from Punjab, Haryana and parts of western Uttar Pradesh. The statistics are disturbing; twenty-three such murders were reported during 2002 and 2003 in Muzaffarnagar alone. Thirty-five young couples were declared “missing”. And in Punjab and Haryana, one out of every ten murders is an honour killing. In most of the cases where the girl is from an upper caste, the boy is the target of violence, usually by the girl’s family. Often, girls who are murdered for “destroying the honour of the family” are cremated without any legal formalities and the deaths concealed.

Behind the statistical wall is a collection of stories that tell of violence and fear unleashed on the basis of a shameful rationale. In Hoshiarpur, Punjab, twenty-two-year old Geeta Rani, a Rajput woman, married Jasvir, the son of the only Jat family in the village. Her parents did not object to the match. But the Rajputs in Jasvir’s village, including a suspended police officer, decided to “teach him a lesson” for marrying one of “their” women.

Within two months of the marriage, he was killed after his hands and legs were cut off. One hand was thrown into Jasvir’s aunt’s house. Now, the widowed Geeta and her widowed mother-in-law live in fear, struggling to pay security guards to keep them safe. “Not even the nightmare of the 1984 riots was this bad,” says the mother-in-law.

In Jhajjar, a Jat woman from Talav village married a Dalit. She was forced to return to her father’s home, and there both she and her sister were murdered. So were a Dalit woman and a man who were accused of helping the girl to elope. The villagers who recounted the story were clear about one thing: the administration was careful to protect the upper castes.

Several of these cases illustrate not only the violation of the right to choose a marriage partner, but also the role caste panchayats play in perpetuating illegal and inhuman social codes. In other states — Gujarat being a good example — increased communalization has led to more intolerance, and more violence in cases of Hindu-Muslim marriages. In a country that is blessed with all kinds of communities, intermarriage is not only a constitutional right of every adult citizen, but also the inevitable way to celebrate the bonds among us. There’s very little point in sending our children to schools or allowing them to vote — in short, in pretending they are adults — if they cannot marry who they choose.






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