By Githa Hariharan
11 October, 2004
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
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.
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? Its 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
It is a useful thing
to perpetuate a tradition of martyrdom, especially when womens
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 Indias
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 girls 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 Jasvirs 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 Jasvirs aunts 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 fathers 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. Theres 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