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Nirupama’s Murder: The Violence Of The High-Born

By Kavita Krishnan

26 May, 2010

In every home a burning ghat
In every home a gallows
In every home are prison walls
Colliding against the walls
She falls

- Gorakh Pandey, ‘Band khidkiyon se takrakar’, (She collides against closed windows) 1982

Nirupama, a bright young journalist, had made her break for freedom from the prison walls of home and feudal society. As a graduate from the IIMC, living independently in a small rented room, and employed as a journalist, she must have felt reasonably free. The khap panchayats might have seemed remote from her life – the stuff of stories she would investigate as a journalist, perhaps. But of late, the prison walls, hitherto hidden in the mists of parental love, had begun to cast their shadows on her life. She had fallen in love with a classmate, Priyabhanshu, and intended to marry him. Her father had written her a letter, reminding his daughter that in his eyes, social laws were defined not by the 60 year-old Indian Constitution but by centuries-old ‘Sanatan Dharma’ – according to which a ‘girl from a high-born family’ was not allowed to marry a boy from a caste ‘lower’ than her own. Since Nirupama was a Brahmin, and Priyabhanshu a Kayastha, a match between them was unthinkable, he said, and counselled them both to give it up.

A civilised letter from a ‘high-born’ father! Quite a contrast to that post mortem report which testifies to the fact that three people (including, probably, her mother) in Nirupama’s home got together to overpower her, and smother her with a pillow over her head! What is it that can make parents wish to smother the life out of the daughter to whom they gave birth? Alok Dhanwa identified it when he wrote ‘Bhagi hui ladkiyan’ (Runaway Girls) -

You will erase a girl in flight
from the air of her own house
you will also erase her from there
which is her childhood inside you
I know the violence of the high-born!

In the homes of the ‘high-born’, in India’s caste-ridden society, the much-loved daughter turns into something too dangerous to live, if her sexuality slips out of the structures of feudal control. Babu Bajrangi, the Sangh Parivar leader from Gujarat, who boasts of having ‘rescued’ (i.e abducted) a 1000 Hindu women who dared to marry Muslim or ‘lower’ caste men, says that every daughter (beti) is a bomb that threatens to blow up caste society. The daughter’s body is, literally, the porous border of caste purity – and must be policed carefully to prevent infiltration. The daughter’s act of choosing her own partner causes terror in the custodians of caste society. No wonder she is compared to a ‘bomb’! Incidentally and interestingly, it is ironic to see participants in the debate over the caste census argue that ideally, caste should be done away with ‘except in matters of marriage’! Is it really possible that they fail to realise that marriage and the control of female sexuality thereby is central to the maintenance of the caste system, and that we cannot claim to have rendered caste irrelevant until caste is done away with in matters of marriage?!

When IIMC students and activists of students’ and women’s groups met the NCW Chairperson Girija Vyas over the Nirupama case, she agreed for the need for investigation and punishment for the killers, and even for the need for a law against ‘honour’ killings. But she also turned around and asked Priyabhanshu – “Why didn’t you marry her? That would have saved her life.” When an AISA leader pointed out that marriage had not protected couples from murder by khap panchayats, Ms. Vyas said that Nirupama’s case could not be termed an ‘honour’ killing. Khap panchayats and ‘honour’ killings were specific to Haryana, she suggested. The NCW, it seems, is reluctant to recognise that ‘the violence of the high-born’ against their daughters’ right to choose a partner is a national phenomenon.

The khap panchayats in Haryana (patronised by powerful political forces including Congress leaders), the Sangh Parivar which whips up rumours of ‘love jehad’ to target Hindu-Muslim matches are instances of organised political backing for ‘honour’ killings. But the ‘violence of the high-born’ is not confined to these instances. It is not even confined to killings. Daily, quietly, within the walls of ordinary homes, daughters are coerced, pressurised, even imprisoned and beaten and many times killed – to prevent them from loving or marrying from choice. Nari Niketans are full of adult women who have married out of caste and community, who are incarcerated on the basis of false complaints by their parents that they are ‘minors’ who have been ‘abducted’ by their husbands! Yes, we need a central law – not just against ‘honour’ killings, but against all forms of coercion, force and violence that invoke the “honour” of a community to curb the rights of the individual in matters of choosing a partner and other personal matters such as choice of dress etc. In other words, violence perpetrated against individuals in the name of protecting ‘culture’ (such as imposition of ‘dress codes’ on women or attacks on couples celebrating Valentine’s Day) should also be covered by the law.

An NCW hoarding at Rajeev Chowk Metro Station displays a quotation from M K Gandhi – “Women are the special custodians of all that is pure and religious in life.” The fact that NCW can endorse such a sentiment indicates that the NCW has no understanding of the roots of violence committed in the name of ‘honour.’ If women are expected to be repositories of “all that is pure and religious,” what happens to women who choose to defy the rules of ‘purity’ and religion? Attacks on women who choose partners outside the caste and community are defended precisely on the grounds that the women are defiling the ‘purity’ of caste, ‘Sanatan Dharma’, etc

When multi-millionaire businessman and Congress MP Naveen Jindal praises khap panchayats for their ‘yeoman service’, naturally a huge question mark is raised on the commitment of the Congress party – in power in Haryana as well as at the Centre – to stop ‘honour’ killings. It is telling that the VHP too has supported the khap panchayats’ demand for a ban on same gotra marriages. The Central Government must be told that lip service will not do. They must enact a law that strengthens the hand of every Manoj and Babli, every Nirupama and Priyabhanshu, every couple that love or marry in defiance of caste and community barriers.

(The author is National Secretary, All India Progressive Women’s Association, AIPWA; email: kavitakrish73@gmail.com)