The recent spate of ‘honour killings’ in Delhi, like the Asha Saini-Yogesh Kumar killing by electrocution, or the Kuldeep-Monica and Shobhana murders allegedly by Monica’s family members are giving rise to disturbing questions about educated, middle class, urban India. The death of Nirupama Pathak, a budding journalist from Jharkhand has also rattled the middle classes of our country. Till now, ‘honour’ killings were generally associated with the rural heartland, particularly in Harayana, Punjab and western Uttar Pradesh. However, recent incidents, particularly Nirupama’s incident, wherein an IIMC pass out coming from an educated middle class family lost her life in the endeavour to get married to a journalist from another caste, is too close for comfort. A while back the case of Rizwanur Rahman and Priyanka Todi also generated outrage among the middle classes. So did Nitish Katara’s case. Sushma Tiwari’s struggle in Mumbai to ensure justice against the killing of her husband, father-in-law and two minors by her brother several months after her marriage is also a case in the point. Such incidents have exposed the discomforting underbelly of the truth about own-choice or ‘love’ marriages in urban and semi-urban settings. Needless to say, they debunk the popular myth that the dominance of caste, community or kinship ties are a thing of the past in urban India and are only associated with feudal values and settings.
A cursory examination of marriages and relationships in contemporary India reveals a vast diversity in forms and practices. Urban India witnesses arranged marriages with strict enforcement of community-caste based choice by family members, arranged marriages within caste-community constraints where periods of courtship simulating love marriages are permitted by the family, own-choice marriages where caste-community-class conveniently converge in the exercise of individual choice, own-choice marriages across caste-community-class divide that are faced with varying degrees of hostility or even violence by family members, own-choice marriages across caste-community divide that are accepted by family members, marriages in accordance with religious rituals, civil marriages without religious rituals as well as live-in relationships involving no marriage at all. All these types of marriages and relationships occur around us today. However, their sheer range reveals the complex value systems that prevail in our society.
While love stories have continued to fascinate people from ancient times, it can reasonably be argued that own-choice marriages truly arrived on the scene with the advent of capitalism in western societies, which led to considerable weakening of kinship ties. This weakening was a result of the requirements of emerging professions and classes that were no longer linked to a fixed piece of land or to one’s station at birth, but to more flexible avenues that required people to shift and move around. The emergence of nuclear families as opposed to joint families was also an outcome of this development. Naturally, own-choice marriages between individuals, rather than those fixed or supervised by families or communities increasingly became the norm. Arranged marriages based on the predominance of kinship ties increasingly receded to the margins. Many western societies experienced decisive breaks from feudal values through bourgeois revolutions. This also meant that secular laws based on notions of rights of citizens came to govern modern nations as opposed to religion or kinship based laws. However, as is proved by history, this possibility of greater freedom was also constrained by re-defined notions of class, race and gender under capitalism.
To understand the complex make-up of contemporary value systems prevalent among the middle classes in India, it is necessary to take modern Indian history into account. The Indian freedom struggle against British colonial rule was led by the emerging Indian bourgeoisie, which was anti-colonial in motivation but never truly anti-feudal. The Indian bourgeoisie targeted the constraints posed on its development by the British colonialism not those by the feudal classes. Thus, the development of capitalism in India never witnessed any decisive break with feudalism or feudal value systems, rather the bourgeoisie chose to strike an alliance with the landlords. As a result, a complex range of value systems took root among the emerging bourgeoisie as well as the middle classes of our country, ranging from conservative outlooks steeped in caste and community based thinking to more modern outlooks based in notions of secular law, scientific thinking, equality and rationality. While being a modern class, the middle classes in India did not necessarily embody a modern outlook. A distinct educated section among them certainly became bearers of more enlightened views, but on the whole, they embodied and navigated a wide range of very contradictory value systems in their daily life. Often, the value systems changed drastically between different generations.
The paradox facing the Indian middle classes has only become worse with the advent of the neoliberal era. On the one hand, sections of the middle class are more exposed to the most advanced outposts of capitalism; on the other hand growing numbers from the landlords and other rural propertied classes are joining middle class ranks every day. Making money has increasingly become the new mantra governing all aspects of life under neo-liberalism. Education, work, marriage and other social relations have increasingly lined up with the larger goal of accumulating wealth. Today’s times have generated myriad forms of identity politics devoid of holistic emancipatory goals. The middle classes have increasingly turned their backs on the poor and the deprived, carrying only an aspiration for upward mobility. Modernity in today’s times has increasingly become restricted to consuming latest goods in the market, rather than espousing progressive values.
It is not surprising, therefore, that retrograde practices like ‘female feoticide' (sex-selective abortions) or dowry have gained grounds in contemporary urban societies in re-defined ways. So are caste and community based outlooks unapologetically brandished in matrimonial advertisements in newspapers and websites. However, the real problem in this entire scenario is that the Indian state also represents this conflicting range of principles and value systems in governance. In spite of repeated demands by progressive groups, many long pending legal reforms have not taken place. The police, administration and even the judiciary implement and interpret many existing laws in various distorted ways. Recent judgements by the courts in instances of honour killings differ between those that betray a deep sympathy with the culprits to those that seek to protect individual choice and liberty in marriage. In Nirupama’s case the apprehensions expressed by her boyfriend Priyabhanshu Ranjan regarding victimization in Jharkhand turned out to be true when the Police agreed to register cases against him for rape and cheating.
In today’s complex social scenario if a young couple wishes to marry outside caste and community their endeavour does not receive active support from the Indian state. The current procedural requirements of the Special Marriages Act continue to pose difficulties for consenting adults and need to be simplified. The procedures, as of now, involve a minimum waiting period ranging between one to three months and necessary notice of information to family members. Instances of non-intervention by the police in providing protection to couples perceiving a threat to their safety continue to occur frequently. Complaints by family members of kidnapping and rape are registered far more easily by the Police in comparison to those by consenting adults seeking security from threats posed by family members. In any case, security can only be sanctioned by a DCP level officer, making access to security very difficult for ordinary citizens. The other way to seek security is to file a petition in the Court. Now, the Supreme Court has issued notices to the Centre as well as several state governments regarding measures to provide security to couples wanting own choice marriage. However, it remains to be seen whether this will pave way for making own choice marriages any easier.
So far, the demands for decisive action and formulation of a specific law against ‘honour killings’ have been falling on deaf ears with the government paying mere lip service to such issues. Meanwhile, every instance of honour killing is only serving as deterrence to young couples wanting an own-choice marriage. Every inadequate action of the criminal-justice system against those indulging in violence in the name of honour is emboldening more perpetrators. As more and more young couples are exercising their right to choose their own life partner, the reaction against such marriages is also becoming more violent and pronounced, displaying deep social conflicts. Many cases continue to be suppressed and are passed off as natural deaths by family members. Unfortunately, the government is refusing to take a decisive stand in favour of defending the basic liberty and right of an individual to choose the person she wants to spend her life with, and is seen attempting an unprincipled negotiation.
While complicity in retrograde social customs can be expected from the 'hindutva brigade', the Congress party is betraying crass opportunism on the issue of honour killings. The Congress' ‘youth brigade’ is refusing to articulate the democratic aspiration of the youth and become engineers of social change. Rather they are only pandering to youth ‘identity’ like any other form of identity politics. Worse still, leaders like Navin Jindal are articulating the most reactionary views and making unjustifiable compromises with regressive social trends for narrow electoral ends. The Chief Minister of Harayana, Bhupinder Singh Hooda, cannot tire of singing praises for Khap Panchayats. While bold couples are continuing to exercise their legitimate right to choose their life partner even in the face of grave threat to their life and liberty, it is disappointing that the government is refusing to lead the way in defending their rights. In a country where over 75 percent population is below 35 years of age, such issues cannot be dealt with a prolonged clever by half approach.
Recently, in March 2010, AIDWA held an All India Young Women’s Convention in Bangalore. Preceding this Convention, an all-India survey was undertaken among thousands of young women in different states. Many young women, including from all major urban centres, opined that they would prefer an own-choice marriage over arranged marriage. However, almost all women expressed the apprehension that their parents would not approve of an inter-caste or inter-religious marriage. A negligible number among those desiring own-choice marriage opined that they would go ahead with such a marriage even if they faced opposition from their families. It is this oppressive reality that needs to be confronted by the government today. The lack of decisive action by the government will only endanger more lives and result in more violence, but it will certainly not reverse the tide.