The ongoing spate of ‘Honour’ killings in the country is continuing to outrage all democratic minded people. The Khap Panchayats are invoking ‘tradition’ and ‘customs’ to justify their crimes. They have gathered ranks to demand a ban on ‘sagotra’ and ‘bhai-chara’ marriages. Underlying this demand is their historic antipathy towards granting property rights to women in these regions.
The ongoing spate of ‘Honour’ killings in the country is continuing to outrage all democratic minded people of our country. The right of any individual to chose their life partner is a basic democratic right. This right is guaranteed by the norms of any democratic, civilized society as well as by the Indian Constitution. However, the brutality, barbarism and impunity with which young couples are being murdered in the name of caste-community-family ‘honour’ is a matter of great shame and reflects serious lacunae in the criminal justice system as well as the lack of decisive political will on part of the government towards curbing such incidents.
In a historic judgment in March this year, the Karnal Sessions Court meted out exemplary death penalties to five members of Khap Panchyats in the Manoj-Babli killings case. This judgment can be better appreciated if it is contrasted with another verdict just a while back in December 2009. In the Sushma Tiwari case of Mumbai, a Supreme Court Division Bench reduced the punishment for her brother and others for 4 murders including that of her husband and his family members. Two of those murdered were minors. The Court observed that the murders were ‘the outcome of a social issue like marriage with a person of a lower caste’ and that ‘when the younger sister commits something unusual, then the elder brother is held responsible for not stopping such an affair, and it is held as family defeat’.
In reaction to the Manoj-Babli judgment, the Khap Panchayats of Haryana have closed ranks and are vocally justifying ‘honour’ killings. Their statements amount to no less than provocation and incitement to murder. However, their impunity is emanating from the tentative and unprincipled approach shown by the government towards such crimes. Statements in support of Khap Panchayats by Haryana CM or MPs like Navin Jindal are only providing strength to such elements. Such acts by elected members merit strict deterrent action. They cannot be explained away as mere compulsions of electoral politics. Our parliamentary democracy is guided by the principles enshrined in the Indian Constitution and political mobilizations that are based on undermining and challenging those very principles must be firmly dealt with. It is disappointing that no such resolve has been visible on part of the government yet.
The Khap Panchayats are invoking ‘tradition’ and ‘customs’ to justify their crimes. However, murders and killings cannot be justified away in the name of tradition. ‘Sati’, ‘dowry’, ‘son preference’ have all been part of tradition or custom, but these practices cannot be accepted for their blatant violation of the basic rights of women. The Khaps have gathered ranks to demand amendments to the Hindu Marriage Act, 1955, so that ‘sagotra’ or intra-gotra marriages as well as ‘bhai-chara’ marriages (brotherhood between all inhabitants of a village or several adjacent villages) can be prohibited across the country by law. Marriages among certain blood relations are already prohibited by this Act. The Khap variety of regulating marriages is among the most conservative and is not practiced uniformly even in Haryana, leave alone in the entire country. The Delhi High Court recently dismissed a PIL seeking amendments in the HMA to this effect in June 2010, accusing the petitioner of wasting the time of the courts. The Khap Panchayats have now turned to the political classes for support.
The indecisiveness of the government in this matter is repeatedly getting exposed. In a recent Cabinet meeting, different Ministers could not arrive at a consensus regarding the requisite law. The Congress Party, which is leading the UPA, is on record saying that it is yet to take a view on the demand by Khap Panchayats to change the Hindu Marriages Act (Press Conference by Congress Spokesperson, Jayanthi Natarajan on 23rd June 2010). Haryana Chief Minister, Bhupinder Singh Hooda, has been busy appreciating the role of Khap Panchayats. In a country where young citizens are increasingly asserting their democratic right for own choice marriages, pandering to views that seek to bring virtually all youth in several adjacent villages within the ambit of brother-sister relationship, cannot be accepted. This reactionary assertion by the Khap Panchayats needs to be fought tooth and nail.
A recent survey by Hindustan Times revealed that 81 per cent of the respondents in Haryana did not support people of the same gotra marrying; 69 per cent were in favour of the government banning same-gotra marriages; and 2 per cent even supported the death sentence that khap (clan) panchayats award for violating their orders on such marriages. However, another recent study commissioned by NCW, which was conducted by NGO Shakti Vahini revealed that 72% of the 326 cases of honour crimes were in fact inter-caste marriages, while same gotra marriages were only 3 per cent. Marriages within the caste were 15 per cent and only 1 per cent were inter-religious marriages. In the experience of struggles by AIDWA in Haryana, only one case over the last one decade involved a same gotra marriage. Thus, even though ‘honour’ crimes have very little to do with sagotra marriages, the Khap Panchayats have managed to create an impression that they are acting against what they perceive to be incest.
The reasons behind this renewed vigour and assertion by Khap Panchayats on the issue of ‘sagotra’ marriages needs to be understood. A gotra is like a sub-caste, lineage or clan. It is based on kinship ties. The lineage of an individual may be traced to a particular gotra or to a combination of gotras. Male members of a family carry a gotra forward, with females acquiring the gotra of their husband’s family after marriage. The concept of gotra varies considerably in different parts of the country, hence, it is also difficult to define clearly. In the case of Khap Panchayats, the objections are not restricted to own-gotra marriages, but also to ‘bhai-chara’ marriages, i.e., marriages between inhabitants of a village or several adjacent villages, including individuals belonging to different gotras since they are also deemed to be siblings due to proximity of residence. Thus, marriages between individuals extending up to several villages are alleged to be incestuous by Khap Panchayats.
Jagmati Sangwan, AIDWA State President of Haryana explains the hypocrisy of Khap dictates in her article ‘Khap Panchayat: Signs of Desperation’ (The Hindu, 7.5.2010):
By creating the false impression that all marriages of choice between young couples are incestuous, what the khaps are actually opposing is the right to choose a marriage partner. Among the several instances of khaps issuing fatwas in Jaundhi, Asanda, Dharana, Singhwal, Hadaudi, Maham-kheri, Ludana and other villages, not a single one was an intra-gotra marriage, yet the married couples were declared siblings, and families made to suffer boycotts and excommunication from their villages…. As couples are selectively targeted, it is clear the real motive is to control women's sexuality to ensure that property remains within the patriarchal caste domain (mainly Jats in Haryana).
The regulation or control over marriage in society is an age-old issue intrinsically linked to property rights and wealth. Freidrich Engels dealt with this matter extensively in The Origin of Family, Private Property and the State. He explained:
…as wealth increased, it, on the one hand, gave the man a more important status in the family than the woman, and, on the other hand, created a stimulus to utilize this strengthened position in order to overthrow the traditional order of inheritance in favour of his children. But this was not possible as long as descent according to mother right prevailed…. The overthrow of mother right was the world-historic defeat of the female sex.
He traced the rigid control over female sexuality to this development. By the laws of nature, descent can only be established through the mother (but for the more recent invention of paternity tests). Thus, for any patrilineal and patriarchal system to be put in force, it was necessary to evolve ways to control women. The roots of hurdles to own choice marriages can be traced to controlling the choice of women in marriages and relationships. It is also not a coincidence that usually it is the woman’s family who employ extreme violence in the name of ‘honour’.
Going by the codes of Khap Panchayats, since all youth within the proximity of a village and adjacent villages are brothers and sisters, the possibility of any young individual managing to develop affection for another beyond the bounds of several villages already becomes remote. Needless to say, these ties of brotherhood are not exercised in any otherwise brotherly treatment towards oppressed castes in a village by the dominant castes. This deterrence to the possibility of own choice marriages can be further understood in the context of rights for women in land and other parental property in these areas. If a woman is married several villages away the possibility of her exercising inheritance rights over parental property in her natal home also becomes comparatively remote.
Economist, Bina Agarwal, writes about the link between property rights and marital practices in Are We Not Peasants Too: Land Rights and Women’s Claims in India, (‘Seeds’, Population Council, New York, 2002):
Traditionally among matrilineal communities where daughters had strong claims in land (as in Kerala and Meghalaya), postmarital residence was in or near the natal home. This kept the land under the overall purview of the natal family, as did close-kin marriage. In contrast, in traditionally patrilineal communities, post-marital residence was patrilocal (the woman joined her husband in his natal home) and often in another village. In addition, in northern India close-kin marriage was forbidden among most communities…. South India has the fewest obstacles. Here legal rights are relatively more equal, in-village and close-kin marriage is allowed, there is virtually no purdah, and female labor force participation is medium to high. Northwest India is the area of most difficulty on all these fronts. Northeast and central India come in-between.
Explaining this further in the same article, Bina Agarwal writes:
…marriages in distant villages make direct cultivation by women difficult. In many areas this is compounded by illiteracy, high fertility, and social restrictions on women’s mobility and public interaction. While the practice of veiling is geographically restricted, the ideology of female seclusion is more widespread and operates in complex ways. Effectively, it restricts women’s contact with men by gendering forms of behavior, and gendering public and private space….the strong ideology of purdah in the northwest circumscribes women in particular ways.
This adversity for women in the northwestern states of India is also seen in gender discriminatory laws regarding property. Till the 2005 amendment to the Hindu Succession Act of 1956, equal inheritance rights for women in parental property, especially agricultural land, were denied in 6 states, namely, Delhi, Haryana, Punjab, Uttar Pradesh, Himachal Pradesh and Jammu & Kashmir.
Sociologist, Prem Chowdhry, who has extensively researched on gender equations in Haryana provides further evidence and analysis of the conservative nature of the landed elite of Haryana in her book The Veiled Women: Shifting Gender Equations in Rural Haryana, 1880-1990 (1994). She explains how the landed ruling classes of Haryana have moved repeatedly against the limited property rights accorded to women in parental property by the Hindu Succession Act of 1956:
On the one hand they tried to abolish it through the legislative procedures and on the other hand they accelerated their attempts through the caste panchayats to control its fall-out effects (This was done through insistence upon imposing caste customary codes). Within months of the formation of Haryana in November 1966, its Assembly passed a resolution in 1967 (and the Punjab Assembly in 1977), requesting the central government to change the said Act. The centre did not oblige. In 1979 the Haryana Assembly tried to force the issue by unanimously passing a Bill, amending the Act of 1956 and sending it for the President's approval. This was not granted. The Bill was defeated at the President's level. Ten years later in August 1989, Devi Lal (Member of Parliament from Haryana) as the Deputy Prime Minister again proposed an amendment in the Succession Act, once again in an attempt to deprive the married daughters of their share in the parents' property. The spate of protests that followed this move could not be ignored. Devi Lal was forced to drop the proposal in view of, as he acknowledged himself, ‘adverse comments’ in the media and elsewhere. These moves have failed but not the spirit behind it.
Now, with changes to the opposite effect being made in the HSA by the Parliament in 2005, legalizing equal property rights for women, the discontent brewing within Khap Panchayats is not difficult to understand.
While justifying horrific ‘honour’ crimes, Khap Panchayats are seeking to both assert control over female sexuality as well as the transfer of property. Their assertion cannot be separated from the context of neo-liberalism in our country when land, especially in and around Delhi, Haryana, UP, Punjab has fast become a prized commodity worth several crores, due to reckless real estate and commercial development. As the stakes over land are rising, conflicts over ownership rights are getting manifested in increasingly perverse ways.
Several steps need to be taken by the government to curb ‘honour’ killings. These include simplifying the provisions of the Special Marriages Act of 1954, which allows for civil marriages between consenting adults. The practice of registering cases of kidnapping, abduction or rape is often used to exert pressure upon consenting adults to withdraw from the relationship. At a time when the Supreme Court has issued notices to the Centre as well as several State governments regarding measures undertaken to prevent ‘honour’ killings, any reply that does not uncover the truth behind cases of kidnapping registered by the Police will be incomplete and evasive.
While dealing with such offenses, the government must not loose sight of the gender component of these crimes. It is not a coincidence that ‘honour’ crimes are generally perpetrated by the woman’s family, as is evident from the recent cases in Delhi as well as other instances like Nirupama Pathak, Nitish Katara, etc. Numerous instances of such murders do not even reach the purview of the criminal-justice system. Several young girls are killed by family members at the mere whiff of possible interest in a boy of another caste-community. These deaths are passed off as natural deaths. Provisions need to be made to monitor any sudden death, particularly of young girls, to deter such crimes. The Union government must take a lead in ensuring that all practices that violate democratic rights enshrined in the Constitution are confronted without fail. This requires the formulation of a comprehensive law against ‘honour’ killings in our country. Any other approach would only prove that the government is willing to turn a blind eye to gross criminal practices while maintaining a façade of modernity, democracy and progress. All democratic forces in our country must unite to ensure that a comprehensive law against ‘honour’ killings is enacted without delay.