While women MPs push for strong legislation, a documentary film takes a look at community violence

The formation of a law bracketing ‘honour killings' as murder crime with punitive actions, will be put in forward motion during the forthcoming Budget session of Parliament. Led by the All India Democratic Women's Association, women Parliamentarians will place a signature campaign on the floor to expedite the passage for a law against community violence, which had been promised by Union Home Minister P Chidambaram two years ago amidst media hype, but has since been forgotten.

“We are collecting signatures from across the country and will present it to women MPs to be placed before the House in the next session. This is to prioritise the draft bill which has gone into hibernation,” says Jagmati Sangwan, National Vice President, AIDWA.

With a new documentary film on the khap or caste panchayat doing the rounds, an attempt is being made to reopen the debate around the pressing issue of ‘honour killings'.

Izzatnagari ki asabhya betiyaan, directed by Film and Television Institute of India graduate Nakul Singh Sawhney, follows the resistance narratives of five protagonists. Some of the families projected have been victimised by illegal diktats issued by the khaps.

The Manoj-Babli case of 2007, where the couple was murdered by her family members for marrying within the gotra or clan had hit the headlines. Manoj's family, ostracised and threatened by the village community, continues its fight for justice in the Supreme Court. Despite all odds, his sister Seema is studying to become a magistrate.

Lonely battle

Anjali Chahal, a PhD student who has chosen to confront an issue that directly impacts her Haryanvi community. Besides a thesis on ‘Honour, community and politics: A study of Khap panchayats' she is also a theatre activist exposing the subject. “Women in these rural areas don't get a day or a moment to ‘live',” says Jagmati, stressing on the overwhelming control on their lives thanks to traditional bigotries.

Mukesh Mullick, also featured in the documentary, was imprisoned in her own home for ‘falling in love'. “When I saw that the boy was not enquiring after me during my confinement at home or that families are even willing to kill their own daughters for the sake of so-called ‘honour' I left home,” she says. Mukesh is now a full time activist.

Gaurav Saini, another protagonist, is still waging a lonely battle to track his missing wife Monica, who hails from a Jat family in Ghaziabad. After their wedding without her family's consent, their house was raided and they were forcibly separated. Questioning the terminology of ‘honour killing,' Gaurav says, “Where there is honour, there won't be any killing and where a killing has happened, there is no honour left.”

The documentary also gives ample space to defenders of the khap system, who argue vociferously to maintain ‘status quo'. “Those who threaten our traditional code are the educated youngsters, Dalit officers who want everything to be equal and of course, our immoral (asabhya) daughters who imagine equality like animals and want our age-old customs to die out,” says Jai Singh Ahlawat, head of the Ahlawat Khap.

The origins

At one point in the film, as a prescription to avoid violence, a man says, “If a couple wants to marry, don't kill them, change their gotra.” Gotra, as per the Rgveda, means a herd of cattle or a pen for cattle. “In later times, down to the present day, it has the meaning of an exogamous patriarchal family unit, corresponding roughly to the gens in Rome," says historian D.D. Kosambi in his essay, ‘On the origins of Brahmin Gotras'.

Sociologists argue that the gotra argument is often used both ways –sometimes to restrict a marriage within a gotra and at other times to disallow marriages between castes.

The film takes an anti-khap stance and cocks a critical eye on the institution which openly flouts the law of the land in parts of western Uttar Pradesh, Haryana and Rajasthan.

Though geographically small, khaps exert their power through the unofficial endorsement of State and government bodies, making them unique structures of oppression.