Asserting one's independence in something as vital as marriage in many parts of India can end in death. That's the price of modernity. How can we still call ourselves a civilised society?

What a week we have had — full of symbols of nooses and death. On the one hand, there was the pronouncement of the death sentence on Mohammed Ajmal Amir Kasab, convicted for the terror attack on Mumbai on November 26, 2008 by a special court in Mumbai. On the other, the death of a young woman, 22-year-old Nirupama Pathak, found hanging from a fan in her parents' home in Koderma, Jharkhand. Suicide, said the parents. “Honour killing”, said her boyfriend. The parents had opposed Nirupama's desire to get married to Priyabhanshu Ranjan as she was from a higher caste. The case is unresolved and getting murkier by the day. But the symbol of death in both cases was the noose.

The demands for Kasab's hanging, with people enacting mock hangings in front of television cameras and even the public prosecutor who conducted the case holding up graphics of the noose to illustrate his demand for the death sentence, raises disturbing questions about the role of the media in encouraging irrational emotions. More than one television channel aired the views of people who demanded that Kasab be handed over to “the people”, or hung from the nearest lamppost. Only then would they be satisfied. But mob justice is no justice, even when the person concerned is a “terrorist”. Should the media be inflaming these passions or is its role to bring about some balance and perspective?

More disturbing

But Kasab apart, the far more disturbing issue is that of the alleged suicide of Nirupama Pathak and what that represents in terms of the growing incidence of honour killings. Until recently, most such instances came from rural or semi-urban areas. Many of them were located specifically in Haryana where the system of khap panchayats rules on questions of marriage and opposes the marriage of two people from the same gotra. If young people defy this tradition, they either have to run away and hide or face death. There does not seem to be any other civilised alternative.

With Nirupama's death, the issue of honour killings has come closer to home for the middle class. Here was an educated girl, a journalist, from a middle class family who agreed to her studying and working away from home. Yet, what they did not grant her was the right to choose who she could marry. Even if murder is not proved in her case, it is clear that she was under immense pressure to break her relationship with Ranjan for no other reason than that he was from a lower caste.

Dubious claim

The horrifying nature of some of the honour killings that have been recorded — and there are probably many more that go unreported — make one wonder how we can claim to be a civilised society. Statistics are difficult to collate, as deaths due to honour killings are not listed as such in the National Crime Records Bureau data. But we cannot deny that their numbers are growing. According to one survey, there are at least 100 honour killings each year in just Delhi, Haryana and UP.

How do you define honour crimes? Human Rights Watch gives the following definition: “Honour crimes are acts of violence, usually murder, committed by male family members against female family members, who are held to have brought dishonour upon the family.”

And how do you bring this “dishonour” on your family? In India, this translates into marrying into another caste, another religion or even another class. On October 26, 2009, the reported murder of the daughter of an Assistant Commissioner of Customs in Patna, who eloped with the son of a Class IV employee, was one such instance where class was an issue.

Only in one honour killing case so far, has the court come down hard on those involved. In what will be seen as a historic judgment, a Sessions Court in Karnal, Haryana, sentenced to death five people and gave life imprisonment to one for the murder of Manoj (23) and Babli (19) of Karora Village in Kaithal district. Their crime? The khap panchayatruled that as they belonged to the same gotrathey could not marry.

The common thread that runs through all these incidents is the decision of the boy and girl to choose their own partners rather than letting families decide. And that is at the root of the societal problem we face, irrespective of caste or creed or region. For, modernity is ensuring that girls and boys are getting educated, moving away from their homes, finding jobs, watching images of people of their generation making free choices. Yet, the deadly reality of their lives is that on this one issue of marriage they really have no choice. And if they defy entrenched traditions and attitudes, they are sentenced to death, no less.

Can anything be done? Even if the deeper issue of societal change cannot occur overnight, are there steps that can be taken to curb such regressive influences?

Unfortunately, instead of being discouraged, such elements are being directly and indirectly supported. For instance, Haryana's khap panchayats are now demanding an amendment in the Hindu Marriage Act 1954 so that it prohibits marriages within the same gotra. The government's response, and for that matter of most political parties, is to throw up their hands and say that in matters of caste or religion, they can do nothing. Even younger politicians, such as the Congress MP from Kurukshetra, Navin Jindal, have not taken a stand. Jindal has praised the khap panchayats and stated, “I and my family have always respected society's traditions, customs, beliefs and culture.”

In response to demands for a special law, Union Home Minister P. Chidambaram has ruled out enacting a new law to deal with honour killings, although he is open to defining the crime specifically and has come out strongly against the caste panchayats, saying they should be treated as murder accomplices. He argues that the reason “sati” invited a specific law was because it was disguised as suicide. But then so too were dowry deaths in the initial years. And can we be sure that honour killings too are not disguised as suicides? Apart from the Nirupama Pathak case, another instance reported this month was that of 22-year-old Arvind and 19-year-old Dewanti in Kushinagar, UP. The couple committed suicide by consuming poison because their families had arranged for them to marry other people. Would these young people have taken such a step if they were sure that they could make an independent choice? Did the families not abet their suicides?

The law in any case can do only so much. What has to change are attitudes and traditions. How can we talk of independence, or empowerment, if on an issue as basic as marriage, women and men are told they have no choice? And worse, that defying tradition means inviting the death penalty. How can such a situation be accepted by a civilised society? How many more young women, and men, must die before some sense prevails?

Email the writer: sharma.kalpana@yahoo.com