Crime in the name of honour

The deployment of ‘honour’ is an intense form of social control on women, a disciplining of the body. Families, communities, gossiping neighbours snooping for acts of ‘dishonour’ — what one wears, how one talks, evasions, embraces — all mapped out by that penetrating gaze. All these transgressions are met by the patriarch’s voice with some form of violence or the other. The more extreme forms of transgression, such as inter-caste and inter-religious relationships, are met by the punishment of death. This week, Bhavya, a college student in Delhi, Yadav by caste, was >strangled to death by her family for eloping with Abhishek, a Punjabi. The Supreme Court has come down heavily upon such crimes. In Krishna Master (2010), the Bench observed that “wiping out almost the whole family on the flimsy ground of saving the honour of the family would fall within the [principle of] rarest of rare cases evolved by this court”. The honourable judges may condemn it in an emphatic voice, yet this voice fades within homes where the dictum, ‘honour thy father’, prevails.

A number of international laws including the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, specifically address honour crimes. The Law Commission of India responded with the draft of a Bill that prohibits social condemnation of such marriages, and proposed to reverse the presumption of innocence, treating the accused guilty until proven innocent. However, the heart of the problem is in the conflict between indefensible customary practice and state law. At an academic conference in 2005, Sooraj Singh, the pradhan of a khap in Haryana, remarked that the caste panchayats enjoyed ‘divine rights’ to adjudicate marriages. “We cannot allow love marriages… we do not recognise court marriages either.” The challenge arises because honour crimes stand at the confluence of competing spheres — customary practices, criminal law and international law. For instance, the Supreme Court, in Lata Singh (2006), affirms the freedom to marry as per individual choice, yet “individuality” and “choice” take very different forms in customary practices wherein choice may be less individual and more filial and even communal. Caste complicates the issue further. Dr. Ambedkar endorsed inter-caste marriages on the basis of the reasoning that it would end the feeling of caste and separateness. These crimes in the name of honour have been strongly condemned by the broader society, yet they are rampant across the country. Much as people may protest on the streets, within homes the ‘curse of honour’ persists and a culture of tolerance lets horrific practices slip in, in the name of honour. Leaders across different fields — political, religious, social — and of civil society need to work to change the mindset that perpetrates prejudice.

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Printable version | Jul 29, 2021 3:06:57 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/editorial/crime-in-the-name-of-honour/article6622337.ece

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