V. Shankar, the young Dalit engineering student >brutally murdered in full public view at Udumalpet in Tirupur district, Tamil Nadu, is a martyr in the fight against the caste system. The countless young men, a large number of them Dalit, and the young women, their chosen partners, most of them caste Hindus, killed or injured like [his wife] Kausalya, whose lives have been destroyed because they dared to love across caste and community, should also be thought of as martyrs, as heroes.
B.R. Ambedkar had said in the context of a discussion on inter-caste marriages: “Political tyranny is nothing compared to social tyranny and a reformer, who defies society, is a much more courageous man than a politician who defies government.”
Shankar may not have been a conscious reformer, but he and numerous others challenged social tyranny and in doing so lost their lives. They held up the mirror to the real dishonourable face of Indian democracy, tainted, scarred, coloured by the toxins generated by the caste system, often combined with the inequalities created by class exploitation and the deeply embedded patriarchal notions and practices of control over a woman, her mind, her body, her sexuality. Occurring typically at the intersection of the three Cs, caste, class and control over a woman, honour crimes have been >described by the Supreme Court as “barbaric, brutal, committed by bigoted persons with feudal minds” .
A sustained state of denial
Yet in spite of the increase in the number of crimes in the name of honour, in spite of judgments and expressions of outrage in courts across India, successive governments have displayed criminal negligence in their approach to these crimes. There is no definition of the crime, no legal recognition of the various aspects of the crime, no protections legally afforded to couples in self-choice partnerships, no measures to prevent such crimes, no accountability, no punishment. And additionally, since there is no legal recognition of the crime, there are no statistics available. In the records of the National Crime Records Bureau, such crimes do not exist.
During the Vajpayee regime, the state of denial was public knowledge. Such crimes occurred in Pakistan and other Islamic countries, it was said, not in India. S.S. Ahluwalia, present MP of the Bharatiya Janata Party, was the Indian representative at the UN’s Social, Humanitarian and Cultural Committee discussing the Special Rapporteur’s report on violence against women. On instructions of the government, he contested the mention of honour killings in India. Women’s organisations strongly protested against this blatant falsehood, but there were no corrections made.
It took another five years of struggle to at least get the issue heard in Parliament. For the first time there was a discussion in the Rajya Sabha, initiated by the Left, on the issue of honour crimes. In July 2009, in a calling attention motion, members across party lines spoke on the issue of honour crimes and supported the demand for a separate law. In response, the then Home Minister, P. Chidambaram, said: “I think the demand for a special law is the one that has been made most eloquently. But I am afraid that it is a very simple demand… the answer is not to make another law. Whatever law we make, honour killing is murder… I would look into this whether we can define honour killing, but prima facie I am not sure whether that will take us very far.”
Although words of condemnation were spoken in recognition of the crime, the operational part as far as policy was concerned, from the side of the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government, was only marginally better than that of the Vajpayee government. Mr. Chidambaram, too, in essence continued the regime of legal leniency towards this crime.
However, with direct reference to the discussion in the Rajya Sabha and >the sustained efforts of the Left parties , the issue was referred to the Law Ministry, which came up with a set of recommendations in 2010 called “The Indian Penal Code and Certain Other Laws Amendment Bill 2010”. In keeping with the flawed understanding expressed by Mr. Chidambaram, the Ministry proposed a piecemeal approach which dealt only with the crime of honour-related murders, not any of the other torture faced by young couples. There were other serious infirmities in the draft.
As expected, the weakness of the draft gave a reluctant government the further opportunity to shelve the discussion by referring it to a Group of Ministers (GoM), the famous UPA strategy to postpone a decision. In any case, those amendments would have done more harm than good.
Long road to legal protection
In August 2010, the legal cell of the All India Democratic Women’s Association (AIDWA) headed by Kirti Singh, in consultation with many women’s organisations and individuals, drafted a comprehensive law entitled “The Prevention of Crimes in the Name of Honour and Tradition Bill” and gave it to the government. The Bill defines honour crimes in relation to a violation of the rights of the couple. It reads, “All persons including young persons and women have the right to control their own lives, a right to liberty and freedom of expression, and a right of association, movement and bodily integrity. Every man and woman has a right to choose her/his own partner in marriage or otherwise and any action listed below to prevent the exercise of this right shall amount to an offence under the provisions of this Bill.” The Bill goes on to list the various types of crime, in addition to murder; it suggests preventive measures, it provides for punishment of varying degrees, it includes khap panchayats or other bodies acting in the name of caste or community, it ensures accountability of the police and administration. Based on the experiences of women’s organisations actually dealing with the issues, the Bill covers all aspects.
The Bill was supported by the National Commission of Women, then headed by Girija Vyas, which gave a similarly named Bill to the government. But in spite of the united efforts of the Commission and women’s organisations, neither the GoM nor Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, who was approached several times on the issue, cared to take it forward.
Two years later, in August 2012, the Law Commission of India, to which a reference had also been made by the government, brought out its own version of the Bill in its 242nd report. Although it stated that its draft was closer to the one submitted by the National Commission of Women, in fact it was extremely narrow and conservative in its approach. Entitled “Prohibition of Unlawful Assembly (Interference with the Freedom of Matrimonial Alliances) Bill, 2011”, the Bill dealt primarily with the “unlawful assemblies” called by caste panchayats to prevent a self-choice marriage. Obviously this was a far cry from the actual realities which needed to be addressed. But it is this Bill which was sent by the government for consultation with the States.
A few months after the advent of the Modi government, an AIDWA delegation met Law Minister Sadananda Gowda on the issue. He seemed to be against having any law at all, commenting that it was liable for misuse “just like Section 498A [of the Indian Penal Code, relating to dowry harassment and domestic violence]”. In August 2015, his Ministry sent a letter stating that they were still awaiting the responses of the State governments to the recommendations of the Law Commission.
And that is where it stands. One step forward, two steps back. India needs a law, a strong law that will afford protection to self-choice partnerships and punish those who in the name of honour and tradition seek to obliterate that right.
If we do not have such a law, it is because vote-bank politics, that requires the appeasement of the most retrograde social forces such as those who lead the orthodox caste panchayats, supersedes the responsibility of those in government, or for that matter any who aspire to be in government, to protect the constitutional and democratic rights of citizens.
Dr. Ambedkar had resigned as Law Minister in protest against the dilution of women’s rights in the Hindu Code Bill. In his 125th birth anniversary year, the tragedy is that the actions of successors to his post mock at his legacy.
(Brinda Karat is a member of the CPI(M) Polit Bureau and a former member of the Rajya Sabha.)