On November 15, 21-year-old Bhawana Yadav, who had married Abhishek Seth the same week, was strangled in her house in Dwarka, Delhi, by her mother and father, Savitri and Jagmohan Yadav. Her parents had called her to their house on the pretext of discussing a reorganisation of the wedding — this time with their consent.
On November 27 in Raikot’s Johlan village in Ludhiana, Manjit Kaur, a 24-year-old M.Com. student, was strangled by her parents Gurdeep Singh and Amarjit Kaur after they found out about her relationship with a 35-year-old Hindu man living in the same village.
Two days later on November 29, in a village in Hapur district in Uttar Pradesh, 20-year-old Sonu Kumar, a Jatav Dalit, was hacked to death. His wife, 18-year-old Dhanishta, a Rangadh Muslim, was also found with her throat slit, a crime committed allegedly by her brothers in front of the panchayat, for marrying Sonu.
Honour, a valued ideal Honour or izzat is portrayed as one of the most valued ideals among Hindu, Sikh and Muslim communities. Daughters, wives and mothers are the repositories of this honour for their communities, families, and castes. Ideals of family and community honour are invoked, sometimes with women’s complicity, to condition women to behave in certain ways and to shame and punish them for “inappropriate” behaviour.
The enforcers of this honour are not only groups of old men huddled together and smoking hookahs in Haryana’s villages, but can also be found in middle and upper middle class households. From childhood, children in these households are repeatedly told who they should not marry. In our families and films, daughters are treated as paraaya dhan , to be handed over unsullied to a man of the right caste at the right time.
Neither education nor knowledge of law may guarantee against this tendency. In December 2013, the Supreme Court asked for 30-year-old Supriya Rathore, the daughter of a sitting Rajasthan High Court judge, Justice R.S. Rathore, to be produced in court after a habeas corpus petition was filed by Siddharth Mukherjee. Mr. Mukherjee alleged that Ms Rathore was being kept under house arrest by her father, as he was opposed to her marrying outside their caste.
Academic Uma Chakravarti has noted that the term “honour killing” itself needs to be questioned for its association with the uniqueness of cultures. She says there is a need to examine what structures of power make such violence possible. In Hindu, Muslim and Sikh communities, caste has historically determined control over land and resources, and caste and its reproduction is contingent upon endogamy. While access to money and power is one way of moving up this hierarchy, actions judged as inappropriate and as per normative codes are also critical. “Action to uphold izzat is always a male prerogative; women can only ‘incite’ action... the concept of ‘honour’ in punishing ‘defilers’ is essentially a means of maintaining the material structures of social power and social dominance,” she argues in her 2005 essay “From fathers to husbands: of love, death and marriage in North India.”
In case a couple elopes, it is common for the woman’s family to allege abduction, and sometimes even rape, to regain control over their daughter. The families press criminal charges on the boy and target the boy’s family’s izzat in retaliation for their own loss of izzat . Couples are often forced to stay underground and are sometimes forced to resurface in fear. Legal support groups in U.P. and Haryana have documented instances where boys have been arrested and girls have been sent to nari niketan (state-run shelter homes) , where the police and administration, echoing the same beliefs of “honour,” facilitate the father’s or the family’s access to the girl and pressure her further. The girl, even if she is 18 years old, is shown as having been coerced, or to be of unsound mind, or even too irrational to make a decision.
Role of organisations Along with families, political and ideological organisations are active in safeguarding community boundaries, especially in cases of Hindu-Muslim relationships. The role each adopts in the violence cannot be understood or dealt with in isolation.
Hundreds of kilometres from the North Indian towns that were the sites of the recent killings, in Mohrabadi, an upscale residential colony in Ranchi, Vijay Ghosh, a pracharak with Dharam Jagran Samanvay Samiti in Jharkhand, narrated how the organisation, a wing of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh which works to prevent religious conversions among Hindus, had prevented eight Hindu girls from continuing with their relationships with Muslim boys in the last four months.
“Through my network, I found out that a girl from Sau caste in Seraikella-Kharsawan district, 130 kilometres from here, was having an affair with a Muslim boy there. I contacted her family and approached the administration and have got her placed in a government nari niketan. The boy was sent to jail for abduction. There was a similar case in Dhanbad too, which we managed in the same way,” he said.
Dressed in a brown Nehru jacket and silk kurta and dhoti, 50-year-old Mr. Ghosh explained that if the case involved a Hindu boy and a Muslim girl who were in love or eloping, the organisation took an entirely different approach. They offered the couple all their support, including temporary shelter in the apartment we were sitting in. “Hindu boys are very simple. We take poora daayitva , full responsibility, for the couple. We help in organising shelter and in protecting the couple from any harm [by providing them] with finances,” he said.
While murders make headlines, such instances are not scrutinised in local district courts. It is crucial that the law is made to work to uphold women’s right to choice, and that the courts recognise couples’ right to privacy, protection of life and personal liberty.
Among State measures, based on the All India Democratic Women’s Association’s recommendations, the High Courts of Punjab and Haryana passed an order to set up “couples’ protection homes” in every district in both the States. However, according to activists, this has produced mixed results.
“Every month, 10-12 couples who are facing threats from their families approach the Haryana government and they are made to stay in either police lines or in one room together. They have no privacy, and the police decides and approves whom the boy and girl can meet among visitors,” said Jagmati Sangwan, Haryana State President, AIDWA. Ms Sangwan said that there was increased pressure to shut down these homes from the caste panchayat, which has repeatedly been approaching the Bharatiya Janata Party government in the State. However, despite the flaws in the functioning of these homes, the way forward was to set similar protective spaces in all States while making them more responsive to the couples’ needs, she said.
On November 16, the National Commission for Women Chairperson Lalitha Kumaramangalam set off a controversy when she remarked in an interview to SheThePeople.TV, a website: “Most women don’t even understand what autonomy means. Autonomy sometimes becomes more of a risk for a very aggressive woman.”
“Women’s autonomy is something that is still not okay to defend publicly. We need shelters, helplines, special protection officers, but also gender sensitive campaign material which talks of women’s autonomy — both to say yes and no,” said feminist activist Kavita Krishnan, who is Secretary of the All India Progressive Women's Association (AIPWA).
On the one hand, if reducing sexual violence and rapes against women requires defending a woman’s right to say no, on the other hand preventing violence against intercommunity relationships, which requires scrutinising the notion of “honour,” also requires recognising and supporting a woman’s right to say yes.