Honor Killing: Is it "Honorable" or a "threat"?

What brings honor (izzat) to a family?

Woman's moral conduct, her autonomy, her desires, and a socially objectifying trait- sexuality. Any sinful act of going against the customs of patriarchy would give birth to a million ways of ostracising a woman's free will.

Just because a woman chose to exercise her freedom of expression. She chose to love someone out of her free will.

The common retrograde that runs through after such a sinful act is "muh kaala kar ke aayi" (she's worth nothing, not even death).

The patriarchal heads, the ruling political forces, the fascist outfits back a full-fledged ideological and physical assault on women's autonomy.

Violence in all matters especially in matters of sexuality and marriage is one of India's tenacious forms of gender violence. It is a form of violence that hides in plain sight.

Kausalya's fight: still undone

Kausalya and Shankar had eloped to marry as she was from a higher caste

In June this year, Kausalya was taken aback after the judgment of the Madras High Court, which so easily undermined her courageous struggle for justice for her murdered husband Shankar.

They were victims of "honor" killing, a misleading term that actually vilifies the meaning of honor. Certainly, there's no "honor" in an honor killing.

Kausalya's husband Shankar, a young Dalit man in Tamil Nadu was mercilessly hacked to death by Kausalya's father and hired goons at public crossroads in the presence of his wife. Kausalya who was left dead barely survived and was under treatment for six months. When she came out of treatment, she refused to make peace with her parents. She instead became an active campaigner against casteism and patriarchy, offering support to other women in similar situations.

But in a state where right-wing parties are running a campaign instigating violence against inter-caste marriage, especially those where man is of a lower caste, justice is denied audaciously.

High Court ruled in favor of the convicts acquitting Kausalya's parents of all charges.

Most importantly, in the 311-page judgment of the High Court, the voice of Kausalya was absent. It shows how far removed the Indian judiciary is from the lived social reality. When a court is unable or unwilling for whatever reason to appreciate the power of the caste system among privileged sections and how casteist feelings are the driving force behind such heinous crimes.

Honor of shame- patriarchy

For inter-caste and interfaith couples, these tragic incidents are a norm but whether such crimes are dealt with under a separate law is a tough ask for the toxic casteism that threatens the supremacy of the upper caste and powerful.

Today’s honor killing crimes are rooted in such a collective memory of primordial, provincial patriarchy. It is operated by a nexus of current-day patriarchs—local panchayat bodies across North and South India and known as khap panchayats in North India, local police and rich, upper-caste, landed gentry, each owing their allegiances to their caste.

Honor killings are notoriously underreported – not by the media, but by the State. The fact that this official crime report now has a section for such so-called honor crimes is a feat in itself because honor killings weren’t recorded as a crime till 2014. The next feat will be when a law criminalizing this category of crime finds a place in the Indian Penal Code.

It's not always a “rape”

In 2014, The Hindu tracked 583 rape cases decided by New Delhi’s district courts in 2013. It found that the single largest category of cases (nearly 40 percent) involved consenting couples who had eloped, after which the parents (usually of the women’s) had filed cases of rape. This startling fact meant that rape statistics are actually disguising a grave issue of domestic violence against women.

A gimmick that superposes “relationships chosen freely by women” with “rape”, allows authorities – police, women’s hostels, factory managements – to continue to pass off restrictions on women’s liberties as necessary for “safety from rape”.

Has history ever been kind?

Women were ‘exchanged’ in marriages for gaining kingdoms and brokering deals of peace and patronage. It is a practice that recognized the right to exercise patriarchal control over a woman’s body just as a sovereign would exercise territorial control over his piece of land. Kings and chieftains, feudal lords, state councilors, priests, and princes would confine a woman’s sexual and marriage rights within the narrow boundaries of kinship- and caste-approved provinces. Cross-caste and cross-religious marriages could occur only if the patriarchal lords would have material gains or career and ego boost out of it.

Membership of caste is allowed to females who follow anulom (hypergamy) marriages—wherein girls or women are allowed to get married within their own caste or in an upper caste. A man is allowed to get married within his own caste or to a lower-caste woman. But the reverse pratilom (hypogamy) marriage is a taboo, in which a girl gets married to a lower-caste man (stemming from purity-pollution boundaries) or a man gets married to a higher-caste female.

‘Exchange’ of women in a sub-caste or within caste is called endogamous marriage; exogamy is the reverse. Endogamy is the status quo; exogamy is sending one’s girl out in a ‘foreign’ community. Fear of exogamy is a phobia of the outsider—outside of caste, creed, and religion. No wonder, love, a product of free will that entails a woman’s consent, is therefore construed as a crime. Women are maligned and reduced to props of patriarchy in such narratives.

The caste angle

Women are an immediate cause of “shame” as they've to be “handled” with care

In India, the idea that parents have a right to control who their daughter marries has especially wide acceptability because of the caste system: caste boundaries can be maintained only by surveilling and controlling women to make sure they marry in keeping with caste norms. Any autonomy by women is a threat to this order. And some of the worst violence is meted out to men of the most oppressed – Dalit – castes if they marry a woman from a more privileged caste.

Women in inter-faith and inter-caste relationships are subjected to immense torture and coercion at the hands of their families, their communities, and increasingly, right-wing and fascist political parties in India. In many cases, they succumb to the pressure and disown the relationship – especially if their partner has been killed. Political organizations close to India’s Hindu majoritarian ruling party are unleashing organized violence against inter-faith relationships in which a Hindu woman loves a Muslim man – they term such relationships as “love jihad“.

First of all, a woman marrying with her own will is challenging patriarchy – “If she marries freely, then later she will ask for more, she will demand her rights”.

Second, inter-caste marriages distribute property outside of one’s caste. So, marrying within one’s own caste is a way to ensure property remains in the grip hold of a powerful few.

Lastly, mixed-caste marriages challenge the apparently superior position of ‘upper’ caste communities, and marrying a person of your own caste is another means to guarantee that power remains where it is.

Ambedkar: An unsung fighter

Caste, as Dr. B.R. Ambedkar once said, “is a mental state, therefore it cannot be eradicated through constitutional measures alone”.

Centuries-old abomination was legally overturned by the Hindu Marriage Act, defended in the Hindu Code Bill debates in 1951 by Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar. The Bill removed the condition that the couple must belong to the same caste to make the marriage a legal Hindu marriage. Ambedkar's proposal was met with the rage and fury of the entire Hindu orthodoxy who accused him like Syama Prasad Mukherjee, a current icon of the BJP, of wanting to "do away with the fundamental and sacred nature of Hindu marriage" or like Shri Sarwate, a follower of VD Savarkar, who said "The very basis of Hindu society is the caste system. but in this Bill, it is said that there is no caste." Ambedkar, defending the Bill said, "People have been saying that Hindu society has been changing. The question that I want to ask is this. Is this change in the direction of progress or it is a change in the other direction?" As is known, such as the power of the orthodoxy that the Nehru Government compromised, postponed passage of the Bill, and Ambedkar, true to his principles, preferred to resign.

But his sacrifice bore fruit. The reformed Hindu Marriage Act came into force in 1955, removing the same caste as a condition for recognition of a Hindu marriage. Yet, so many decades later, marriages like Kausalya's and Shankar's constitute, according to the National Family Health Survey, less than five percent of the 11.5 percent inter-caste marriages in India. While the numbers remain low, the violence against such marriages is increasing.

Women can't think freely in India

The ownership of the woman’s body that is so cherished by the family’s patriarchal heads as the site of their ‘honor’, and therefore as something that can be tainted by a man of lower rank/religious outcaste problematizes concepts of civil liberty, human rights, law, and justice. As a result, honor crimes are perpetrated against men of lower castes as a ‘legitimate’ punishment.

These are not ‘honor’ killings – these are 'patriarchal' crimes committed by the powerful who fear their power being snatched away from them through courageous actions.

Is separate law enough?

Such crimes are usually not one-off incidents; there is a chain of circumstances that precede the murder like verbal harassment, physical assault, coercion, and kidnapping. Having a separate law would define the things leading up to these crimes,” and help prevent loss of life.

In India, another urgently needed reform measure is to get rid of the clause in the Special Marriage Act (the law that applies to inter-faith, secular marriages contracted in courts) requiring couples to publicly announce their marriage plans a month before the wedding. It is this waiting period that gives parents and motivated political outfits time to organize violence to prevent the marriage.

A dedicated law at the center would provide not only more reliable data, and an urgency and effectiveness to protect couples at-risk of honor crimes — but also reveal society’s depth of division around religion and caste. This could explain why some deny the need for dedicated honor crime laws with the same violence and apathy used to condemn intercaste and interreligious marriage.

Caste is not as big a problem for love, it is the other way around — and that’s why it scares people enough to kill. And it becomes too regressive if women dare to step out of this vicious circle and fall in “love”, they might have to forfeit their allegiances from the society as well as the family.

Social Media: an ally for “change”?

In the wake of a recent rape in Hathras, the whole county rose to senses, talked, and raged for a bit but now it's all casual as ever. Such incidents catapult an easy-going revolution against patriarchy and casteism but after a point, it goes back to square one.

Social media has normalized the public's anger. Though it promises to be a force of change, people stick to the trend of petty hashtag revolutions and moral policing thus disregarding the gravity of the matter.

Men defending themselves by saying “Not all men” or “Yes all men” shows how the male ego has stooped to a mere stint for validation. Women need their voices to be heard whenever they speak with no undue advantage being taken in the name of promoting their safety.

We do not have an Ambedkar in the cabinet today. On the contrary, we have upholders of the Manuvadi beliefs that Ambedkar fought against.

It's not an India if it's not for women's independence but in the hindsight, it never was. India deserves better. Kausalya deserves better.

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