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Honour killings: India's crying shame

Controversial conviction of dentist couple for double murder this week shines spotlight on scourge going unchecked.

Last updated: 28 Nov 2013 10:22
Nupur Basu

Nupur Basu is a senior journalist, media educator and an award-winning documentary film-maker. Among her five independent documentaries is "No Country for Young Girls".
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Calls for more comprehensive laws against 'honour killings' have so far fallen on deaf ears [File: Getty Images]

According to statistics from the United Nations, one in five cases of honour killing internationally every year comes from India. Of the 5000 cases reported internationally, 1000 are from India. Non-governmental organisations put the number at four times this figure. They claim it is around 20,000 cases globally every year.

While traditionally occuring in villages and smaller towns in India, the cases of 'honour killing' have been on the rise and are reported sporadically in the media. The double murder of a 14-year-old school girl and a 50-year-old domestic help in a New Delhi suburb with its 'honour killing' sub text has received unprecedented attention, and is perhaps urban India's most hyped alleged 'honour killing'.

Although the Talwars, the parents of the girl, were charged with the murders of their daughter, Aarushi and their domestic help, Hemraj, the 'motive' for the murders has always been attributed to 'honour killing'. Special CBI Judge Shyam Lal, while convicting the parents earlier this week, said that the dentist couple had found their daughter and the help in an "objectionable position".

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The judgement, based on circumstantial evidence, has however left many unconvinced. But irrespective of what the truth is, the Aarushi case has shone the spotlight on honour killings.

"The social moorings of this case and its ramifications on India’s middle class could not have been lost on anyone," observed Anubha Bhonsle, an anchor for CNN-IBN, in one of her programmes.

However, if the judiciary, through this verdict, is trying to drive home the message that there will be zero tolerance for 'honour killing' regardless of how powerful the perpetrators are, the question that will come up is whether the judiciary will apply the same rigour in some of the most gruesome cases of 'honour killings' taking place in rural India, far from the gaze of television cameras.

Cases piling up

Some gruesome cases that have been reported in the media in recent times from different regions in the country include that of 23 year old Dharmender Barak and 18 year old Nidhi Barak, who paid a heavy price for defying their families and falling in love.

The couple, from a village in Rohtak district in Harayana, were tortured, mutilated and killed by the girl’s father and their relatives when they tried to run away and marry. A friend whom the couple had confided in, leaked their plans to the girl’s parents, who lured them back with assurances, only to allegedly kill them in the most cruel manner. The police is treating the ‘double murder’ as a ‘honour crime’.

In September 2013, the Haryana police arrested a police sub-inspector in connection with the killing of a 19 year old girl from Panipat. Meenakshi had eloped with her lover and the cop had tracked her down and handed her over to her family, who then allegedly murdered her.

On October 24, 2013, in another case from Haryana, a 15 year old Muslim girl from Muzzafarnagar was banished to her uncle’s house to prevent her from seeing the boy she was in love with. Her uncle allegedly murdered her and buried her in Panchkula District in Haryana.

While the cases of ‘honour killings’ continue to pile up, convictions are few and far between.

Aarushi Talwar's murder remains an endearing mystery despite her parents being convicted  [File: Getty Images]

In July 2013, Arun Bandu Irkal from Yerwada in Maharashtra was served with a life sentence by a sessions judge. In 2002, the accused had reportedly assaulted his 17 year old daughter, Yashodha, 48 times with a pair of scissors for having an affair with a boy from another caste. She did not survive the attack.

The accused surrendered, then fled bail and was finally re-arrested in 2011. The court convicted him for murdering his daughter this year. The court said ‘honour’ was the motive behind the murder.

On November 1, 2013, in Bhopal, a lower court announced a life term for 10 men in a case of 'honour killing'. The men were accused of killing Amar Singh, the elder brother of Sawar Singh who had allegedly eloped with Hema, the wife of Balbir Singh, one of the accused men.

The men went to Amar Singh’s house, questioned him about the whereabouts of the couple and then poured kerosene on him and set him on fire. Amar Singh died of the burns.

New discourse

All these cases have led to a new discourse on legislation. Does India acutely need a separate legislation on 'honour killing'? A proposal to that effect has been made by a study done for UNFPA on gender laws.

Voices have also been raised to reign in the 'khap panchayats', self-elected village councils comprising male village elders who perpetuate values that, in turn, covertly endorse these killings in the name of saving the 'family's honour'.

Like the Taliban in Pakistan and Afghanistan, the khaps have attained notoriety by issuing diktats on dress code for women and demanding a ban on the use of cell phones by young girls and women.

In rural India and middle class urban India, the onus for upholding the family morality falls on the women in the family - the daughter, daughter-in-law, wife and mother. By daring to choose a life partner, other than the one chosen for her by her family or by committing adultery, she violates the family’s honour. Both she and her lover face death as a consequence.

Recently, a group of khap panchayats filed a document before the country’s highest court saying they had been wrongly charged for encouraging honour killings in rural India. Earlier, a women’s rights group, Shakti Vahini, had petitioned the Supreme Court seeking a direction to the government to be more proactive when ‘honour killings’ are carried out.

They blamed the khap panchayats for endorsing patriarchy, which reinforced the subjugation of women in society and the resultant ‘honour killings’.

Retribution for bringing shame

The court summoned 67 representatives of the khap panchayats to explain their role in ‘honour killings’. They did that in a written reply, saying it is not they who are responsible for such killings but the families who fail to prevent their daughters and sisters and wives from interacting with men, which results in shame and ostracisation by the community.

Like all social evils, unless society shuns these practices, the police and judiciary alone cannot save women who want to break free from arranged and abusive marriages

They argued that women who feared their male relatives never committed such acts and therefore never had to face such consequences. In short, the khap panchayat representatives overtly defended ‘honour killings’.

The problem of ‘honour killings’ goes well beyond the shores of rural and urban India. They are common in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and Bangladesh also has ‘honour killings’ or assaults in the form of ‘acid attacks'. Acid attacks, torture, abductions and mutilations all come under this category of crime.

The problem, however, is that in the majority of the countries, there is confusion about the definition of what constitutes an ‘honour killing’. This confusion often results in the victims not getting justice. Many families report these killings as ‘suicide’ and escape punishment under the law, according to international rights and women’s groups.

According to UN statistics, the United Kingdom has 12 cases of honour killings every year, the majority of them from the Asian and west Asian diaspora. Will countries abroad have to also legislate on 'honour killing' if South Asian men and those from west Asia carry their patriarchy to foreign shores and murder women who break the so-called ‘cultural norms’?

This year’s Emmy award for best documentary went to a film on honour killing in the UK. Banaz: A Love Story, directed by Deeyah Khan, is about the 'honour killing' in south London of 20 year old Banaz Mahmod who was murdered by her family in 2006.

'Cancer of patriachy'

Banaz’s Iraqi Kurd father and relatives felt she had brought shame to her family and community by leaving her husband who was abusive and an alleged rapist. Banaz had fallen in love with another man and had to pay with her life for that. She was raped, strangled to death and her body was put in a suitcase.

Her father and uncle now face life sentences in UK jails. Two other men, who had to be extradited from Iraq by Scotland Yard, are also serving prison terms for 20 years. By making these arrests and convictions test cases, the judiciary and law enforcement authorities hope they can deter families from such criminal acts against their women family members.

Recently a case was reported where, after a long battle with the Australian Immigration and Refugee Authorities, a couple, a Sikh and a backward caste Hindu who had married secretly in India in 2007, were granted asylum in the country. The couple had said their lives would be in danger if they had to return to India as they feared ‘honour killing’ for having defied the caste system.

Even as the dust settles on the verdict of the Talwars in Delhi, it will be a while before Indian society really begins to digest the cancer of patriarchy manifested through ‘honour killings’. Like all social evils, unless society shuns these practices, the police and judiciary alone cannot save women who want to break free from arranged and abusive marriages.

Nupur Basu is a senior journalist, media educator and an award-winning documentary film-maker. Among her five independent documentaries is "No Country for Young Girls".

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The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

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