Ravi Kant , Advocate Supreme Court of India
In the recent times in Haryana Punjab and Western Uttar Pradesh there has been a spate of such killings and the trend is continuously on the increase. Increasingly the trend is being reported from across the country That this trend is continuously on the rise and the adverse publicity being given to the issue in the media has created a sense of fear among the youth, individuals and couples who may be intending to get married. In many cases the pressure is so much that the Couples tend to commit suicide. Due to this severe human rights violations and violation of fundamental rights are happening. In many cases it culminates in the killings of couples.
Honour and Society in relation to women
According to the former UN Special Rapporteur on violence against women: “Honour is generally seen as residing in the bodies of women. Frameworks of ‘honour’, and its corollary ‘shame’, operate to control, direct and regulate women’s sexuality and freedom of movement by male members of the family. Women who fall in love, engage in extramarital relationships, seek a divorce, choose their own husbands are seen to transgress the boundaries of ‘appropriate’ (that is, socially sanctioned) sexual behaviour. ‘Regulation’ of such behaviour may in extreme cases involve horrific direct violence – including ‘honour’ killing…In these contexts, the rights of women (and girls) to control their own lives, to liberty and freedom of expression, association, movement and bodily integrity mean very little.” (Radhika Coomaraswamy)
Women are forced to consider every aspect of their life from the perspective of their ‘honour’ as a quality which is felt to reflect both the entirety of their social worth and the reputations of the male members of their family. Male reputation is dependent upon female ‘honour’. Female ‘honour’ is passive in nature centring on qualities such as subordinacy, modesty and endurance, whereas male ‘honour’ is active and dynamic, centring on qualities such as self-assertion, dominance and social status. (Bourdieu 2001)
Once female honour is ‘lost’ through any act which is considered ‘dishonouring’ in her society, there is no way it can be regained. Other members of her family may face pressure to take violent action which will restore their position in society. Male and family ‘honour’ is restored through violence, coercion or killing.
In some cases, an ‘honour’ killing may be a formal collective decision, made by family members, who not only decide whether a girl or woman’s behaviour merits death, but may also plan how the murder will be committed and who will carry it out. Where this has occurred, the chances of the family ‘forgiving’ the insult to their ‘honour’ are slight, and a potential victim may need protection in perpetuity, particularly where the family can call upon an extended network of relatives, friends and associates to assist them.
Other ‘honour’ killings are less structured, but still carry the same collective pressure and the same motivation to police women’s behaviour, to demonstrate their commitment to patriarchal society, and to have a deterrent effect on other girls and women who may also be chafing against the restrictions which dominate their lives. In all cases, the control of women is paramount, who from puberty are judged to be hazardous to male society and so subject to restrictions in movement, dress and behaviour. ‘Honour’ killings result from a culture of ‘honour’ oppression and represent the only the most overt and brutal method of controlling and subordinating women within male-dominated ‘honour and shame’ societies.
Gender roles are patriarchal
Wives and daughters are expected to be subordinate, even servile, to their fathers and husbands, and even their own sons. Women’s role in life is ancillary: as a dutiful daughter, an obedient wife and a self-sacrificing mother. Women are not expected to show autonomy, but to work without complaint for their families or for their husbands, and to bear children for her husband’s family, especially sons. Elders dominate younger members of the family who have little ability to determine their own lives. Young woman are disempowered both as women, and through their youth. A woman’s ‘honour’ is directly linked to her conformity to these traditional and very restrictive roles. Any perceived rebellion against these circumscriptions may be construed as a loss of ‘honour.’ The ideology of ‘honour’ is one which directly results from patriarchal gender roles, wherein conformity to these roles is demanded and a source of status and acceptance within the community; and where deviance is censured. For males, ‘honour’ is gained through exerting dominance and control over females and younger males, and lost through weakness and failure to control; it can be restored through violent and coercive acts. For females, ‘honour’ is preserved through subordinacy, obedience, chastity, endurance and virginity, and it may be lost through any autonomous acts, particularly those relating to sexuality, and cannot be restored.
‘Honour’ in this sense is often a social quality: it revolves around the public perception of the individuals more than their actual behaviour. Causing a scandal or gossip within the community is often the most significant aspect of an offense against ‘honour’. Ultimately, it is those with power within the family and the community (men and older women who have proved their internalization of the ‘honour’ code through the policing of younger women) who decide what acts are ‘honourable’ or ‘dishonourable.’ Some actions which are strongly linked with ‘honour’-based violence are:
- Pre-marital pregnancy
- Having unapproved relationships
- Refusing an arranged marriage
- Asking for divorce
- Leaving the family or marital home without permission
- Causing scandal or gossip in the community
- Falling victim to rape
Many of these relate either to loss of reputation as a virtuous and marriageable woman through autonomous behaviour such as having unapproved relationships or falling victim to rape, (which is often blamed upon the victim). Others relate more to a woman’s actions that jeopardize marriage agreements brokered between or within families, such as refusing arranged marriages or seeking divorce.
Cultures where ‘honour’ violence is practiced will also tend to find other forms of violence against women socially acceptable. Domestic violence and violence against children may also be widespread and characterized as rightful ‘chastisement’, of which ‘honour’-based violence forms a specific subcategory.
Honour Killings and Khap Panchayats
The cases of honour killings have been reported from across the country. The problem in the recent times have been increasingly reported from Haryana and Western Uttar Pradesh. In these region the Khap Panchayats have been in the forefront and have been issuing illegal fatwas. Most of the khap panchayat diktats are against couples who are not from the same gotra. In fact, not more than one case of honour killing has been of a couple within the same gotra. By creating the false impression that all marriages of choice between young couples are incestuous, what the khaps are actually opposing is the right to choose a marriage partner. Even after the judgment in Manoj and Babli Case by a Karnal Court in which five people were awarded the death penalty the diktats of such Khap Panchayats have increased and have become more and more organized. The killings are increasingly being reported and being glorified by such community groups. The Khaps are defiant and unrepentant . They just refuse to acknowledge the Rule of Law.
There is clearly a long way to go before the rule of law can be enforced across India in the teeth of deep-rooted social oppression and prejudice and ideas that have come down generations. It will take time before constitutional and legal equality and democracy can translate into genuine social democracy on the ground.
The Judiciary and Honour Killings
In July 2006, the Supreme Court of India termed the practice an act of barbarism. It ordered the police across the country to take stern action against those resorting to violence against young men and women of marriageable age who opted for inter-caste and inter-religions marriages. In the case of Lata Singh Vs State of Uttar Pradesh and others ( 2006 (5) SCC 475 ) the apex court directed : “Since several such instances are coming to our knowledge of harassment, threats and violence against young men and women who marry outside their caste, we feel it necessary to make some general comments on the matter. The nation is passing through a crucial transitional period in our history, and this Court cannot remain silent in matters of great public concern, such as the present one. The caste system is a curse on the nation and the sooner it is destroyed the better. In fact, it is dividing the nation at a time when we have to be united to face the challenges before the nation unitedly. Hence, inter-caste marriages are in fact in the national interest as they will result in destroying the caste system. However, disturbing news are coming from several parts of the country that young men and women who undergo inter-caste marriage, are threatened with violence, or violence is actually committed on them. In our opinion, such acts of violence or threats or harassment are wholly illegal and those who commit them must be severely punished. This is a free and democratic country, and once a person becomes a major he or she can marry whosoever he/she likes. If the parents of the boy or girl do not approve of such inter-caste or inter-religious marriage the maximum they can do is that they can cut off social relations with the son or the daughter, but they cannot give threats or commit or instigate acts of violence and cannot harass the person who undergoes such inter-caste or interreligious marriage. We, therefore, direct that the administration/police authorities throughout the country will see to it that if any boy or girl who is a major undergoes inter-caste or inter-religious marriage with a woman or man who is a major, the couple are not harassed by any one nor subjected to threats or acts of violence, and any one who gives such threats or harasses or commits acts of violence either himself or at his instigation, is taken to task by instituting criminal proceedings by the police against such persons and further stern action is taken against such persons as provided by law. We sometimes hear of ‘honour’ killings of such persons who undergo inter-caste or inter-religious marriage of their own free will. There is nothing honourable in such killings, and in fact they are nothing but barbaric and shameful acts of murder committed by brutal, feudal minded persons who deserve harsh punishment. Only in this way can we stamp out such acts of barbarism”.
On June 23, 2008 Justice K.S. Ahluwalia of the Punjab and Haryana High Court made a revealing observation while simultaneously hearing 10 cases pertaining to marriages between young couples aged 18 – 21: “The High Court is flooded with petitions where … judges of this Court have to answer for the right of life and liberty to married couples. The State is a mute spectator. When shall the State awake from its slumber [and] for how long can Courts provide solace and balm by disposing of such cases?”
On June 22 , 2010 the Supreme Court issued notice to the Central Government and nine states in the face of rising Honour Killings across the country on the Public Interest Litigation filed by Shakti Vahini. The court wants to know what steps are being taken to curb such violence.
Honour Killings – Violation of Rights
Honour Killings are homicide and murder which are serious crimes under the Indian Penal Code. It also violates Articles 14, 15 (1) & (3) 19, 21 and 39(f) of the Constitution of India. It is against the various International Commitment the Government of India has made in the “United Nations Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination against Women” (CEDAW) of which India is a signatory and has also ratified the convention. It is also against the spirit of Universal Declaration of Human Rights and International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
Honour Killings The Proposed Legislation
The Central Government has made its view clear that it is coming out with a new legislation. Under the proposed law, members of the khap panchayats or the victim(s)’ families, if their action results in the death of the person or persons who they feel went against the tradition or wishes of the khap, will be punishable with the sentence of death or life imprisonment. In such cases, the entire panchayat will be held responsible. More importantly, the proposed law puts the burden of proof on the accused, thereby making them responsible to prove their innocence in the event of death taking place due to their actions.
Among other things, the draft bill intends to add a clause to Section 300 of the IPC. Section 300 deals with the crime of murder, the maximum punishment for which is death and/or a fine. It also wants to amend the Indian Evidence Act and the Special Marriages Act, 1954, which would do away with the provision for the mandatory 30 days notice period for marriages intended to be solemnized under this Act. The new bill is also expected to bring in a definition of such honour killings so that it will be treated as special crime and will ensure clarity for the law enforcement agencies.
The writer is President of Shakti Vahini and National Network of Lawyers for Rights and Justice.