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Killing for 'honour'

Soutik Biswas | 04:31 UK time, Wednesday, 23 June 2010

Haryana couple Manoj and Babli were killed in 2007 (Photo: Shakti Vahini) You can get killed for falling in love in many parts of India. Especially, if you or your lover - and sometimes, spouse - "defy" the preordained rules of the country's fiendishly complex caste system. You can invoke the ire of your family and community and get killed if you marry within your caste, outside your caste, within your sub-caste and so on. You can also get killed for marrying outside your religion.

For many years, urban Indians believed such "honour killings" only happened in remote rural areas, mainly in the northern states of Haryana, Punjab and parts of Uttar Pradesh. Now, they are being reported from the capital Delhi - two couples and a girl in the past week alone. At least 26 others have been killed in Haryana and western Uttar Pradesh in the past 18 months. In neighbouring Punjab, one of India's most prosperous states, police records talk about 34 "honour killings" during the past two and half years - that's one killing a month. The police admit that many more killings may go unreported.

Sociologists say the rising number of such killings point to a collision between the old and young, the conservatives and the liberals, between old India, residing in its villages, and new India, thriving in its cities. They say as India becomes more urbanised, young men and women flock to its crowded cities, looking for work and love, far away from the watchful eyes of their elders and communities. They go to work, and often, fall in love, and invite retribution from their families.

So, very often, such freedom is short lived, as the boys and girls are duped into "meetings" by their families and relatives only to end up being killed brutally. The majority of the murders, police say, are carried out by the girl's family - the family's "honour", the families say, is at stake when their daughters get involved with lower caste men. The killers and their kin are frighteningly unrepentant about murdering their own. "I have no regrets," the uncle of one of the girls whom he allegedly killed recently told journalists, "I will punish them all over again if given another chance."

So what about the myth about that "honour killings" happen only in villages? In this age of globalisation, India lives with one foot in the villages, and the other in cities. Urbanisation is incomplete; there is a lot of urban-rural overlap. Entire families do not migrate to cities, and links with villages remain strong. So although there is more freedom for youngsters to work and mingle in cities, if they end up chosing partners of a lower caste, their elders and communities who live in villages can easily object. "It is a ressertion of community control over those individuals and families on which elements of democracy, capitalism and globalised economy have encroached," says Prem Chowdhry, a scholar who has investigated such killings for decades.

"Honour killings" are not merely about caste. Sociologists believe it's also about sections of the society that are intensely anti-women. In Haryana - the state with possibly the highest number of cases - more women have begun working. Expansion of women in the workforce between 1981 and 1991 was 63%; the increase of men in the workforce during the same period was 26%. Educated women, many village collective heads tell privately, are a "menace".

There are also some baffling double standards. How else can one explain the fact that men in Haryana routinely "purchase" women for marriage from other, lower castes - and even religion - from other parts of the country because there are too few marriageable girls available in their villages?

India has ignored "honour killings" - a lawyer recently called a "national scandal" - for too long. It has denied that they have happened, pointing to its neighbour, Pakistan, as the place where they are prevalent. Human rights groups across the border have generated enough noise and forced their rulers to introduce laws to stop honour killings. In comparison, an Indian representative at a United Nations committee in 2000 actually denied reports of "honour killings" of women.

A spate of killings in the ruling Congress party-led state of Haryana - where traditional village collectives have been actually found to order such killings - and now in Delhi has prompted the country's Supreme Court to ask the government what it is doing to prevent them.

It's good that India has finally woken up to this reprehensible crime. The courts are asking the governments to protect couples who defy tradition. There are reports of an impending law against such killings, like in Pakistan. But citizens, politicians and rights groups need to stand up and protest loudly. Because "honour killings" are no longer India's best kept secret.


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