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India: Price of Honour - Caste Panchayats as Instruments of Terror

by Brinda Karat, 15 April 2004

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The Times of India, 14 April 2004

Geeta, a young Rajput woman who married a man from a Jat Sikh community in Hoshiarpur district of Punjab, lives in daily terror. Her husband Jasveer was killed by a group of her community two months after the marriage, his arm chopped off and thrown into his home as a gruesome message that caste-defined lakshman rekhas are not to be broken. But at least she survives. There is an increasing number of "missing girls" in villages in north India, their deaths unreported, killed often by male relatives or by members of her caste; their crime, like Geeta’s, being their relationship with a man from a lower caste.

Ironically, such violence is described as honour violence or killings. In this view of "honour", the caste honour is vested in the chastity of a woman. If she transgresses caste-dictated norms in the expression of her sexuality she shames the entire community. To restore honour, the transgressor and her partner have to be punished. Central to such violence is the subordinate position of women. Strikingly, cases of barbaric violence by families or communities take place among sections of the rural elite. Clearly, a higher economic, educational or social status has no automatic linkage with enlightened or democratic practices. This also raises a question on current perceptions of "development" and "growth" that leave untouched and, indeed, often give added strength to retrograde practices.

There are no official statistics on the number of cases of violence against young people who choose their own partners in opposition to the wishes of their families/caste or religious community. But information gathered by the All India Democratic Women’s Association (AIDWA) shows a definite increase in states like Haryana, Punjab, Uttar Pradesh. In addition, in the last few years the spread of the politics of religious intolerance has been reflected in violence against own choice marriages when the couples belong to different religious communities. In other states, although opposition may not take extreme forms, the couple faces victimisation at different levels. In Muzaffarnagar district of UP, notorious for such violence, two young persons were, on an average, killed every month for inter-caste relationships in the first six months of 2003 and 35 couples were declared "missing". It is estimated that around 10 per cent of all murders in Punjab and Haryana are ‘honour’ crimes. The violence includes public lynching of the couple, stripping and parading of the girl in the village, revenge rape and other forms of violence. Those who support the couple could also face punishment.

In many cases, the sentence of punishment is given and executed by caste panchayats. These are all-male groups of self-proclaimed guardians of
caste interests and ‘honour’ which have the support of the richer sections and enjoy political patronage. The most powerful of these caste panchayats are those of the upper and middle caste landowning sections. The caste panchayats function as a parallel judicial structure and elected panchayats are either subordinated to or co-opted by them. It is through these caste panchayats that the most regressive social views are sought to be implemented. For example, opposition to co-educational schools, divorce and widow remarriage and support for dress codes for women.

Last year, the Rajasthan State Human Rights Commission found the role of caste panchayats in that state negative enough to file a writ petition in the Jodhpur high court for action against them. The commission had also issued orders against the decisions of caste panchayats, which, though not dealing with cases of honour killings as such, strongly criticised their retrograde interventions and punishments in family or land disputes. It strongly advocated a control on all such decisions of caste panchayats as militated against constitutional rights. Dominant political parties in North India have never opposed these barbaric decisions of caste panchayats.

The increasing use of caste identity as a tool of mobilisation ensures patronage from dominant political parties in the region to caste panchayats. At the same time, the police and administration often share the concept of (dis)honour and it is extremely difficult to get a case registered. There have been instances when the police have hunted down the adult couple like criminals, handed them over to the girl’s family where they were killed and their deaths passed off as suicides. The Central government, on its part, has refused to even acknowledge that ’honour’ crimes exist.

In October 2002, the Indian representative at the UN Social, Humanitarian and Cultural Committee protested sharply against secretary-general
Kofi Annan’s report which correctly included India as a country where ’honour’ killings take place. Presumably, the Indian representative was more concerned with saving India’s "honour" since internationally "honour crimes" are associated with countries like Pakistan and Afghanis-tan. The number of such crimes are certainly higher across the border but, in reality, how different are these savage caste fatwas from the worst excesses of Talibanism?

Urgent steps in the political, social and legal spheres are required to defend the right of adults to self-choice relationships and put an end to honour killings.

But, clearly, in the Indian context, women’s advance, which must surely include the right over her own body and sexuality, is intrinsically linked to an uprooting of caste structures.

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