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South Asia Monitor
Honour Killings Are India's Shame
By Gautaman Bhaskaran
South Asia Editor
India can be sparkling white and deadly black. While the 21st-century nation brags about its scientific achievements, including space exploration and nuclear arms, fancy cars and elite educational institutions, it must hang its head in shame about some utterly dark-age practices. Honour killing, brazenly sanctioned by social institutions and community elders, is one, and neither the judiciary nor the executive has been able to stop this heinous ritual.

Recently, Nirupama Pathak, a young journalist working for a leading Indian English language business daily, was found murdered in her house. She was, according to newspaper reports, smothered to death by her own mother, who has since been arrested. The reason for this extreme hatred was love. Pathak was in a relationship with a boy, whose caste was different from hers. Her family disapproved, and violently. Even more shocking, the gory act was committed in India’s capital city, New Delhi.

Contrary to the widely-held view, honour killing is not confined to Islam. It cuts across faith, social strata and economic status. A United Nations report says there are 5000 honour deaths every year across the globe. The crime is rampant in West Asia and South-east Asia. Even in the U.K., the police contend that there is at least one such murder every month among Asian communities. Avanti Hair’s National Award winning film, “Land, Gold, Women”, gives a graphic picture of how a young Muslim girl in Britain is stabbed to death by her own uncle (on the explicit orders of her father), because she falls in love with a white boy.

Pathak was a Hindu girl. A journalist, she was professionally and socially well connected, and came from a well-to-do family. But her love was unacceptable to her parents, and the reason for their objection seems absolutely silly in the world we live in today.

Honour killing in India is widespread, though no accurate figures are available. A study conducted by the New Delhi-based Indian Population Statistics Survey a few years ago revealed that there were about 700 such deaths every year in India. This figure may at best be an indicator, and could be far higher. This is what women’s groups and social organizations feel. Many, many such incidents are hushed up, because they are a blot on the reputation of the family concerned or sometimes that on the village/town. But families would live with the blemish and even the guilt of killing their own dear one rather than face social stigma and ire that an inter-caste or inter-religious marriage attracts.

Pataki’s tragic end raises several issues. Caste and religion continue to dominate Indian life. These translate as foremost identifications of an individual in a society that is still driven by such insular considerations. (Look at the hundreds of matrimonial advertisements that appear in the media that invariably harp on preferences based on caste.) Sadly, these are merrily exploited by some of India’s most renowned and well established political parties, including the Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

There are non-political social groups which only encourage liaison between members of the same caste, while there are others who forbid any kind of relationship within the same caste or sub-caste. Obviously, India’s civil society is torn between traditional beliefs, such as male dominance, and modern ideas, which, among other things, empower women. In a country where men still wield power, both at home and outside, they find it hard to accept a free-thinking woman. And, if she were to assert herself by choosing her partner, there is bound to be conflict.

Honour killing and other forms of atrocity on women can only be addressed through greater awareness and education, which undoubtedly hold the key. We can hope to set aside archaic beliefs only through proper spread of information. Also, political parties have a vital role in preventing honour killing by refusing to discriminate electoral candidates on caste lines.

However, beneath such cruelty lies the might of money. Usually, village councils that award death sentences to the offending couple comprise rich landlords and upper-caste men, who use their enormous authority to suppress the poor and the lower castes. As one writer commented,” but in perpetuating and reinforcing cultural obsessions with masculinity and the purity of their blood, the unsanctioned councils are virtually compelling the younger generation to rebel. And, thanks to the skewed sex ratio stemming from female feticide, marriageable women are few and far between”.

Finally, the police and the judiciary must be ruthlessly firm in tackling a crime as dreadful as honour killing.



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Gautaman Bhaskaran is a veteran film critic and writer who has covered Cannes and other major international festivals, like Venice, Berlin, Montreal, Melbourne, and Fukuoka over the past two decades. He has been to Cannes alone for 15 years. He has worked in two of India’s leading English newspapers, The Hindu and The Statesman, and is now completing an authorized biography of India’s auteur-director, Adoor Gopalakrishnan. Penguin International will publish the book, whose research was funded by Ford Foundation.

 

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