Why Are Hindu Honor Killings Rising in India?

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Police escort Sudha Pathak, left, the mother of Nirupama Pathak, inside a police station in Koderma, in the eastern Indian state of Jharkhand, on May 3, 2010

For three weeks now, a morbid murder story has been playing out in the Indian media. Nirupama Pathak, 22, a New Delhi–based journalist, was allegedly murdered by her own mother. Her crime? She had wanted to marry a fellow journalist who belongs to a lower caste — and she was pregnant. On a trip home to make a final effort to convince her family, Nirupama texted her boyfriend that she was being held captive, locked up in a bathroom. On April 29, she was found dead. The family claimed Nirupama had killed herself, and lodged a case against her boyfriend for rape and abetting suicide. But when the postmortem results revealed Nirupama had been asphyxiated, the police arrested her mother, Sudha Pathak.

The case is now headed to court, which will disentangle the web of allegations and counterallegations. Meanwhile, it has thrust the issue of honor killings to the center of public debate. Though Western readers associate the term more with Taliban-ruled Afghanistan than with 21st century India, honor killings are shockingly frequent in villages in the northern and northwestern parts of the country, where those daring to cross the barriers of caste are made to pay with their lives. Mostly, these cases are confined to the inside pages of newspapers, but the Nirupama case — in urban, educated, middle-class India — has hit the front pages.

Activists say dozens of people, both women and men, are killed for "honor" every year, falling victim to the deeply entrenched caste system, which dictates an individual's social standing based on the caste they are born into. The majority of these killings take place in the agrarian states of Punjab, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan, where land ownership and caste go hand in hand and an honor culture thrives by maintaining caste and gender hierarchies. "The upper castes fiercely guard their hold over land and power in the community," says Ranbir Singh, a Haryana-based sociologist currently a consultant with the Haryana Institute of Rural Development. "They are able to mobilize young, educated but unemployed, mostly unmarried men, who are all fired up to shore up their self-esteem."

Perceived caste transgressions are severely punished. In a recent case in a Haryana village, an 18-year-old Dalit girl and her father were allegedly burned alive by upper-caste Jat men following an argument over a dog. Women, since they have property rights, are a threat if not kept under a vicelike grip. It is no surprise that Haryana, one of India's wealthiest states with a largely farm-based economy, has the highest rate of selectively aborting female fetuses, a practice that has skewed the demographics so much that there are only 861 women for 1,000 men. Young men are forced to purchase brides from other states. The statistics on honor killings are also the worst there: groups called khaps run kangaroo courts that routinely issue fatwa-like orders for the execution of those who have offended caste boundaries.

The situation is aggravated by modernity, as more and more young people want to marry for love instead of family or caste considerations. Khaps violently oppose both marriages between upper-caste women and lower-caste men and those within sub-castes and villages deemed to share kinship ties. The khap itself, long a locus of power for the land-owning Jat community, is being rendered irrelevant by economic change, increasingly egalitarian democratic politics and population movement — hence, say observes, this brutal attempt to re-establish its prerogatives. "Due to their declining status, they are trying to assert their existence by taking the law in their own hands," explains Prem Chowdhry, senior academic fellow at the New Delhi–based Indian Council of Historical Research.

A month before Nirupama's death, a court in Haryana sentenced five people to death for killing a couple belonging to the same village and gotra, or caste-based clan (village elders had deemed them brother and sister). Manoj Banwala, 23, and Babli, 19, of Karoran village in Haryana, had married against the wishes of the bride's family on April 7, 2007. Urged on by the khap, the village had turned against Banwala's family, forcing the couple to flee to a nearby city, where they were killed two months later on order from the khap. A police investigation found that police assigned to protect the couple had actually passed on information to the assailants. When the court pronounced the punishment, the khaps launched protests and demanded that the government introduce changes in the Hindu marriage law to ban marriages within the same gotra.

Astonishingly, prominent politicians from both the ruling Congress party and the opposition have come out in support of the khaps' demand. With city and village elections due shortly, political parties see this as an easy ploy to lure votes, caste being a handy instrument of statecraft. Even as the Nirupama case was burning, the government announced that caste data would be collected as part of the census — the first time since 1931 — to get exact caste statistics, ostensibly to implement meaningful affirmative-action plans for underprivileged castes. But the move has many opponents, who believe it will only perpetuate a political culture that takes advantage of caste divisions. "It is the cynicism of politicians that they've made caste a tool for political mobilization," says New Delhi–based analyst Amulya Ganguli. "The khaps' growing clout and the killings of hapless couples show how dangerous this renewed emphasis can be."