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Home > Women’s Rights > India: Murders In the Name of Honour and Tradition

India: Murders In the Name of Honour and Tradition

by Shivani Mohan, 11 September 2009

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From: Khaleej Times

Reading the local newspaper these days is nothing short of a chilling suspension of disbelief where I live.

Last month has thrown up at least 7-8 cases of honour killings in various forms just a few hundred kilometres away from a modern and civilised city like Chandigarh. The capital of two states-Punjab and Haryana, Chandigarh is the embodiment of the dream of Pt Jawaharlal Nehru of creating a truly modern, post independence city, conceptualised and designed by noted French architect 
Le Corbusier.

Driving down from the national capital New Delhi, one cannot help appreciate the glitzy highway with stopovers in various towns in Haryana that shine with dazzling food courts, squeaky clean washrooms and shops selling branded goods. Gurgaon, once a nondescript Haryana hamlet and a sleepy suburb of Delhi, is today the face of corporate India. Both Haryana and Punjab boast of an enviable farm sector that kept them leading in per capita incomes for years, only recently overtaken by the IT rich southern states. The bounty is there to see—malls, luxury cars, multiplexes, fast foods and outer symbols and edifices of progress. Yet with a startling regularity, incidents of honour killings in Haryana are reported, ruminated and put on the back burner.

While we all like to believe we live in a civilized world in India and that honour killings are something that savage Taleban do somewhere far away in the back of beyond, maybe Swat or Afghanistan or Timbuktu, we take account of these spine chilling incidents in our own backyard with surprising equanimity.

Just a few weeks ago a couple was found hanging from a single rope from a tree in a nearby district. The couple had eloped from the village on 31st of July, leaving the rural civic body called the khap panchayat busy with deciding the right punishment for the offence. But before anything conclusive came out, the couple was found dead in mysterious circumstances. They had bruises on their knees. Marks of a truck and a motorcycle were also found nearby. This incident came days after another truant couple was found dead after they were spotted together in Rohtak district. A few days prior another couple was beaten to death by the girl’s family in a village in Rohtak district on Aug 6. In July, a 21 year old man was lynched for marrying against the wishes of his community in Haryana’s Jind district.

For the uninitiated, khap panchayat was a system of social administration and organization in the North-Western states of India such as Haryana, Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan since ancient times. Over the years these Khaps created complex dictats for socio-cultural conduct, defining the dos and don’ts of living in a society. One such feature that we are concerned about here is the gotra system found in Hindus where the gotra determines the particular family or clan a person has descended from. It is the lineage assigned to Hindus at birth. In most cases the system is patrilineal. People with the same gotra were once considered to be blood relatives or siblings. Marriages within the gotra are banned in Hindus under the rule of exogamy or outbreeding in the traditional matrimonial system. From a genetic point of view, aversion to breeding with close relatives results in fewer 
congenital diseases.

However sociologists believe that this may have been valid centuries ago but now all these gotras or clans have expanded so much that the chances of two people with the same gotra turning out to be directly related or being siblings is as remote as two people with the same name or surname. So while the effects of the gotra doctrine have diluted in other areas, the Jats of Haryana, a hardy, sturdy and clannish community, take it rather seriously.

Today these khap panchayats with their newly revoked social power thrive on making gullible people, especially the weaker sections of society kowtow to their traditional code of morality. In the recent past many of their judgements have declared many marriages null and void because the husband and wife belonged to the same gotra. One cannot imagine the extent of agony and uncertainty inflicted on these couples who have taken such a step knowingly or unknowingly. On one hand the Government of India is giving a status equivalent to a wife, to the female partner in a live-in relationship keeping in mind the trends unfolding in urban areas; and here a legal sacrosanct marriage is announced invalid at the behest of a bunch of so-called wise cronies of the village. Particularly traumatic have been some of the repercussions 
of this practice.

There have been instances where a married couple with a child was declared brother and sister by khap panchayats, and ordered to stay separately. The couple fled to Gujarat, but the police tracked them down and brought them back. The wife and their child were sent to Nari Niketan, a State-run women’s welfare home in Karnal district. The husband found himself behind bars with the girl’s family charging a case of kidnapping against him. It is estimated that almost 100 marriages are declared null and void every year by the khap panchayats. The case of Sonia and Rampal from Asanda village in Jhajjar district has been widely reported. They were married for more than a year when they were told that their marriage was not valid. Sonia could continue to live in the village only if she aborted her unborn child and accepted her husband as a “brother,” the local khap panchayat said. At times even the parents of such ‘errant’ couples are extradited from the village, away from their land and house, forced to live in impoverished rented accommodation elsewhere and treated like criminals. What kind of civil society allows such a thing to happen to its innocent citizens?

In spite of persistent reports by the media and public outrage, the Govt of Haryana refuses to criticise this menace due to the ugly vote bank politics that is the hallmark of Indian elections. Often the police are aware of these incidents and turn a blind eye. Haryana Chief Minister, Bhupinder Singh Hooda who is from the ruling Congress party has been evasive on this issue. When recently asked on khap panchayats, he simply said, “Let the law and order take its own course. People have to follow their traditions.” Such is the apathy that his opposition leader from BJP also gave a non-committal reply, so as not to displease the huge segments of rural Haryana mandate, what with the ensuing assembly elections. It is a pity that in a state that boasts of one of the highest per capita incomes in the country, true development and progress remains a far reality. And centuries old dictates rule the lives of innocent people.