Honor killing can be defined as the death sentenced by family or society members to a man or woman for marrying against parent’s wish, having extra-marital or pre-marital affair, marrying outside one’s caste or within same gotra etc. , in order to protect the social status and honor of the family. The dishonor perceived in this kind of killings may be a result of behaviors as trivial as dressing in a manner unacceptable to the family or community, or having a non-sexual relationship that is perceived as inappropriate. Among the victims, majority are women and girls as compared to men.
Although this practice is prevalent worldwide including North and South America, Africa, Turkey, the number of incidents relating to this crime is extremely high in India. The history of the practice of honor killing in India may date back to thousands of years. The social structures, rules and bindings have been very strong for centuries and there exists an approval of the killings within the religion and social norms of the sub-continent. Yet the strong social boundaries may have prevented the behaviors that would lead to such punishments.
The honor killing practice in modern history seems to have gained momentum since the partition of India in 1947. The tradition was first viewed most brutal and horrible during 1947 and 1950, when women were forcefully killed to protect the family’s honor. A lot of forced marriages and rapes were causing women from India to marry men from Pakistan and vice-versa. This would trigger the hunt for the people marrying in other country, other religion, or caste and when they return home, they would be killed so that the family honor is preserved and the family is not declared outcaste.
The socio-political environment during this period caused women to be made victims for humiliation among conflicting communities leading to the humiliated families killing women of their own families. The stronghold of religion, rigid social structures and the loose administrative controls due to the changing political scenario, the crime of honor killing prevailed uncontrollably during this period. On average there would be at least two cases of honor killing every day within India. This tradition of honor killing still continues in several forms.
The major reason for honor killing in India is the girl marrying a boy outside her own caste. The caste system in India in spite of massive social and political effort still remains one of the most rigid social systems. Everyone within the caste systems gains some undue advantage or respect over some other castes. Having a strong support from religion for its existence, no caste whether high or low, tries to break the system or leave the advantages they get from it, in spite of the lost dignity to other higher castes.
Thus when a man and woman from different communities marry each other, the dignity and social acceptance of the families of both the sides are jeopardized. Thus, either as a solution to regain the honor, or as a punishment for misbehavior, the families murder the woman involved. In some cases, even the son-in-law gets killed, especially if he belongs to a lower caste, which makes it easier for socially, politically and economically stronger upper castes to kill the man and get away with it.
Among Rajputs, inter-caste marriages can lead to the murders of not only the marrying couple but also the immediate family members. This is presumed to be a part of Rajput culture and a necessity for maintaining purity of family lineage. Another important and peculiar reason to this date, which is also a rapidly growing one, is the marriages within same gotra. Here, in spite of the vast population and ambiguity of race purity, some people are believed to be belonging to the same family lineages.
Even within the caste, one has to ensure that he or she does not marry with someone belonging to the same family lineage, popularly known as gotra. Here is the attempt to ensure that there are no inter-family marriage relationships. In Southern parts, however, it is acceptable and in some cases even preferred to marry to a distant relative. But in most of the Northern region, it is completely unacceptable, even if the distant family lineage is not traceable, the very fact of having same gotra makes it impossible for two people to get married.
Importance of gotra and related crimes have been growing in recent past. In Hariyana, there has been an incidence where such an honor killing was actually sentenced by the local ‘panchayat’, which is supposed to be part of the official village administration. The strong culture of arrange marriages in India across all religions further accentuates the problem. Having own will in marriage or going against parents’/family’s wish is considered something revolutionary and against the set norms.
Thus any minute mismatch in terms of caste, gotra, religion or even location, economic conditions etc. may cause the vengeance by the family. However, honor killing should not be confused with murders or suicides that are committed due to dowry related issues, or even other caste and religion conflicts. In many cases, especially in the rural pockets of northern states, including Hariyana, Punjab and UP, caste panchayats sanction such killings and then they are carried out by the mob with willingness and approval of the family members.
These killings currently come under general homicides or manslaughters. With mob being involved in the act and the social approval to such crimes, it becomes difficult for the existing legal structure to investigate and tackle such cases. Many times the local police and judiciary system is also non-cooperative in terms of stopping or investigating these crimes. It is also difficult to identify the exact nature of crime, the criminals and the role played by various people in the crime. Though, recently there have been efforts to make strong laws to deal with such incidents.
In March 2010, Karnal district court gave a landmark judgment ordering execution of 5 perpetrators of honor killing and a life imprisonment for the khap (a local caste council) head. One of the major misconceptions about honor killings is that it is limited to the rural areas and is not a relevant problem in cities. Thus the growing urbanization would automatically lower the rate of honor killings. In reality this is far from truth. There have been many cases of honor killing witnessed within the metro cities like Delhi.
In recent times 5 honor killings have been reported from the capital city of New Delhi, while there has been a gotra related killing in Tamil Nadu as well. The caste system and its rigid hold on the marriage system are equally present in the urban areas as well. Indeed, generations after generations, the approval to the caste appears to be sustained irrespective of the education, location and changes in political and financial conditions. Thus, urbanization does not ensure the eradication of the practice of honor killing; it only allows the same barbaric tradition and social psyche to enter the urban geographies.
Thus apart from the improvements in the concerned laws and the judiciary system ensuring appropriate investigations, convictions and controls on such incidences, it is important to spread awareness about the issue. The influence and activism of the reformists of early 20th century, like Raja Ram Mohan Roy, Ramakrishna etc. has led to eradication of honor killing from West Bengal. There is a need for an all-encompassing social activism to change the minds of people throughout the country.