Focus Identity and Resistance

In the Name of Honour: Comprehending Honour Killings in India

Aniruddha Mahajan introduces a critical aspect of Indian culture in which crimes are done in the name of honour and informal authorities are still governing peoples' lives. He explains the phenomenon besides shedding a light on it's causes.

By Aniruddha Mahajan

Introduction:

Honour killing is an ugly reality in a country like India where the societal structure is based on the caste system. Such incidents would not astonish much but they will surely hammer the esteem of the country. Still the prevalence of caste-based violence and systemic operation of discrimination is the biggest concern in the 21st century. The caste-based society in India categorises the castes in terms of superiority and inferiority. Caste is the most abhorrent and pervasive parameter which divides Indian society. The system of caste is the hierarchical structure where there is absolutely no mobility. It divides the people as ‘clean’ and ‘unclean’ castes. The so called lower castes, historically perceived as the untouchables, and now as the Dalits have the lowest standing on the social ladder. And all these lead to their victimisation in the name of honour. There is the rule of law, but the power structure is still restricted to specific sections of the society, who possess the supreme ranks on the caste ladder. However, honour killing is one of the pernicious practices emerging from the caste-based hegemonic structure. The number of honour killing cases has increased over the years. For instance, in past few years the following cases are: Manoj and Babli case from Haryana, Sonai honour killing of Nasik, Shankar and Kausalya case; Nandish Swathi case from Tamil Nadu, Nitin Aage case from Ahmednagar, Pranay and Amrutha case from Nalgonda, very recent Viraj Jagtap honour killing from Pune has hit the national media and highlighted the harsh reality of Indian caste society.(1)  

The societal structure in India is completely influenced by certain notions of the truth influenced by religious ideologies. It demands and expects the society to behave according to it. Failure of the individual to follow would result  in harsh treatment meted against them and in the current context would result in incidents such as honour killing. The social interactions with the so called inferior, backward castes is shown in bad light; this has been the norm for ages. If anyone breaks those norms it is perceived as an attack to their so called honour. The Khap Panchayats are a key example who cement the spirit of the caste structure and hold supreme power. On the other hand, there is the rule of law which protects human rights. And it prioritises human dignity, self-choice and self-esteem. But the increasing cases of honour killing from the past few years exposes the existing loopholes of such laws. And also it consistently records  how cultural norms overlap, or in cases, supersede, the rule of law.  To understand the phenomena of honour killing, it is very important to use a multi-dimensional approach. With this regard, we need to shed  light on the conceptualisation of ‘honour’, its historical & theoretical perspectives and the interactions between them. 

Conceptualising ‘Honour’  

Honour is synonymous with pride, esteem, respect but no one could have imagined that the word associated with the most inhuman acts. In general, the couples who get married by their own will, own choice, who go against their family and community face severe consequences. The main cause of the rejection generally involves caste identity. Families do not hesitate to kill their blood relations if they break caste barriers and question their superiority. In fact in the past couple of decades it has become a repeatable and ‘honourable’ social practice. 

“There are different forms in which the men and women possess honour. For men, the source of honour is to dominate people weaker to them, the vulnerable, and the women. And there is the sense of losing that honour in the absence of potential, failure and their incapability to do so. For women the source is purity, endurance, virginity, obedience etc. and they see the loss of virginity, self-esteem as the loss of honour.”(2) The mindset has changed over the years, especially among the women, and various feminist movements played a crucial part. The orthodox concepts of ‘purity’ and ‘honour’ are getting altered and ideas pertaining  to it are being embedded in the natural and constitutional rights. Still, over the years the perception of the honour remains the same in the case of men. “The rigidity of the caste system does not allow inter-caste marriages, therefore, couples usually elope and marry. The public sphere is dominated by two diametrically opposing authorities, i.e. formal and informal. The formal authority is the state which has its own rules and regulations in a legal form. And the informal authority is often under ‘caste’ Panchayats, which possess no legality. There are the known as ‘khap panchayats’ which openly advocate for  marriages within the same caste. Khap panchayats are patriarchal and orthodox in nature. They have consistent conflict with the modernity and their judgements reflect bias, discrimination and exploitation on the name of honour. On the other hand, to deal with inter-caste marriages, there is widespread protection by the formal authority.”(3) The right to marry is the part of right to life as ensured by the Indian Constitution. In the judgements, Delhi High Court stated that, ‘choosing the spouse is the fundamental right.’(4)

The formal and informal authorities are both leading actors who nourish their own notion of honour. Both the authorities contradict each other in the conceptualisation of honour. The ideas of honour are embedded in the orthodox, religious philosophies for the informal authority. And for formal authority, the idea of honour revolves around the fundamental natural rights. In a scheme of such events, the backward castes, the Dalits are always on the receiving end with regards to inhumanity in both urban and rural areas. Dalit spouses are not accepted in the families. In fact, having them within the family is regarded as an  act of dishonour for the community and negatively impacts social standing.

Historical Context 

The root cause of notions like honour and superiority are based on caste-based hegemony embedded in the religious texts. It was Purusha Sukta hymn of the Rig Veda which put forward the idea of Chaturvarna system. In the hindu social organization, varna is the basis of social stratification. The institution of caste has been in existence from earlier phases of Indian history. Races, which came to India at different times, gradually merged within existing castes. They were assigned with varied occupational tasks, based on the concept of ‘impurity’ and ‘purity’. Even marriage alliances with another caste group were strictly prohibited; only ‘anuloma’ marriage type was permitted. 

“If we look at the marriage system in Hinduism, marriage between any two castes is termed as inter-caste marriage and hence restricted, they were encouraged only to endogamy marriages within the varna system. There were two forms of inter-caste marriage, i.e. ‘anuloma(5) (Hypergamous) and ‘pratiloma’ (Hypogamy). ‘anuloma’ marriage is a form of inter-caste marriage where men of higher caste marry women from the lower castes. In ‘pratiloma’ marriages, men of lower caste marry women of superior castes. Manu and other ancient texts  prescribed anuloma. Pratiloma i.e., marriage of a woman to a man from a lower caste is not permitted.”(6) Going beyond that, Manu Smriti while framing the penal codes stated that, “If the Shudra asked for the marriage with the girl from upper caste Brahmin, he should be penalised with death” (Manu Smriti, Chapter 8, Shlok 366). Thus the above phenomena clearly indicate the deep influence of religious theologies even in the 21st century.  

In the 19th century, there was a wave of social reformers who protested against orthodox practices. The credit of bringing meaningful transformation in the caste system goes to Jotiba Phule, Dr. B. R. Ambedkar, E. V. Ramasamy Periyar and many more. With regards to inter-caste marriages, viewpoints of Dr. B. R. Ambedkar and E. V. Ramasamy Periyar is very significant and needs to be considered. In his Annihilation of Caste Dr. B. R. Ambedkar stated, “The only question that remains to be considered is, how to bring the reform in the Hindu social order? How to abolish caste? Apart from inter-caste diners, I am convinced that the real remedy is inter-marriage. Fusion of blood can alone create the feeling of being kith and kin and unless this feeling of kinship, of being kindred, becomes paramount the separatist feeling-the feeling of being aliens-created by Caste will not vanish. Among the Hindus inter-marriage must necessarily be a factor of greater force in social life than it need be in the life of the non-Hindus. Where society is already well-knit by other ties, marriage is an ordinary incident of life. But where society cuts asunder, marriage as a binding force becomes a matter of urgent necessity. The real remedy for breaking Caste is inter-marriage. Nothing else will serve as the solvent of Caste.”(7) Dr. B. R. Ambedkar termed inter-caste marriages as one of the steps to annihilate the caste. 

“Even E.V. Ramasamy Periyar encouraged inter-caste marriages. He termed it the means to fight against the various elements of the caste system. He categorically favoured that. ‘Marriage is a contract between a woman and a man. And it is not the function for the parents to get involved in it for any reason.’ The Self-Respect Movement started by him possessed the prime objective of making young people realise marriage as their own concern and the interference from the parents is simply unreasonable. He further claimed that, involvement of elders in such arranged marriages solidifies the dowry system.”(8)

Theoretical Perspective  

On the idea of marriage, Rex Martin put forward ‘Natural Right Theory’.(9) According to this theory, each and every human being has some natural rights such as right to life, liberty, health, work, dignity, where even the administration and state can’t interfere. Individual is directed by his own will. Similarly, the right to marry with one’s own choice is also one of the basic notions. There is acceptance and respect for the mutual interests of the couple in the marriage processes. Ultimately it is the natural performance of natural  rights. Liberty of behaviour and prohibition of external threats are not only the basic interests of an individual but also the two dimensions of natural rights. Thus the violation of these basic interests is a violation of natural and human rights. With regards to this theory and the phenomena, the couple have all the natural rights to perform their own will by the freedom and liberty of choice. But the above incident like the honour killing is completely contradictory to the core idea and principles of the Natural Right Theory which assures right to liberty and dignity on the name of basic human rights.   

If we see John Austin’s ‘Theory of positive law’, which puts forward the concept of the right to marry with legal recognition by law. He stated that, “the couple who perform their natural right of marriage even if it is a ‘run-away’ marriage their rights are secured by the law. The recognition is provided under the shell of law to such cases and their rights are protected. But such acts are not accepted in the social regulations, it has the orientation with orthodox traditions and thus all these pave the way for honour killing.”(10) Law and justice are always there for the protection of the basic human rights. It advocates individual liberty and social justice. But there are traditional norms which consistently hammers the right of choice consenting  couples.  

There are certain acquired truths in every society which are derived from the cultural realm and are prominently advocated. There are various regulations and actors in a society which maintain significance of that truth by all means possible. The actors use brute force to preserve that truth. Society demands the individuals to follow such truths and if they fail to do so face harsh consequences. Thus, inter-caste marriages are termed as anti-social. Because it is against the accepted truths thus such marriages are restricted by coercive modes which results into the honour killing.

Conclusion 

Despite robust constitutional provisions, the cases of honour killings on caste grounds are still very much prevalent in recent times. Inter-caste marriages are the  prime cause for honour killing. “The cases of honour killing are deliberately underreported by the state. Even questions could be raised on NCRB as they haven’t reported even a single case of honour killing in Tamil Nadu in the years 2017 and 2018. In fact there were 195 known cases of honour killing in Tamil Nadu. They further added that, in the cases of honour killing, states provide data to the centre which helps to frame the NCRB report. This data has to go through the validation process a couple of times, first at the police station level and secondly during the consolidation of data at district level. So it is clear that either local authorities do not report the cases or don’t have the authentic ways to track down the cases of honour killing.”(11)

With regards to the above legal and technical loopholes there has been a consistent demand to make a separate law for honour killing. But with that it is also very important to consider the fundamental factors which fuel such acts. No one can  deny that the caste system derived from religious theologies has paved the way for such inhuman acts. Again the view of Dr.B.R.Ambedkar is pivotal here. He says, “Caste may be bad, but it must be recognized that the Hindus do not observe Caste because they are inhuman or wrong-headed, but they observe Caste because they are deeply religious. People are not wrong in observing Caste but what is wrong is their religion, which has inculcated this notion of Caste. If this is correct, then obviously the enemy you must grapple with is not the people who observe Caste, but the Shastras which teach them this religion of Caste.”(12) With this viewpoint, if we put limelight on a couple of contexts from theologies it will provide a comprehensive picture to perceive.  

“If the Shudra asked for the marriage with the girl from upper caste brahmin, he should be penalised with death” (Manu Smriti, Chapter 8, Shlok 366). 

“The name of Brahmin should indicate delight. The name of Kshatriya should indicate responsibility. Name of Vaishya should indicate wealth. The name of Shudra should indicate indignity and humiliation” (Vishnu Smriti, Chapter 27, Sutra 6-9).(13) 

These are some of the selected references from the Shastras and religious texts. Thus, all these Shastras and other religious texts have created a solid plinth for flourishing the system of Caste. Gradually, the norms which are created by these Shastras were  deliberately shaped as the ‘truth’ and ‘knowledge’ sheltered using  customs and traditions. The above discussed incident is an implication of such constructions established by these theologies. Such construction of truths has equally projected the caste and patriarchy and framed the ideas of honour. None of the society wants to harm their acquired cultural truths and principles. And thus honour based on the caste, status, gender is still strengthening its place in this country . We need to take a dig on such Shastras, theologies which are the root cause of such lurid  acts. The moment also demands that we alter the cultural constructions of knowledge and challenge its supremacy. Because it not  only leads to discriminations and incidents like honour killings but also remains as a blot  on the fundamental ethos of Indian Constitution.  


Footnotes

  1. Crying shame: The honour killings that shocked India in 2018
  2. Pal,A (2012). Honour Killing : Culture, Dilemma and Ritual. Arise Publishers and Distributors. New Delhi 
  3. Chowdhry,P (2004). Private Lives, State Intervention: Cases of Runaway Marriage in Rural North India. Modern Asian Studies. Pp – 55,63,84 
  4. Right to choose life partner is a fundamental right: HC
  5. Anuloma – A hypergamous form of marriage where the upper caste men could marry to a lower caste woman.
  6. Nambissan,G (2009). Exclusion and discrimination in school:experiences of dalit children. Gyan publication house, New Delhi 
  7. Ambedkar,BR (2013). Dr.Ambedkar writing and speeches. Vol-1. Part-2. Pp-37-124 
  8. Gopalakrishnan (1991). Periyar: Father of the Tamil race.
  9. Martin,R (2013). Human Rights and the Social Recognition Thesis. Journal of Social Philosophy. Vol.-44.No-1.
  10. Duran,J (2005). Realism, Positivism and Reference. Journal for General Philosophy of Science. Vol- 36, No-2. 
  11. Sundaravelu, A (2020). The Swaddle: Why India Needs a Separate Law for Honor Killings
  12. Ambedkar,BR (2013). Dr.Ambedkar writing and speeches. Vol-1. Part-2. Pp-37-124
  13. Ambedkar,BR (2017). Shudra purvi kon hote? Utkarsha publication. Pp-13-21,34-49

About the author

Aniruddha Mahajan is PhD research scholar at Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai (INDIA). He is founding secretary of “Jhep Multipurpose Foundation” which is working for the quality education to the marginalised people. He is a Centre and State Government awarded national speaker, who has expressed himself on various pulpits across the nation advocating the constitutional ethics and rights.

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