Asia-Pacific, Headlines, Human Rights

INDIA: Gov’t Hems and Haws Over ‘Honour Killings’

Sujoy Dhar

NEW DELHI, Sep 8 2010 (IPS) - Instances of ‘honour killings’ in Indian communities still steeped in traditional beliefs continue unabated. Yet the government has not enacted tougher laws that will deal a decisive blow against this societal scourge.

For bringing dishonour to the family, couples defying time-honoured traditions in many orthodox Indian villages must flee for their lives lest they become victims of ‘honour killing’ committed by kin or members of their own caste.

Some of the couples on the run were either caught unawares or hounded out and killed by their families who were determined to restore honour to the clan.

“Young couples live in fear. They are often driven to suicide, if not killed,” Nishi Kant, who runs Shakti Vahini, a non-governmental organisation researching honour killings in India, told IPS.

Marrying outside one’s caste or within one’s lineage (‘gotra’), or outside one’s religion is still tabooed by many Indian families, who believe such “aberrant behaviours” deserve the most brutal punishment, often in the form of death.

Over the past months, horrific reports of honour killings have been pouring in. About 45 people have died as a result of such killings in the past 19 months, according to Shakti Vahini. Despite the spike in honour killings, the state remains a mute spectator, said Kant.

The ruling United Progressive Alliance has condemned the killings but has not acted decisively on the sensitive issue, fearing a dent in its traditional vote banks.

“To put vote bank politics over the requirements of those in office to uphold the rights granted by the constitution is abhorrent. Yet this is being done,” Brinda Karat, leader of the Communist Party of India-Marxist, told IPS.

Other mainstream Indian political parties have also denounced the killings and pledged to introduce a bill in Parliament seeking to amend the Special Marriage Act and pass more stringent laws punishing the perpetrators of the crime.

Karat said “democratic-minded” Indian citizens “had expected the Central Government not to procrastinate any further and to take steps to ensure an adequate legal framework to address this increasing crime and to bring some relief to affected couples.”

Indian Law and Justice Minister M Veerappa Moily recently announced the planned amendments and passage of appropriate legislation banning honour killings. But days after his announcement, the federal government said it would discuss the matter with the respective state governments before taking any action.

Thus the Union Cabinet has effectively deferred a decision to introduce a bill in the Parliament’s monsoon session requiring stricter punishment for honour killings, fuelling speculation that the government had developed cold feet.

The Group of Ministers (GoM), formed in July to formulate legal measures to deal with the menace, has not arrived at a consensus on any appropriate law.

Bhupinder Singh Hooda, chief minister of north-western Haryana state, last week told the GoM about the difficulties his state would face in implementing any proposed law that would curb honour killings.

India’s English-language ‘The Hindu’ daily has quoted Hooda as saying that the government should exercise caution while dealing with social reform, arguing that the provisions in the existing Indian Penal Code were sufficient to deal with murder, including honour killings.

Village-level caste councils, or ‘khap panchayat’, an extra-constitutional body with vast social powers but without any legal authority, have vowed to prevent enactment of tougher laws meant to stop the controversial practice. One of the recent incidents of honour killing involved a Dalit couple, who were allegedly murdered by the woman’s uncle. “I have no regrets. I would punish them all over again,” a remorseless Om Prakash Saini, the suspected assailant, told the Indian media following his arrest.

Dalits, meaning suppressed people, are the lower castes in India and once considered untouchables by the higher- caste people, especially the Brahmins (or the priestly class). Caste councils, who prohibit same-clan marriages, believe that people within the same lineage are considered siblings and therefore cannot marry.

In a related incident, a New Delhi-based couple were shot dead by the girl’s brother and his friends. Her cousin sister – or female first cousin – who was suspected of playing Cupid for the slain couple, was also murdered. The slain man was a Rajput (the Hindu warrior race) while the woman was a Gujjar, considered a backward class in India.

The murdered women’s brother and cousin were arrested for the crime. During their capture, one of her relatives went live on national television expressing support for the killing. “Murder is unacceptable but in this case it is good for the society,” he said.

“The so-called ‘honour’-based violence occurs in Indian communities where the concepts of honour and shame are fundamentally bound up with the expected behaviours of families and individuals, particularly those of women,” says Shakti Vahini’s Kant.

Responding to a petition filed by Shakti Vahini denouncing murders in the name of honour, the Supreme Court of India directed the government to explain what it was doing to prevent “honour killings” in the country. The government has not issued any response.

The killings are not limited to the backward rural societies of India. In June, a Belgium-based Non-Resident Indian, Mehtab Singh, was arrested for allegedly murdering his 17-year-old stepdaughter, whom he had accused of having an affair with a lower-caste Indian youth in Belgium.

Singh was suspected of poisoning the young girl during their stay in north-western Amritsar city. “He had hurriedly brought his daughter to Amritsar after knowing about her relationship in Belgium. When she died, Singh tried to cover up his action and hurried the cremation, which is quite mysterious,” said a senior police official.

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