On honour killings: Outlook magazine, July 12, 2010

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The current issue of Outlook magazine carries three articles on honour killings and another on the rape of a Dalit girl in Mumbai. Since Outlook’s URLs are not stable, we will copy and paste the articles in this blog for research use. Please note that the copyright for these is with Outlook and if you cite them, credit should go to Outlook and the authors. The articles on honour killings are in this post.

Anjali Puri, Chander Suta Dogra, Arpita Basu and Neha Bhatt, Dreams Girl, Outlookindia.com, July 12, 2010.

Something Moving

  • In 25 years, the number of college-going girls in Haryana has quadrupled
  • The number of Class 12-pass girls has gone up five-fold since the ’80s; that of boys has not even doubled
  • There are more college-going women than men in some districts
  • Families want girls to study to land good husbands; but clamp down hard on love marriages, which are rising anyway

***

Her name is Maafi; yes, her real name. “English mein jise ‘Sorry’ kehte hain,” explains the young woman in the pink churidar and purple kurta with net sleeves. She was named so because she was the third successive daughter born to a Solanki (scheduled caste) family in Sisana village, 26 km from the Haryana town of Rohtak. However, of late, the sprightly, lively and clearly intelligent Maafi has dumped this apology of a name and taken to calling herself Tamanna. It goes with the fact that this ex-serviceman’s daughter is the first girl in her family to enrol for a BA. Having fought for and won the right to take the bus into town everyday to Rohtak’s Neki Ram College, she now dreams of becoming a lawyer, and marrying a different kind of man from her sisters’ husbands. When you ask her what kind, she says simply: “Jo meri feelings ko samjhe, meri bhavnaon ki kadar kare (who understands and respects my feelings).”

Brave dreams to dream in her part of the world, where women—and their boyfriends and husbands—are killed for exercising choice in the matter of marriage. But Tamanna is hardly the only one dreaming them. Underlying the spate of gruesome killings in Haryana, neighbouring swathes of Rajasthan, western Uttar Pradesh, and even, as we saw last week, a rural pocket of Delhi called Wazirpur, to defend supposedly “ancient” notions of honour, is a simple, modern fact: the growing social mobility of women.

Tamanna looks and sounds like a certain kind of rural woman whose numbers are swelling in this region: better educated than her mother, or her elder sisters, more sharply dressed in a trim kurta rather than a baggy shirt, more likely to own a cellphone, more confident of her earning capacity, and more optimistic about her ability to live life on her own terms. And less likely to be cowed down—sometimes with tragic consequences for herself—by khap panchayats, rural elders, trigger-happy brothers and male cousins, and village strongmen: for all of whom she represents a clear threat.

The self-styled defenders of tradition admit as much. Says Col Chander Singh Dalal, an indefatigable organiser of Jat khap sammelans and a campaigner against same-gotra marriages: “It’s no longer possible to blame just the boy, as we used to do before, saying he ran away with our daughter. I hold the girls equally responsible for what’s going on these days. They are educated, no one has fooled them, no one has trapped them.”

[image here, deleted]

Not surprisingly, Dalal makes pointed references to Babli, the pretty, school-educated young Jat woman from a landed family in rural Haryana, who dared to marry Manoj, of the same gotra. A local court’s landmark verdict in that case—it handed out death sentences in March to five members of Babli’s family, who killed the couple—have not just caused great consternation in orthodox circles; they have also emboldened a rash of other couples to come out into the open.

But Dalal could well mean Monica Nagar and her cousin Shobha, brutally gunned down by relatives last week in Wazirpur, a prosperous Delhi village. College-educated, independent-minded, bold enough to break off an arranged engagement, Monica, a Gujjar, crossed caste divides and broke the “not from the same village” rule to marry Kuldeep, a Rajput schoolmate. Shobha did “worse”, running away with a Muslim and seeking to earn her own living through modelling, not an accepted career in a village that has adapted to the idea of its women going to school and college, working even, but only if they take up “respectable” jobs, reach home before nightfall, don’t dress too fashionably—and of course, don’t elope.

[image here, deleted]

 

This juxtaposition between allowing women to improve themselves and killing them for marrying the “wrong” man is even sharper in Haryana, where the educational profile of rural women has soared so high in this generation that it bears no resemblance to that of their illiterate or semi-literate mothers. The number of girls going to college quadrupled between 1980-81 and 2006-07, and those studying up to class 12 went up five-fold. Interestingly, the number of boys passing class 12 did not even double in the same period. In some districts in the khap-controlled Jat belt (Sonepat, Rewari and Jhajjar), there are more college-going girls than boys. No wonder then, it is commonplace to meet village girls who have finished school, and not uncommon to meet one who takes the bus, like Tamanna, to the nearest degree college, and even (depending on how broad-minded her family is) takes up a job later.

Lower- and middle-income rural families support the education part, village mothers readily confide, to attract educated grooms for their daughters (rather than the more easily available, alcohol-imbibing, semi-educated young men living off diminishing tracts of land, or money from the sale of it). “Professional boys want an educated girl, even if they don’t want her to work later,” explains housewife Sharmila Ohlan, who has found match-hunting for her nieces a daunting task. “Even when the girl is highly educated, like my niece, and has done judo and sports, they want to see certificates and medals.”

However, as young women become more mobile, they inevitably meet a lot of young men. “They travel by bus to go to college and strike up friendships with boys from neighbouring villages, whom they are not supposed to marry. Most don’t have the courage to tell their parents. Babli and Manoj’s was the first love marriage in our village,” says Manoj’s sister Seema Banwala, 23, herself the picture of the new rural Haryanvi woman: a post-graduate and a police constable who hopes to enter the judicial service.

However, things have changed, even in the three years since the couple married—rural love matches are far less rare, as is evident from the flood of largely rural runaways landing up at the Punjab and Haryana High Court (and even before its vacation bench) for protection, earning it the tag of “marriage bureau”. Senior lawyer Anupam Gupta, part of a court committee appointed by the Punjab and Haryana High Court to deal with them, finds young women, in their red bridal “choora” (bangles) and mehndi-embellished hands, even more determined than young men. “Even when a girl’s parents are in court, and have filed kidnapping cases against the boy, she refuses to fall in with them. These women are clear about exercising their choice, and prepared to take on anything.” Lawyers also report that the couples are generally very young—college-going or even 12th class pass boys and girls, holding hands.

“With education and technology, individuals are building new social networks outside the traditional cocoon of village and khap identities. They are no longer dependent on those identities,” says Rainuka Dagar, who heads gender studies research at Chandigarh’s Institute of Development and Communication. Advocate Rajiv Godara recalls a revealing conversation with a 17-year-old boy in Dhotar village in Sirsa, where many girls from the village were forbidden from going out to study, after one was allowed and had been caught talking to her boyfriend on her mobile phone. “The boy, trying to justify the decision, told me,” he relates, “something happens to these girls when they go out. In the village school, even if we ask them for a notebook, they report it to the teacher.”

For a patriarchal society, all of this has been extremely disquieting. Underlying the ferment over taboo liaisons and marriages, says social activist Jagmati Sangwan, is a clear attempt “to control the sexuality of women”. As she and many others points out, there is a web of complex economic and social reasons here, especially the fear that renegade women, aided by their spouses, will be emboldened to claim property rights under Hindu personal laws—usually foregone when marriage takes place within an intimate circle.

Better then to encircle them in a plethora of marriage taboos, apart from the usual injunctions against inter-caste and inter-religious ones: no same-gotra, no marrying a fellow villager, even if of a different gotra; no marrying someone from a village that has kinship ties with your own, and so on. In practice, these “laws” are not as immutable as claimed; indeed they have also been tweaked from time to time (see interview on page 56) in response to “social needs” and the acute shortage of brides due to the female foeticide-engendered low sex ratio. For example, Dalal, who styles himself as a record-keeper of such matters, concedes that traditional insistence on comparing the gotras of a couple’s grandmothers, along with their parents, has fallen by the wayside.

“In 50 years, there may be many more dilutions. After all, the choti (plait) is fading away, and so is the ghaghri (long skirt). But it will happen only over time, there has to be a process of evolution,” he says. But who decides the pace: only the men “in charge”, or others too—like young women? That’s the challenging question that lies behind the bloody trail of honour killings.

Sheela Reddy, “Khaps have to reform,” Interview with Prem Chowdhury, Outlookindia.com, July 12, 2010. Original URL: http://www.outlookindia.com/article.aspx?266072

Prem Chowdhry, who extensively studied the phenomenon of rising violence against couples flouting rules of arranged marriages for her book Contentious Marriages, Eloping Couples, explains why it’s happening and some of the reasons why male guardians and khap panchayats unleash extreme violence on couples. Excerpts of an interview with Sheela Reddy:

What is it about society that has changed so drastically that it has now become a life-and-death issue to choose one’s own mate?

Many things have changed—political democracy, for instance, which has thrown up new social groups competing with the high-caste groups that were in power earlier. One can see a greater mobility, which means many more opportunities for youngsters to meet. It’s been a problem through the post-Independence era, although cases have risen sharply in the last decade for a variety of reasons. Two (legislative) acts have actually prompted them—the Hindu Marriage Act and the Hindu Succession Act because it gave the right to property to women. Therefore, the restrictions on who a woman can marry.

But we had love marriages before and without this violent backlash?

I think it is insecurity. It’s clear that this is a way of khap panchayats asserting themselves because they are marginalised. This is a highly emotive issue—involving caste, customs, dehati culture—on which mobilisation does take place.

Does it have anything to do with the fact that women have outstripped men—whether in earning power or in taking on new roles?

Take the example of Haryana. The marriage market is fairly restricted there for a variety of reasons—there are fewer girls, men are not getting jobs, there’s a very high level of bachelorhood and so on. The earlier caste restrictions are just not feasible in a situation where populations have grown, small villages have become very big ones, where there used to be two or three gotras in a village, now there are 25-30. So the degrees of prohibition which you have to avoid are just too many. There are just not enough suitable boys to go around.

So what do you do?

You ignore the usual restrictions and find someone compatible with your status. Although we say that boys and girls are eloping and getting married, the truth is that a lot of families are actually opting to ignore these restrictions. These are very much arranged marriages. The tendency now is to pick up a suitable boy: there are not many available as there’s a flux of girls at the top and a deficit at the bottom. Which means the lower class boys are generally remaining unmarried. In Rohtak district, where I did my research, as many as 44 per cent males in the reproductive age of 15 to 44 were bachelors.

 

Yes, it’s a very tight situation and I think the khap panchayats should behave themselves. Instead of opening out the marriage market, they are tightening it further. Historically, the khap panchayats, from time to time, even in the British period, opened out the marriage market by declaring that people of such and such gotra not allowed to marry earlier, may now marry. It happened in 1946, 1947, even as late as 1995. Why can’t they do it now?

What changes do you propose?

You can’t do away with them because they are old institutions, but I would suggest they take the reformist agenda. Surely, the government can put pressure on them to take up issues like female foeticide, infanticide, dowry, ostentatious weddings, even inter- and intra-caste marriages. But, instead, they are trying to appropriate judicial powers.

Why are they focusing solely on the issue of marriages within gotras?

Because it’s an emotive issue on which they can mobilise. It’s not as if there isn’t any dissent—there’s the defiance of young couples—but they are not allowing this dissent to surface. The functioning of the panchayats is very authoritarian: women are not allowed to attend even if they are a party in the conflict, youngsters are not allowed to speak, and all the decisions are taken as unanimous ones—which they are not. It’s neither a democratic body nor a grassroots one, as it’s made out to be.

There has been no effective movement against them, has there?

Whatever resistance there has been, it has been led by women. I think women’s groups in the villages should be encouraged more.

The violence is because of the shrinking matrimonial pool?

Yes, it’s a very tight situation and I think the khap panchayats should behave themselves. Instead of opening out the marriage market, they are tightening it further. Historically, the khap panchayats, from time to time, even in the British period, opened out the marriage market by declaring that people of such and such gotra not allowed to marry earlier, may now marry. It happened in 1946, 1947, even as late as 1995. Why can’t they do it now?

What changes do you propose?

You can’t do away with them because they are old institutions, but I would suggest they take the reformist agenda. Surely, the government can put pressure on them to take up issues like female foeticide, infanticide, dowry, ostentatious weddings, even inter- and intra-caste marriages. But, instead, they are trying to appropriate judicial powers.

Why are they focusing solely on the issue of marriages within gotras?

Because it’s an emotive issue on which they can mobilise. It’s not as if there isn’t any dissent—there’s the defiance of young couples—but they are not allowing this dissent to surface. The functioning of the panchayats is very authoritarian: women are not allowed to attend even if they are a party in the conflict, youngsters are not allowed to speak, and all the decisions are taken as unanimous ones—which they are not. It’s neither a democratic body nor a grassroots one, as it’s made out to be.

There has been no effective movement against them, has there?

Whatever resistance there has been, it has been led by women. I think women’s groups in the villages should be encouraged more.

Arpita Basu, Chander Suta Dogra and Neha Bhatt, Justice by death, Outlookindia.com, July 12, 2010. Original URL: http://www.outlookindia.com/article.aspx?266074

Brothers In Arms

  • June 29: Asas Mohammed from Muzaffarnagar, UP, arrested for murdering sister’s boyfriend
  • June 20: Ankit Chaudhary, Mandeep Nagar of Delhi’s Wazirpur village accused of shooting dead their sisters Monica and Shobha, and Monica’s husband Kuldeep
  • June 20: Six people booked for the death of Monika and her lover Pinku, including her two brothers, in Bhiwani district of Haryana
  • June 8: Cousins Dharmender and Ranbeer from Chauna village near Ghaziabad, UP, arrested for murdering their cousin Rekha’s boyfriend, Pramod
  • June 1: Pravendra, a lad from Kherwa village, near Lucknow, allegedly killed sister Pushpa, because of her lover
  • May 12: Brothers Anshu, Amit, along with other family members arrested for murdering their pregnant sister Rajni in Allahabad
  • May 11: Brothers, father and uncles of newly-wed Gurleen Kaur, who married against their wishes, accused of hacking her to death in Tarn Taran district, Punjab

***

There seemed to be an unusually high number of people “new” to north Delhi’s Wazirpur village (and therefore, unable to direct us) on the afternoon we tried to find our way to Ankit Gujjar Chaudhary and Mandeep Nagar’s homes. In the narrow alleys, bordered by fair price shops, grocery stores, godowns and printing workshops, their names clearly spawned unease. Yet, had they not been in jail, this duo might have been part of the many street-corner huddles we passed: groups of young men perched on bikes, talking to each other or into their mobile phones under a canopy of electric cables and rungs of balconies, in no apparent hurry to go anywhere or get anything done.

[image deleted.]

Barely into their 20s, Ankit and Mandeep—accused, along with their friend Nakul Khari, of killing Ankit’s sister Monica, brother-in-law Kuldeep and also Mandeep’s sister Shobha—aren’t an aberration in the ‘honour killing’ fields of northern India. Indeed, they’re not far removed from the textbook version, described by Haryana police officer Subhash Yadav thus: “school dropouts, angootha-chhap men…and those who, despite wanting to, have been unable to leave the village confines”.

Wazirpur is affluent enough as a village and the allegedly murderous trio did attend the neighbourhood government school. But none of them considered a college degree useful. Perhaps because, for the young men here, rents come in far more handy. As Wazirpur’s pradhan Subhash Khari explains, for over 20 years now, its once-agricultural Rajput and Gujjar families have been living off them, earning at least Rs 40,000 a month, thanks to the proximity of the Wazirpur Industrial Area. Dr Shamsul Islam, principal of the nearby Satyawati College, reveals that as few as around 10 male students from the village study there.

Recalling the historic role of this Gujjar belt in the 1857 mutiny, he adds regretfully, “Surviving on rents, most young boys don’t feel the need to work. The girls are faring much better.”

When it comes to charting their own course in life, too, the girls seem to have got it right. “We have doctors, engineers and air hostesses,” says a Wazirpur resident, whose daughter works at an embassy. On the young men, though, the responses are quite different. As a lady we met put it, “Bikes hai, phone hai, paisa hai, aur kya chahiye?” And, profiling a typical local youth, N.S. Bundela, dcp Northwest, does not mince words, “Ruffian, irresponsible and mostly educated only till high school.” It does echo the derisive comment of Haryana constable Seema Banwala, herself the sister of an ‘honour’ killing victim, “In our villages, women do all the work while the boys play cards, drink and sleep.”

So is there an inferiority complex festering among men being left behind by women driven by a new-found confidence and ambition? Is that why young men are throwing away their futures to defend “honour”? The differences in male-female trajectories notwithstanding, activists like Shiela of Janwadi Mahila Samiti caution against assuming that relatively trivial emotions like envy or sibling rivalry have a substantial role to play in such killings.

 
 
 
   
 
 
 

The issue goes far deeper. “When a girl chooses her own partner in defiance of norms, she is signalling that she has an equal status in society and under the law. The overriding sentiment is that she has to be stopped at all costs,” she says. Given the lurking threat that she may now claim her property rights, it’s a sentiment easily bought by poorly educated young men over-dependent on land. After all, as Ravi Kant, Supreme Court advocate and president of Shakti Vahini, an NGO that filed a PIL against “honour” killings, points out, “They know that with splintering holdings, it can’t be their cash cow forever; nor fuel their fantasies of a fancy urban lifestyle.” Moreover, with their lack of exposure to a professional world, the Ankits and Mandeeps are perfect receptacles for a warped notion of tradition, and primitive codes on exogamy and patriarchy. Kant adds that because of the dismal sex ratio in these parts, there is also a strong view that if a suitor from an off-limits social stratum lays claim to the closely guarded pool of women, he must pay.“It’s relevant that the perpetrators are young and can be persuaded to commit these crimes, with the assurance that they will be seen as champions of morality,” says Surinder Jodhka, professor of sociology, Jawaharlal Nehru University. Barely have the bullets been fired that the talking-up begins. Shobha’s uncle Dharamveer Nagar was quick to declare: “Samaj ke liye yeh murder zaroori tha”. But even the Supreme Court must face its share of blame. While revoking the death sentence of Mumbai girl Sushma Tiwari’s 24-year-old brother, who killed her ‘low-caste’ husband, father-in-law and two minors, it said: “It is a common experience that when the younger sister commits something unusual and in this case, it was an inter-caste, intercommunity marriage out of [a] secret love affair, then in society it is the elder brother who justifiably or otherwise is held responsible for not stopping such [an] affair.”

Jodhka sums up the situation of young men caught in a social and spatial warp: “They don’t want to stay in the villages and pursue agriculture, but they have a stake in the traditional community. Since they have failed to be successful on their own merit, they have no option but to come back to their village institutions, and align themselves with its patriarchal structure.”

What follows is a misplaced belief that the very community that hails them, will rescue them if apprehended. And so the young crusaders for ‘justice’, the upholders of ‘tradition’, the pillars of caste purity, pull triggers, raise axes and jab knives to set their sisters right: fervently tied rakhis and shared childhood memories be damned.

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