Tamil Nadu Perspective: Draft National Policy for Women

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THE DRAFT NATIONAL POLICY FOR WOMEN: A TAMIL NADU PERSPECTIVE

Swarna Rajagopalan and Ragamalika Karthikeyan

One of the shortcomings of the Draft National Policy for Women 2016 is that it does not reflect regional concerns. Perhaps the expectation is that each state will come up with its own Policy guidelines but given the weakness of State Commissions for Women, there is no institutional advocate in most states that could push for such a document, leave alone engineer the consultations and debates that should precede the drafting of this document. Moreover, in the absence of truly wide-ranging consultations that reach beyond the usual suspects, the recommendations or guidelines as they stand are silent on a lot of key concerns for women.

Based on the experiences of women in Tamil Nadu in the last few years, we at Prajnya drew up a short list of concerns that they would be well-served to have included in the National Draft Policy.

I. Sexual and gender based inter-caste violence (‘Honour’ crimes): Since June 2013, civil society estimates 88 ‘honour’ killings in Tamil Nadu, with caste-mobs murdering young inter-caste couples, and sometimes even their families. Falling in love or marrying outside of caste boundaries is often threatened with sexual violence and murder. With no official estimates of such crimes, justice is often delayed or denied.

The Draft National Policy as it stands does not consider the gendered consequences of the overlap of vulnerabilities—when caste or socio-economic status or minority or ethnic status already place you at a disadvantage, both women and men are even more vulnerable to human rights violations, including sexual and gender-based violence.

II. The challenges faced by women refugees living in and out of camps in Tamil Nadu: There are over one lakh Sri Lankan refugees living in Tamil Nadu, close to 65,000 of them in refugee camps. Many of them live in cramped spaces without basic amenities like access to water and sanitation. Women and girls in these camps face sexual and gender based violence which goes frequently unreported. While life as refugees in India is difficult, going back to an unstable home in Sri Lanka is not an option for many.

Displacement is a reality across India—both refugees and internally displaced persons. Women make up at least half of these numbers and yet, the Draft National Policy does not acknowledge or address their problems.

III. Women and disasters: There is just one paragraph that mentions women’s needs in disaster contexts. Given the present frequency of climate change and human-made disasters, a gender-sensitive disaster risk reduction and mitigation policy is an urgent need that needs to be emphasised strongly.

In states like Tamil Nadu, women are vulnerable to both natural (and climate change) disasters like last year’s floods as well as the slow disasters that might result from human-planned development and industrial projects gone awry. The National Policy should mandate their inclusion with voice in consultations and decision-making at every turn–from project planning, to land acquisition negotiations, to resettlement planning and to safety planning.

IV. Workplace-related guidelines: While the Draft National Policy does address livelihood issues at length and emphasise the importance of workplace protections, we would like to draw attention to three situations where Tamil Nadu women would benefit from stronger national guidelines to protect their rights.

a. Forced and bonded labour of women and girls in spinning mills: A study conducted by civil society organisations says about 100,000 girls and women are being exploited as bonded labour in the textile industry in the state, and frequently face sexual violence at the workplace. Following the suspicious death of a teenager in Tirupur in March, investigations have revealed poor living conditions, and exploitative ‘schemes’ endangering the safety and health of young women.

b. Minimum wage for domestic workers in Tamil Nadu: Domestic workers are not covered under the Minimum Wages Act, and while some states have fixed a minimum wage, Tamil Nadu is not among them. There is also little awareness about their rights among domestic workers. Workplace sexual harassment, health insurance, decent working conditions are other areas of concern.

c. Enumeration of manual scavengers, abolition of manual scavenging: While the TN Govt has claimed there are only 210 manual scavengers in the state, both the National Commission for Scheduled Castes as well as civil society organisations have rejected this number. The state has over 2 lakh unsanitary toilets, and as many as 27,659 households are serviced manually, with another 26,020 households serviced by animals. Night soil is usually collected by Dalit women, and this inhuman practice, while officially abolished, still persists.

V. Single women living in poverty: Destitute, deserted and never married women (especially those over 35 years) living in urban slums and rural areas deserve social support. The National Policy should acknowledge their special needs.*

VI. Enabling Environment: The TN State Women’s Commission has been less and less active in the last decade, chaired by political appointees who have rarely reached out to women’s groups and other parts of civil society. The State and National Commissions are uniquely placed to serve as a bridge between government and civil society, and when they are more or less moribund, they are a wasted opportunity for a strong partnership between the two for social change. Civil society loses and institutional ally and the government loses the ability to genuinely connect with the public.

The National Policy for Women should re-imagine the Women’s Commissions in a stronger form and mandate their constitution as an independent, well-resourced and pro-active body.

*Point V is the contribution of Ms. Renuka Bala of the Centre for Women’s Development Research. 

EPW Featured Theme on Khap Panchayats (and Gender Violence)

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The Economic and Political Weekly website carries a featured theme with EPW articles on khap panchayats which have been in the news lately for all the wrong reasons. The full-text versions are available only to subscribers but these citations are important and so they are blogged here for future reference. 

Ravinder Kaur, Khap Panchayats, Sex Ratio and Female Agency, EPW, Vol XLV No.23 June 05, 2010.

Abstract: While many intelligent reasons have been proffered for the recent resurgence of khap panchayats in Haryana and western Uttar Pradesh and their actions vis-à-vis self-choice marriages, two very important aspects of the phenomenon need to be highlighted. The first is the impact of the abysmal sex ratio, which is a result of rampant female sex selective abortions, neglect of girl children and a minuscule but still present female infanticide. The second is that it is only women in this male-dominated society who have publicly stood up to the might of the khap panchayats and are challenging their writ.

Ranbir Singh, The Need to Tame the Khap Panchayats, EPW, Vol XLV No.21 May 22, 2010.

Abstract: It will require a concerted effort by the polity, civil society and media to take on the khap panchayats, an anachronistic institution that derives its legitimacy from a feudal past. Instead, due to electoral considerations, the polity in states like Haryana has bowed to the clout of these khaps and has even provided them overt and covert support.

Editorial, Khaps, Castes and Violence EPW, Vol XLV No.18 May 01, 2010.

Abstract: Decrees by khap panchayats and violence against dalits paint a gruesome picture of rural Haryana.

Bhupendra Yadav, Khap Panchayats: Stealing Freedom? EPW,  Vol 44 No.52 December 26, 2009

Abstract: Khap or caste panchayats wield much more power than the statutory panchayats in states like Haryana and order harsh punitive measures against couples who marry within the gotra. Even powerful politicians do not dare invoke the law against them. However, in a couple of recorded cases, the aggrieved women have dared to come out in public and demand action against these khap panchayats.

Editorial, Above the Law, Vol 44 No.32 August 08, 2009

Abstract: How may the “œtraditional”authority of the caste panchayats be undermined? Mahi Pal, Haryana : Caste and Patriarchy in Panchayats, EPW, Vol 39 No.32 August 07, 2004.

Abstract: The caste system and patriarchy still exercise a stranglehold on Haryana’s panchayat institutions making a mockery of decentralised governance. The women elected representatives need adequate support systems as well as education to make them effective leaders.

In the news: Honour killings in South India

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In keeping with the spate of news stories and comment pieces on honour killings, The New Indian Express carried a series  on honour killings in the South.

Gokul Vannan, Caste shadows on love and The Story of Madurai Veeran

P Hareesh, Honour in murders motivated by greed exists

In the news: Honour killings in Tamil Nadu

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The Times of India, Chennai, carried several stories last week on honour killings in Tamil Nadu. One of our Prajnya volunteers, Shalini Umachandran, has contributed.

Shalini Umachandran and Padmini Sivarajah/TNN, Honour killings haunt women in TN too: Deepa, Times of India, July 7, 2010.

“Chennai/Madurai: Megala decided to follow her heart. And paid a heavy price for it, losing her lover and being attacked and ostracised by her family and community in Manamadurai.

“The latest in a series of such attacks on women in the state, the Megala case dispels the popular notion that ‘honour killings’ are confined to Punjab, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh in the north; southern states such as Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh too witness similar incidents periodically. Many of them are sparked off when educated single women walk out of their homes and choose their own partners, sometimes from another community or caste.

“Honour crimes and killings take place when young people challenge accepted norms of marriage, according to a study commissioned by the National Commission for Women (NCW). Megala, 20, and Sivakumar, 24, were told they couldn’t marry as they were related. Her family married her off in June. Ten days after the wedding, she ran away with Sivakumar. Her family tracked the couple down and attacked Sivakumar with ‘aruvaals’. Sivakumar died on the spot, and his killers, who included her father and brother, have been arrested. Megala, now in hospital, says that everyone in her village, including her mother, feels that the punishment is justified as she brought shame to her village and the Thevar community to which she belongs.

“The accusation against her are virtually the same as those made against victims in north India. The NCW study, still underway, shows that of the 326 cases of conflict surveyed so far nationwide, 72% were because the couple crossed caste barriers and only 3% were because the couple were from the same gotra. “Women are making their own choices and in a patriarchal set-up this causes problems,” says Ravi Kant, Supreme Court advocate and president of Shakti Vahini, the organisation that is conducting the study for NCW.

“Activists in Tamil Nadu endorse this view. “Honour killings are not unheard of in TN. The basis is usually caste, more often than not a Dalit boy marrying an upper caste girl,” says U Vasuki, general secretary, All-India Democratic Women’s Association (AIDWA).

“But there is no data available to indicate the extent of the problem, primarily because cases are registered as murder under the IPC without charges to indicate that it may be an honour killing. If the case involves a Dalit and a non-Dalit, it is registered under the SC/ST Prevention of Atrocities Act.”

Shalini Umachandran, Victim count in honour crimes stays hidden, Times of India, July 7, 2010.

“Chennai: The lack of a specific law to tackle honour crimes, coupled with the reluctance of police to register cases, leads to difficulties in counting the number of victims, say lawyers and activists. “Many people say ‘honour killings don’t happen in our state’,” says Ravi Kant, Supreme Court advocate and president of Shakti Vahini, an organisation conducting a study on honour killings for National Commission for Women. “It happens across the country, it’s just that we can’t count the cases since they are not registered under the ‘honour killings.”

“Honour crimes are registered under general sections of the Indian Penal Code as instances of assault, battery or homicide. If the case involves a dalit and a non-dalit, it is filed under the SC/ST Prevention of Atrocities Act as a caste-based crime. “Here, honour killings are not as rampant as in north India but they do happen and are often hushed up,” says U Vasuki, general secretary, All-India Democratic Women’s Association (AIDWA). “In Tamil Nadu, caste is the main motive behind an honour killing. The SC/ST act is stringent enough when the killings are carried out by individuals. But there are cases in which the entire community is involved — when khap and katta panchayats order killings, then you need a separate act to deal with it and instil fear in people,” she says.

“Police too are reluctant to challenge existing caste equations. “The police have a rather callous approach to caste issues. They feel these are family matters and do not like to interfere,” says Vasuki. Tirunelveli district SP Asra Garg says an honour killing is always preceded by threats and other minor attacks. “Action should be taken at this point. Intervention is the key to prevent the situation from escalating,” he says. Advocate Geeta Ramaseshan adds, “There are many other forms of violence that are not addressed — the woman being kept under house arrest, forcibly married off to another man, being threatened into submission. But who will file these complaints for the police to act?”

“Megala, the woman who was attacked on Monday and whose lover was killed, told a fact-finding team from Evidence, an organisation working in the field of human rights, that her family had kept her locked up for a month when they found she had fallen in love with her cousin, Sivakumar. She was then married off to an older man. When she ran away with Sivakumar, the family hunted them down and killed him.

“A Kathir, executive director of Evidence, says this was a classic case. “The immediate family is involved. If a complaint is filed as is required in the case of murder, it’s hard to make the charges stick. Witnesses often turn hostile as they are threatened,” he says. Garg says they provide protection to witnesses and complainants. “But if they refuse to cooperate or money plays a role, then we are helpless,” he says.”

V Mayilvaganan/TNN, Breaking caste barrier proved fatal, The Times Of India Chennai, July 7, 2010.

“Cuddalore: It was one gruesome incident of honour killing that shook the state in 2003. Newlywed D Kannagi (22) from the backward Vanniyar caste and her Dalit husband S Murugesan (25) — both graduates — were hounded, hunted down, harassed and killed by the girl’s parents and relatives. They were killed in the most brutal way. They were forcefed poison with about a dozen persons watching them die slowly in their native Puthukooraipettai village near Vriddachalam in Cuddalore district.

“A chemical engineer, Murugesan fell in love with Kannagi, a commerce graduate, during their college days at Annamalai University in Chidambaram. Fully aware that their families would not approve their affair, Murgesan and Kannagi married discretely soon after they completed their graduation in May. They, however, continued to live in their respective houses until Murugesan got a job.

“A top grader, Murugesan managed to get a job in Tirupur in a month and on July 3 Kannagi went to Tirupur with Murugesan. Kannagi’s father Duraisamy, who was also the Puthukooraipettai panchayat president, and his relatives had been furiously hunting for the couple. Four days later, Murugesan came to the village hoping to sneak away after taking the academic certificates from his house. However, he was caught. “He was tortured the whole day, with his relatives demanding that he reveal the location of Kannagi. The harassment continued throughout the night. When it turned unbearable, he disclosed the details of where Kannagi was staying,’’ said S Velmurugan, brother of Murugesan who was 19 years old then. Kannagi was brought to the village.

“It was then that the cruel episode unfolded. Duraisamy and his relatives allegedly fed the young couple with a poisonous drink even as relatives stood mute witnesses.

“Their bodies were burnt and disposed. “Even now there is lot of pressure to withdraw the case,” says Velmurugan. The case is being investigated by the CBI. Advocate P Rathnam said he has filed a writ in the high court seeking fresh probe.”

V Mayilvaganan/TNN, Honour killings have a southern twist, Times of India, July 7, 2010.

“Thanjavur: Lakshmi has never hated anyone like she does her brothers. A victim of ‘honour’ killing, she no longer likes her caste either. Hailing from a middle class family of Kallars – a dominant backward caste – in the agrarian Tiruvarur district, 31-year-old Lakshmi now lives with her Dalit in-laws for the past one and half years. But, her husband Sivaji is no more. He was brutally murdered by her brothers in 2008, barely six months after she got married to him, just because he was a dalit.

““Though we were constantly worried about being tracked down by my brothers, we were having the happiest days of our life. We had rented a house at Malampatti village near Dindigul with the help of my husband’s friend,” recalls Lakshmi.

“It was exactly five years ago that Lakshmi, a plus-two dropout, met Sivaji, an auto driver from the nearby Haridwaramangalam village who used to drive by her Magimai village daily. She was 26 years old then and Sivaji 29. The feudal caste hierarchy did not stop them. Soon the young couple were deeply in love.

“Reality struck them when Lakshmi’s family learnt about the affair. Her brothers Subramanian and Sivakumar were furious at the prospect of their sister having an affair with a dalit. They threatened her and asked her to discontinue the relationship immediately.

““But I ignored the warnings and decided to marry Sivaji. I left the house and went to Dindigul along with him on March 4, 2008.” Solemnised by their friends, Lakshmi and Sivaji got married at a temple in Dindigul the same day. It was six months later that her brothers managed to track her down.

““They somehow learnt that we were in Dindigul. I later learnt that my brothers had rented a house in Dindigul and were searching for us for over a month. On September 7, around 6am someone knocked on our door. When my husband unlocked it, my brothers barged into the house and dragged my husband out. Even as I screamed, they dumped him into a car and fled away,’’ Lakshmi recalled.

“A day later Sivaji’s body was found near Grand Anicut in Thanjavur with cut injuries. Sivakumar, Subramanian and three others were arrested after a few days’ search. Now they are out on bail and trial is on. Lakshmi lives with her mother -in-law Chellamma. “I would sometimes wonder why I was born in such a family,” says Lakshmi.”

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.

In the news: stricter laws against honour killings?

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Stricter law against honour killings coming: Moily

Union Minister for Law and Justice M Veerappa Moily says the Centre is coming up with a stricter provision in the law to stop honour killings

Alarmed by the steep rise in suspected honour killings, the central government has decided to bring in a Bill providing for prosecution of the entire khap panchayat for ordering violent punishment for young couples marrying against their diktats.

The central government will soon come out with a law against honour killings, and a draft has already been prepared, Law and Justice Minister M Veerappa Moily said on June 27, 2010.

“Several incidents of honour killing have been reported recently, which stunned the people. And I am also concerned and worried about the rise in such incidents,” said Moily after attending a regional meeting with chief justices of the Calcutta, Patna, Orissa and Jharkhand high courts and the law ministers of the four states.

According to Moily, under the new law members of khap panchayats who order the killing of couples who dare to go against the dictates of these panchayats will be treated as accomplices in the crime. Such cases will be tried by fast-track courts to provide speedy justice to the victims.

The Supreme Court too has taken serious note of the so-called honour killings and has sought the response of the central government and eight states including Haryana, Punjab, Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Jharkhand. It has directed the authorities to explain measures being taken to prevent such terrible crimes.

Source: The Hindustan Times, June 28, 2010
The Indian Express, June 28, 2010