Till death do us apart

How many more must die for love before it's curtain call for khaps and their feudal power?
Shaweta Anand Delhi

Even though the recent film Khap elicited lukewarm response at the box-office, it did ruffle feathers within khaps (unelected, caste panchayats) of Haryana who demanded an immediate ban on the film. They said the film misrepresented Indian culture as it 'portrayed them in bad light'.

Despite the poor response, the film did succeed in boldly highlighting the barbaric, feudal acts that khaps have perpetrated against couples-in-love for the first time on silver screen, even if it meant going against the powerful political class of Haryana that openly supports khaps.

With an eye on the electoral equations, he has given them a kind hearing whenever they held khap mahapanchayats (large gatherings of many khaps) and demanded from him an amendment to the Hindu Marriage Act 1955 to criminalise same-gotra (clan/sub-caste) marriages, otherwise legal in India. Om Prakash Chautala, ex-chief minister from the opposition party, too, has raised the same demand with the Union home ministry in order to appease the upper-caste vote bank. Haryana Chief Minister Bhupinder Singh Hooda had also tacitly backed the khaps.

Not far behind in regressive politicking is a representative of the younger generation, foreign-educated MP and industrialist from Kurukshetra, Naveen Jindal. Despite his exposure to a more liberal society, he had glorified the role of feudal khaps in society, arguing that they have been playing an important role in the settlement of village issues since generations, much before the formal legal system came into being. It was only when the Congress high command asked him for a clarification after he had attended a khap mahapanchayat, that he slightly backtracked from his stand.

'Honour' crimes, whether committed by organised upper-caste khaps (mostly Jats and Rajputs as reported by popular media), or individuals, comprise a broad range of acts from quiet murders passed off as suicides, to pre-mediated, long-drawn public humiliation and social boycott of those targeted for forming alliances across caste (for instance, between upper-caste girl and Dalit boy), religion, or for making swagotra alliances (ie, within the same gotra. Historically, people from same gotra are believed to be descendents of the same rishi/saint, hence siblings, according to Hinduism.)

Besides, family 'honour' sometimes also gets violated if girls refuse to follow 'acceptable' dress-codes, refuse forced arranged marriages, or engage in homosexual relationships, as all these are blindly denounced as blasphemous, 'un-Indian' activities influenced by Western culture.

According to the draft bill circulated by CPM's women's wing, All India Democratic Women's Association (AIDWA) — The Prevention of Crimes in the Name of 'Honour' and Tradition Bill, 2010 — crime in the name of 'honour' comprises a range of violent or abusive acts, including emotional, physical, sexual abuse and other coercive acts by caste/community groups or individuals. The bill was submitted to the Union law minister last year, but no action has been taken upon it yet.

Commenting on the oppressive nature of khaps, activist Ranjana Kumari said that a Taliban-like diktat was issued by a recently convened khap panchayat in Uttar Pradesh. "It was decided at that meeting that young girls and women shouldn't be allowed to wear jeans or carry mobile phones so that they can be prevented from 'going astray'." Kumari was speaking at a recent consultation in Delhi on 'the socio-legal implications of honour killing' jointly organised by Women Power Connect (WPC) and Jagori at Vishwa Yuvak Kendra. To ensure effective policing of village girls, at that very meeting, five-member all-women teams were constituted to 'keep an eye' on them as their western attire would supposedly give rise to social evils like 'vulgarity' and 'eve-teasing', besides 'provoking them to elope' with someone.

Honour’ crimes comprise a broad range of acts from quiet murders passed off as suicides, to pre-mediated, long-drawn public humiliation and social boycott of those targeted for forming alliances across caste, religion, or for making alliances within the same gotra

It is, in fact, anti-women beliefs such as these that lead to crimes against women and those who support them – and this is often done in the name of safeguarding 'honour'. A large number of cases have been reported from rural and urban Haryana, western UP, Delhi and Punjab, with states like Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh, Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu catching up fast.

Under public pressure and progressive directions by the Supreme Court, the central government appointed a Group of Ministers (GoM) last year to look into the legislative aspect of preventing 'honour' crimes. Nothing much has come of that exercise as the concerned states are not cooperating (Haryana, in particular), law and order being a state subject.

While acknowledging that feudal-minded groups or individuals take 'corrective' action against people who break traditional social norms, Anju Dubey Pandey, a participant at the WPC-Jagori consultation, urged people to use language more consciously as it is a potent tool of politics.

For instance, the term 'honour crime' reiterates the unfair, women-centric implication of the word 'honour'. 'Dishonour crime' and 'horror crime' (used by Kumari) bring out more accurately the insensitivity, intolerance and ruthlessness of acts of violence against women who resist customs, and the people who support them. In fact, usage of 'dishonour crime' was accepted at WPC's consultation last year as these crimes certainly bring dishonour to perpetrators than protect their honour in any way.

While taking slight offence to the words used by one of the panelists when she was passionately narrating an instance of a khap panchayat wrongly punishing a couple-in-love, "because they were found in a compromising position", Pandey urged everyone to be cautious of such regressive expressions that are often used in describing mutual acts between consenting adults, as the concerned adults were only exercising their human rights.

Elaborating further, she affirmed, "Dishonour crimes should be seen as a far greater violation of basic human rights (and, therefore, in that framework, invoke the entire law-and-order machinery to pro-actively respond) than anything that can possibly result from the breaking of social norms. Our framework informs our politics and the solutions we suggest for resolving issues." Pandey is associated with UN Women South Asia. She spoke with this reporter in an exclusive interview.

To ensure effective policing of village girls, five-member all-women teams were constituted to ‘keep an eye’ on them as their western attire would supposedly give rise to social evils like ‘vulgarity’ and ‘eve-teasing’, besides ‘provoking them to elope’ with someone

Dr Jyotsna Chatterji, Director, Joint Women's Programme explained how the age-old practices that oppress women and the assertion of caste identity reinforce each other when khaps pronounce diktats against couples. She said, "This need to constantly establish one's caste identity is driven by deep-rooted patriarchal beliefs within groups, which in turn legitimises for them the domination by men and violence against women, including inciting or participating in dishonour crimes."

"Thus, efforts to preserve caste purity by khaps, and their justification for anti-women practices like controlling who they marry or live with, both go hand-in-hand. So to deal with one (casteism), one has to deal with the other (patriarchy) too," she elucidated.

A good illustration is the Supreme Court judgement on the Lata Singh case (2006) wherein the petitioner had married outside her caste against her brothers' wishes, who subsequently blatantly tormented her and her in-laws. The court categorically stated: "The caste system is a curse on the nation and the sooner it is destroyed the better. In fact, it is dividing the nation at a time when we have to be united to face challenges... Hence, inter-caste marriages are, in fact, in national interest as they will result in destroying the caste system."

The court rapped the police for not taking action against the erring brothers, upheld the inter-caste marriage of the petitioner, gave directions to institute criminal proceedings against the brothers, while simultaneously quashing the case of kidnapping and illegal confinement in Lucknow High Court, based on the FIR filed by Lata's brothers.

While the social punishment continues in the dishonour killing case of Manoj and Babli who were bludgeoned and drowned to death in 2007, their already traumatised families are still not allowed to lead normal lives. The psychological pain for Chandrapati (Manoj's mother) and Seema Kumari (his sister), who courageously went to Court against the khap, persists.

The torture was achieved by inflicting restrictions upon villagers. Soon after the couple was killed, a fine of Rs 25,000 was imposed on anyone who would interact with their family! Understandably, even the milkman discontinued engagement with them. Even though AIDWA has written to the Ministry of Home Affairs for their protection, threats to their safety abound as the family continues to oppose khaps.

"Unfortunately, the suffering of families that go against a handful of self-styled khap leaders is bound to happen as these are a powerful lot of men from higher caste and class, who command authority in the village and exploit the vulnerable as they please. Villagers are genuinely scared to go against their diktats," said Bharati Sud, Associate Professor at Satyawati College, DU, also a participant.

When it comes to asserting power and authority, many cases have been reported. Like the case of upper-caste men stopping Dalits from using well water in Jhajjar as their daughters 'ran away' with 'their' boy. The issue was 'resolved' only when the girls (one was with the boy, the other feared reprimand so escorted them) were brought back and duly butchered to retrieve 'family honour'.

Talking of instilling fear in villagers, even cops who marry outside caste have not been spared by khaps. Mewat-based khap attacked, boycotted and tried to break the marriage of a police officer-cum-champion wrestler from the Reserve Battalion, Bhondsi, who married within same gotra but as per Muslim tradition (to avoid complications). Despite legal action against them, his family still lives under constant threat.

Coming back to the Manoj-Babli case, even in death, what they achieved for couples-in-love was a landmark judgement by the Karnal district Court in 2010, when in a first-time conviction for 'honour' crimes, five people from Babli's family were awarded capital punishment, one was awarded life imprisonment and another, seven years in jail.

However, a recent Punjab and Haryana High Court judgement commuted death penalty to four convicts to life imprisonment and let go two others, including the main conspirator, Congress leader and head of khap, Ganga Ram. This has brought back shivers to the already ostracised family of Manoj, his mother and sister, who fear for their life and safety.

"What can one achieve if the judiciary is also patriarchal and either doesn't punish at all or gives reduced punishment in cases of dishonour crime," wondered Pandey, though not in particular reference to the Manoj-Babli case.

Most speakers on the panel agreed that dishonour crimes related to 'honour' reposed in women, who are primarily conceptualised as male possessions in a patriarchal world order. So when an 'unsuitable' match takes away the girl, it is a loss of 'honour' for that family. The family then fights back for its 'honour' by targeting, even killing the girl and her accomplices, as has often been reported.

" That women are not treated equal to men is clear from the high rates of female feticide, poor education and lack of opportunities for women," lamented Kumari. "In fact, women don't even get to participate in unilateral decisions that khaps take as they are not even allowed to step on their chabutara (raised platform). Though now, few women are made visible at some places to avoid the tag of khap panchayats being male-dominated institutions," she said.

Condemning all forms of violence against women, including dishonour crimes, Mamta Sharma, Chairperson, National Commission for Women, promised her solidarity with civil society organisations while urging them to engage with people in the villages and to generate awareness amongst them.

Promising support was Devika Singh Chauhan from the newly instituted National Mission for Empowerment for Women, which was inaugurated by the President of India Pratibha Patil last year.

The mission has a mandate to achieve inter-sectoral convergence for all pro-women programmes across various ministries of the government, including helping complainants who have been targets of dishonour crimes.

A point of debate was whether a stand-alone law was needed to deal with the issue at hand. Supreme Court advocate Meenakshi Lekhi was of the opinion that existing laws were sufficient and needed effective implementation.

She emphasised that feminists should behave like 'one caste of women' and not fight over whether or not to have a special law for dishonour killing. In reference to a recent Supreme Court judgment that terms 'honour' killing as 'rarest of the rare cases' deserving death penalty, she said, "We should try and get law-of-the-land enforced."

(Interestingly, Haryana CM Bhupinder Singh Hooda doesn't want a new law on 'honour' killing either. In his response to the specially appointed GoM for considering legislative measures regarding 'honour' crimes, he was of the opinion that new law was unnecessary as present laws were 'sufficient'.)

Ravi Kant, however, disagreed with this point. According to him, amendments in existing law were crucial for instance in the Special Marriage Act (to make marriage procedure less lengthy and painful for couples as it is an alliance between consenting adults) and the Indian Evidence Act (to put onus of proving innocence on the perpetrators), besides supporting a new legislation to tackle these crimes. Kant is also a Supreme Court advocate and is the Executive Director of Shakti Vahini.

"Just like there were laws made to deal with social malpractices like sati pratha (widow burning) and dowry, there should also be a well-defined legislation on dishonour crimes that stipulates the severest punishment to law-breakers," vouched Ranjana Kumari. "Since it is a specific social problem, we need a specific law to deal with it," she stressed.

The Law Commission, Ministry of Law and Justice, has come out in support of a special legislation to deal with 'honour' killings while turning down the proposal to amend IPC Section 300 (murder) by adding a clause defining 'honour' killing as that would 'create confusion and interpretational difficulties'.

The term ‘honour crime’ reiterates the unfair, women-centric implication of the word ‘honour’. ‘Dishonour crime’ and ‘horror crime’ bring out more accurately the insensitivity, intolerance and ruthlessness of acts of violence against women who resist customs, and the people who support them

A recent draft bill on 'honour' killings titled 'The Endangerment of Life and Liberty (protection, prosecution and other measures) Act 2011', stipulates a three-five year imprisonment along with a fine of Rs 30,000 for caste-groups assembling with an intention of endangering lives or liberty of couples who want to marry. Those booked would face civil sanctions too; they would not be able to contest elections of hold public positions till five years of conviction.

Towards the concluding session of the WPC-Jagori meet, suggestions were discussed regarding future action. Smita Thakur of Jagori felt that all women need to start asserting themselves even at home for being able to ultimately stop dishonour killing – an anti-women act at its core. "We should promise ourselves that we will not tolerate dishonour crimes and resist them if they happen in front of us," she emphatically declared. There was a suggestion of social networking from the audience to unite people over this common cause, but again, as Sud argued, social networking is limited and can at best be a method of sharing information, but it is no substitute for real protests that happen in the streets. Tara Appachu Sharma, a gender consultant, suggested that there should be protests against dishonour crimes the same day all over the country to build a momentum and drive home the point. Lekhi said that 'flash protests' should be held at various places, especially outside the Delhi house of khap-supporting MP, Naveen Jindal to sensitise him.

Chatterji opined that to deal with the issue of dishonour crimes, one has to see them coming from a deeply casteist and patriarchal mindset of society. "Any changes will become effective only when they come from the bottom, after active engagement with people. Just law won't be enough," she said.