Honor killings—in which families murder their own children for defying the elders’ wishes for their marriage—have become so frequent in North India we hardly have time to absorb news of one before another is reported.

The Indian Supreme Court recently ordered the governments of six states (including Punjab and Haryana, two of India’s wealthiest) to end the practice. The number of victims reported each year varies (from four hundred to a thousand), but civil-rights groups claim even the higher figure is too low, because many such killings are called suicides or not reported at all.

The term “honor killing” implies a certain degree of virtue—a wronged citizen is forced by his own higher standards to take the law into his hands to protect his family’s name. Under an archaic community legal system, a khap panchayat, or village council, believes it can still order that an offending couple, or just the woman alone, be killed. The woman’s own family is expected to carry out the sentence.

The community is so united that those directly responsible have no problem admitting to the crime or claiming it was justified. In June, for example, a nineteen-year-old woman and her twenty-one-year-old boyfriend were beaten mercilessly in Delhi and finally electrocuted by the woman’s father and uncle. “I have no regrets,” the uncle later told reporters, explaining that the couple’s intercaste relationship was against the family’s beliefs and had brought shame on them all. “I would punish them again if given another chance.”

Attacks are sometimes publicly witnessed. The bodies of the victims may be displayed as a warning to others. The involvement of the village council in many of the killings adds a dimension of authority to what might otherwise be seen for what it is: vigilante vengeance carried out in broad daylight.

Politicians have been reluctant to speak out against panchayat policies because the local councils can deliver blocs of votes. In June, India’s governing Union Cabinet met to discuss the issue and decided that the existing Indian Penal Code on murder should be amended to specifically include “honor killings.” It also decided that when such acts were ordered by the panchayat all members present should be tried for conspiracy and incitement.

In a landmark judgment three months before, a court in Haryana had done just that. It sentenced five panchayat members to death for the murder of a couple who had married against the wishes of the community. Perhaps more radically, the council president was also tried and sentenced to life imprisonment for incitement to murder. It was the first time a victim’s family (in this case, the man’s) had ever won in court after a panchayat had ruled against him.

The proposed amendment might have ensured more such judgments, but statements against it by prominent politicians—some from the ruling party—cast doubt on the government’s commitment. Naveen Jindal, a ruling-party MP from Kurukshetra, next door to the town where the controversial judgment came down, praised panchayats, saying, “I and my family have always respected society’s traditions, customs, beliefs, and culture.” While he later clarified that he does not condone honor killings, it was clear that he was not prepared to distance himself from his base.

That base, however, gave Prime Minister Manmohan Singh concern. He worried that simply amending the penal code was not strong enough to send a clear message. As a result, a new law was drafted, similar to the one outlawing sati (the self-immolation of widows). It will come before the next session of Parliament.

The problem may be more complicated than the age-old custom of men trying to control women and their choices regarding marriage and sexuality. (It is almost always the woman’s family that objects and carries out the sentence.) Nor is it simply a matter of intercaste marriage, which is allowed by law but rejected by 74 percent of the population.

In a recent incident, Monica and Kuldeep, an intercaste couple married for four years, were shot dead, along with Monica’s cousin, Shobha. Brothers of the two women did the shooting. The case was unusual not only because the killing took place so long after the wedding, but also because of the murder of the cousin—apparently an innocent bystander. But by the brothers’ reckoning, Shobha wasn’t “innocent” at all. She too had run off with a boyfriend some years before, and although she had eventually returned alone, she had insulted the family honor.

Prem Chowdhry, a fellow at the Indian Council of Historical Research in New Delhi, isn’t surprised. As I reported in an earlier column, female feticide in India has led to a ratio of eight women to ten men in some areas. As a result, according to Chowdhry, more women now have the opportunity to “marry up”—Monica’s husband came from a higher caste—leaving many lower-caste men without the option to marry.

In Monica and Kuldeep’s old neighborhood, the Guardian reported (June 25), all the boys agreed that the couple had it coming. “Whatever happened is for the best. There’s a limit to how much you can take,” said seventeen-year-old Rohit. “I’d do the same to my sister.”

It’s not Rohit’s fault the elders in his community preferred boys to girls so much that they succeeded in skewing the sex ratio. But he and his friends are paying the price in limited options, a sense of powerlessness, and frustration that surfaces in misdirected violence. The Indian legal system, however, may finally give them something to reckon with.

Jo McGowan, a longtime contributor to Commonweal, writes from Dehradun, India.

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Published in the 2010-09-10 issue: View Contents
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