Thursday, 15 April 2010

No honor or records in India's 'honor killings'

In the past ten odd years, Haryana has been known for its rapid modernism mainly through the development of its retail capital, Gurgaon. But, sprawling malls, innumerous call centers and flamboyant cars, do not necessarily make a state modern.

The spate of recent honor killings in Haryana, have been a grim reminder of its deeply entrenched feudal system, which exists discordantly alongside the glitz of corporate high rises and an often obscene show of wealth.

Last week, a brother in Sonepat was arrested for strangling his sister, who eloped with a boy she was in love with. A day later the boy committed suicide. On April 12, a couple was found dead in a field in Bhiwani. The deceased, Anita and Vijay, were residents of the same village, belonged to the same sub caste and were neighbors.

This despite a landmark judgment passed by a Haryana court, on March 30, sentencing five people to death and one person to life imprisonment for killing a couple who married against panchayat-dictated societal norms. Manoj and Babli, who hailed from the same village in Kaithal district, had married against the wish of the girl’s family. Soon after their marriage, the couple was kidnapped while they were traveling in a bus and then killed. Orthodox Indian village councils consider men and women from the same village and sub caste to be siblings.

Panchayats or village councils are a system of self-governance that has long been prevalent in many rural parts of India. They are usually made up of village elders who settle disputes and intervene between individuals and neighboring villages.

“Some panchayats in Haryana are 2,000 years old and more,” said Layak Kumar Dabas, director of Haryana’s crime records bureau. “There weren’t any police in the villages then, but there were the panchayats.”

Honor killings are rampant in states like Haryana, Rajasthan, Punjab and Uttar Pradesh, but officials say they go largely unnoticed and unreported.

Families of the victims usually accept the diktat of the panchayats who have for long been their system of justice. “This panchayat system of social administration has been so ingrained in their mindsets, that they think nothing of it when extreme judgements are passed, and take it as the last word,” said Mr. Layak.

Societal shame is another factor that holds them back from reporting cases of gross violation of their kin’s human rights. Mr. Layak says being labeled as a person known to those punished by the panchayat is disgrace enough for villagers to recoil and stay mum.

Secondly, there is no official and accurate way to record cases of honor killings in India because under Indian penal law, such incidences falls under the general category of murder.

“There is no separate section under the IPC for honor crimes and hence we do not keep specific records for it. They all come under general murder,” A. K. Varma, chief statistics officer at the National Crime Records Bureau in New Delhi said.

Mr. Layak, who has been with Haryana’s crime records bureau since the past 3 years, says the state saw around four reported cases of honor killings in 2008 and five in 2009, but that the numbers were not a reflection of the reality on ground. “The actual number of cases may be significantly higher, but societal shame, fear of isolation and discrimination discourage people from disputing the panchayat’s decisions,” he said. Accoring to him, most cases in Haryana are seen in the districts of Karnal, Jind, Bhiwani and Hisar.

The low reported incidence of honor killings and its generalization under murder, also makes it difficult for human rights organizations like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch to track its prevalence.

Such organizations rely on media reports and other local non profits for information on its incidence, says Ramesh.Gopalakrishnan, part of Amnesty International’s South Asia team.

“I recoil in shame when I read the newspapers,” Home Minister P. Chidambaram said, in the Rajya Sabha last year. “The vilest crimes are committed in the name of defending the honor of the family or women and we should hang our heads in shame when such incidents take place in India in the 21st century.”

India is currently contemplating enacting a new legislation to deal with honor killings, after Attorney General G. E. Vahanvati responded in the affirmative to the home ministry’s query of whether or not such killings should be made a separate offence. No decision has been taken yet.

Till such time, the patriarchal panchayats will continue to wield their power on credulous villagers, stage protests against judgements that punish the perpetrators of honor killings and leave states like Haryana in flux – see sawing between its two paradoxical worlds of archaic and avant-garde.

An edited version of this piece appeared in The Wall Street Journal's India Real Time blog.

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