Conflict With Modernity – Honour Killings In India

Jean from Cheerful Monk and my friend Anil who wrote the guest post on Defilements have raised the question of honour killings in India, an idea about which you can get from here and here. I believe that I should explain this phenomenon to my readers in some detail. That is difficult unless I explain the present state of Indian civilisation to start with.

At the outset, I wish to categorically state that I am not justifying honour killings. I am simply giving the sociological background to the phenomenon. Indian law treats honour killings like any other murder and the killers are prosecuted for the crimes and punished. Neither the victims nor the killers are however, stoned to death after being buried up to their necks. It is also to be impressed here that for every relationship that ends in honour killing, there are scores of inter caste marriages that take place, which of course do not merit attention from the media.

India is split into many categories. Language, religion, caste, sub-caste, urban, semi-urban, rural, tribal, educated, uneducated, literate, illiterate, poor, rich, middle class, young, old, aging, and so on so forth and overriding all these categories, will be gender. India is a federation of 28 states, seven federally administered Union Territories and 28 official languages and several hundred spoken dialects.

To generalise or stereotype AN Indian from such diversity among 1.18 billion people, is therefore next to impossible.

It is a complex nation, but a functioning democratic republic, well on the way to becoming a major global power. What cements this diversity into one recognizable whole, is predominantly the major religion, called Hinduism, which too is unclassifiable as a religion for it is more anarchic than a structured religion as is popularly understood in the West. Please see my post on Ganesha for more information. Along with Hinduism, the other religions of India share some common values, influenced by the root caste system, buttressed by the influence of Islam and Christianity that was brought into the land by conquest and colonialism. None of the latter religions have been able to eradicate the caste system among the converts, despite proclaiming that there is no caste system in them.

All Indians, irrespective of what religion they follow, share some common cultural traits, one among which is the institution of “Arranged Marriages”. The other type, boy meets girl, falls in love and gets married, is not very common, though it is on the increase due to reasons that I shall explain later. The latter is called ‘Love Marriage’ for want of a better phrase or word to call it something. Barring the Goan Christians and the Anglo Indians, arranged marriages are the norm and love marriages are the rare exceptions. There is also the widely prevalent custom of marrying cousins in all the religions. Wikipedia explains this phenomenon in general and with particular reference to India, which is worth a read.

Traditionally, Indian families kept and continue in most cases, to keep their women separate from men and social interaction between the sexes is strictly within the family, which in most cases, was and in many cases is, extended to include numbers that are unimaginable to most westerners. In these circumstances, marriages had to be arranged by parents and elders in the family and the tradition continues for the vast majority of Indians, irrespective of what religion or caste that they come from. The underlying principle is that one marries within one’s own caste, avoids endogamy by marrying a person from a different gothra and the wealth stays within the family/ caste/community.

When to this cultural background, the paternalistic structure of families and castes, which revolve around the strong instinct to survive and flourish as separate identities as castes, is added, modernisation in the form of love marriages, is perceived to be evil and something that must be tempered to adjust to existing value and culture systems. Add to this, the very real honour and reputation of the family within its environs, there is a potent mixture to cause wielding of power over members of the family. Very often, for the young people wanting to undergo the love marriage route, opposition is also likely to be due to prior commitments made by their respective parents or potential alliances in the pipeline, often with consideration of financial matters in the background.

Post independence, major changes to the status of women in India has been taking place, gradually in some states and very rapidly in some others. More and more women are going to schools and colleges. Educated women have been moving into higher educational institutions and the work force and this is much more the case in urban India than in the rural. Many girls from rural and semi urban locations, move to cities or big cities to pursue advanced education or careers, and in this milieu for the first time ever, get to mix with men and many men with similar background too get to meet and mix with girls.

When Cupid plays his games, such mingling leads, in some cases to romance and in some cases tragedy. Cupid does not let caste or class come in the way of the attraction, and inter-caste marriages have been taking place with increasing frequency for decades. While in the cities, with two or three generations of city living behind them, inter caste marriages do not cause much of tumult, for the newly urbanised young people, with families still in rural parts, life can be difficult, and as the stories in the two links show, end in tragedy.

Young impressionable boys and girls, being exposed to our cinema and television which glorify romance which end in marriage and happy endings , are influenced to take the plunge. What cinema and television does not show is the reality of opposition and possible tragedy.

After I wrote this post and had scheduled it for publication, New York Times wrote an editorial which more or less explains the situation in brief, but its conclusion is rather whimsical. Interestingly, the article says “in recent years they also have taken place in Italy, Sweden, Brazil and Britain.” The chances are that at least in Britain, the honour killings are among from those of Middle Eastern, or South Asian origin, and very likely also in Italy and Sweden.

It is a complex issue and top down measures like legislation are not likely to change the ground realities. Harsher punishment is unlikely to deter families steeped in a value system that considers such killings as heroic. When for those who matter, the killers are considered as such, punishment is unlikely to deter them from carrying out such heinous crimes. Urbanising rural India, and better communication and exposure to modern thinking can only speed up the process of change, which is taking place, albeit at snails pace.

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