Tuesday, 22 June 2010

Killing the nation’s honour

The Supreme Court has issued notices to eight states and the Central government on the issue of honour killings. It has asked them what steps they have taken/will take to protect young couples from the wrath of their families. This is in response to a public interest litigation filed by an NGO, Shakti Vahini.

And as I write, the National Commission of Women chief Girija Vyas is talking on television about the need for tougher laws to deal with honour killings.

There's no disputing the fact that honour killings are a blot on society. And khap panchayats have no role in a civilized society and democratic polity. Also, young people have a right to marry whom they want to. Parents too have a right to oppose and point out problems of inter-caste/inter-religion/same gotra marriages. But they don't have the right to force their children to obey their will. Or kill them if they don't listen.

But can the issue be dealt with through judicial intervention? Or through tougher laws?

I have my doubts.

This is a mindset issue, which goes beyond kangaroo courts in rural hinterlands. It exists in urban areas, among so-called highly educated, sophisticated families. Remember the Rizwanur Rehman case in Calcutta? Or the Nirupama Pathak case in Jharkhand? Indeed, the marrying-beneath-one's-status issue is a universal one, going beyond religion or caste or gotra.

The NGO and the Supreme Court are probably going to focus on how runaway couples are tracked down and murdered and are not helped by the police. In fact the police often takes the side of the families. Think again of Rizwanur. Or of Rajnish Sharma of Jammu who was found hanging in a Srinagar police station. He had married a Muslim girl who alleged that her family and the police had colluded to murder him. Or of the trumped up rape charges that are always slapped against the boy. In fact, the Supreme Court came down strongly on the police on this count.

But let's go back to another Supreme Court order in December 2009. Two of its judges reduced the death sentence pronounced on a brother who killed his sister's husband, who belonged to a lower caste, and his father and brothers in 2004 in Bombay. The sentence was reduced to life imprisonment. Just read what the two judges - V S Sirpurkar and Deepak Verma - observed while reducing the sentence:

...Caste is a concept which grips a person before his birth and does not leave him even after his death. The vicious grip of the caste, community, religion, though totally unjustified, is a stark reality. The psyche of the offender in the background of a social issue like an inter-caste-community marriage, though wholly unjustified, would have to be considered on the peculiar circumstances.

These are learned judges making statements like this. How do you expect a relatively less educated policeman from a conservative, rustic background to react when a girl's family comes to him talking about ghar ki izzat and all that?

Look at the complexity we are dealing with. In the Bombay case, the brother - Dilip Tiwari, a brahmin - was assisted in the murder by two people from a lower caste - Manoj Paswan and Sunil Yadav. Obviously they found nothing ironic in the idea that they were helping a high caste man murder someone from a lower caste. After all, ghar ki izzat ka sawaal hai. If a girl from their families were to marry someone from an even lower caste, clearly, they would mete the same treatment to her.

Am I saying that the problem of honour killings should not be addressed at all? Not at all.

But I wonder what a court can do in the matter. Maybe ask states where this is more rampant to ensure that the police help harassed couples. That's easily said, but how will it be ensured?

Should we have a separate law on honour killings? What will it say? Murder is illegal, whether for honour or not. So what are we talking about here?

The only way this problem can be addressed is through a mindset change. Someone should have challenged the order of the two Supreme Court judges who reduced Dilip Tiwari's sentence and the death penalty should have been restored.

Politicians have to come out unequivocally against khap panchayats and not entertain them at all. Naveen Jindal should have lost his Congress membership the day he asked a Times of India journalist who went to interview him on his support of khap panchayats whether her parents would allow her to marry someone from the same gotra.

Mindset changes don't come overnight. They take time. But laws and judicial activism also will not solve the problem overnight. It all needs to go hand in hand.