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Mainstream, Vol XLVIII, No 51, December 11, 2010

Honour Killing is Not Caste, Religion-specific

Sunday 12 December 2010


by M.S. Rana

Honour is the most precious moral attribute of mankind. It is deeply ingrained in its nature. Defence of honour even at the cost of life has been prevalent in human beings since ages. It is a commonwealth of close blood relatives. Defilement of honour is taken as the most atrocious social crime and its redemption becomes a joint and sacred duty of close-knit people. Debased groups have a soft approach towards transgression of honour. The sentimental chord dormant in them may react at times; its degree may vary from group to group. Tradition-bound rural societies invariably react violently for the redemption of their honour. To them honour is dearer than life.

Honour is both an individual and a kinship related phenomenon. It may transgress family unit and invoke sentiments within the caste groups. It may spill over a wider geographical area depending upon the nature of the issue at stake. Honour is not a prerogative of men alone. Womenfolk are more sensitive to safeguard their honour. Since they are incapacitated by the absence of manly-might, defence of women’s honour naturally devolves upon men. ‘The defence of female purity, however, is a male responsibility and men are therefore vulnerable to dishonour not through their own sexual misconduct but through that of their womenfolk —that is to say, members of the same nuclear family, including mother, wife, unmarried sister and daughter. Hence, sexual insults that impugn the honour of men refer not to them but to their women.’1 ‘Honour is commonly considered by moral philosophers to be a state of the individual conscience and, as such, equivalent to the absence of self-reproach. It relates to intentions rather than to the objective consequences of action, and a man is therefore said to be the only judge of his own honour. If he knows his intentions to be “above reproach”, then he is indifferent to the comments of others, who cannot evaluate the quality of his motives. He is committed by his honour to the fulfilment of duties that are recognised as being attached to social roles. The casuists recognised honour as a personal responsibility and admitted the defence of honour as a licit form of self-defence which could excuse actions that would otherwise be sinful.’2 Honour killing has had the tacit approval of the society and as such honour killing cases were disposed of at the community level.

A UN document quotes that Pakistan, India and Bangladesh (read the Indian subcontinent) are more prone to honour killing. In Pakistan last year alone 647 women lost their lives. India was inches behind with its approximately 500 killings. In view of the alarming number of honour killing cases, the UN in 2004 adopted a resolution towards the elimination of crime against women. In Pakistan an Islamic law, passed in the 1980s, permits killers to buy pardon from the victim’s family. It resulted in ‘an alarming increase in the practice of Karo-Kari (honour killing)’. Under this Islamic law, ‘a man can kill a woman, claiming that she brought dishonour to the family, and still expect to be forgiven by her relatives’. Karo-Kari is a culturally acceptable practice where an individual’s honour is restored by the killing of the woman and the man perceived to have shamed him. According to a recent report by the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, 617 women were killed for the sake of ‘honour’ in 2009, up 13 per cent from 574 in 2008.3

The Palestinian law awards lenient punishment for killing wives or females relatives, if they have brought dishonour to the family.

It may be a matter of sheer coincidence that at a time when honour killing is a hotly debated issue in India, a Jordanian journalist, Rana Husseini, in her well-researched work Murder in the Name of Honour, gives a worldview on honour killing. It is practised in West Asian countries and in the US, UK and Europe. Her nerve-shaking findings reveal that women are murdered by their own relatives.4 Her thesis is parallel to honour killing in India where it is a home-grown crime. It is the family members and close kins who surreptiously dispense with the woman who caused dishonour to the family. No third agency is involved in instigating the incidence. In some cases the man who allured the woman to transgress marital norms also meets the tragic end. Among the migrant communities in Europe and the US the guilty is killed or disfigured by close relatives to restore family honour.

IN India law takes cognisance of killing a person. It makes no distinction between honour killing or murdering a person. It is a punishable offence in the IPC under Sections 120B (criminal conspiracy), 302 (murder) and 34 (acts done by several persons in furtherance of common intention). Following a spurt in the name of honour killing, the Government of India appointed a GOM committee chaired by Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee. The committee invited CMs of five honour killing-prone States at its August 26 meeting. The four CMs turned a Nelson’s eye to the issue and used the shield of lack of data on honour killing as an excuse to abstain from attending the crucial meeting. Haryana CM Bhupender Hooda did a good amount of homework to put his views across the table. He concluded that the existing laws are quite stringent and there is no need to bring a new legislation to deal with honour killing cases; that honour killing is a social evil which should be dealt with by creating social awareness; that NGOs can play a useful role in eradicating this evil; and that Khap Panchayats have no role in honour killing as it is a ‘home grown evil’. The GOM has to consult other Ministries such as those of Law and Social Welfare and hear the views of NGOs before making its recommendations on the issue. The All India Democratic Women’s Association (AIDWA) demanded that a stand-alone law is needed to curb ‘honour crime’.
Sample the following recent honour killing cases, some of which have met the ends of justice and some others are at the prosecution stage. It is not an exhaustive list.

1. Sushma Prabhu versus The State of Maharashtra Case. ‘Prabhu, Sushma’s husband, was killed by her brother, Dilip Tiwari, and his associate in Mumbai in May 2004. Reason: it was a mismatched-caste marriage. It violated the marriage vidhan prescribed in the Dharmshastras. Sushma was a Brahmin and Prabhu belonged to a low caste.’ The fast-track sessions court in Mumbai sentenced all the accused to death. The Bombay High Court upheld it, but the Supreme Court in December 2009 reduced the death sentence to 25 years in prison.

The Supreme Court said: “It is common experience that when the younger sister commits something unusual and in this case it was an inter-caste, inter-community marriage out of [a] secret love affair, then in society it is the elder brother who justifiably or otherwise is held responsible for not stopping such [an] affair.”

The judgment read: “If he became the victim of his wrong but genuine caste considerations, it would not justify the death sentence. The vicious grip of the caste, community, religion, though totally unjustified, is a stark reality.”5

The Supreme Court tacitly conferred a measure of legitimacy to honour killing. The SC’s views were a stark reality. After a few weeks of this judgement, a teenaged girl was hacked to death in Sitapur village, near Lucknow, by the brother for eloping with her lover. (The Hindu, June 4, 2010).6 Such cases are reported in the media frequently.

2. Sushma Tiwari’s stand was translated into a reality by Chandramati of village Karora in Kaithal district of Haryana. Her son, Manoj, married Babli on May 18, 2007. Babli’s family approached the panchayat which ruled that the marriage in the same gotra and same village are against the Hindu Dharmashastras. It ostracised Manoj’s family decreeing that anyone violating the panchayat decision would be seriously dealt with. Police protection could bring no relief to the couple. While they were on their way to a safer place, Babli’s kith and kin brutally killed them and disposed of their corpses in a nearby canal. Grief-stricken Chandramati filed a criminal case in the court of law against Babli’s kins and the Khap Panchayat. The defendants’ stand was that Manoj and Babli were not only sahgotri but also first cousins. Their nuptial relationship amounted to a incestuous relationship. No Hindu family worth its name would allow a sister marrying his close brother. Here family honour was at stake, it was a family killing case. The Khap had no say at any stage except that it condemned incestuous marital relationship. In a historic judgment the Karnal sessions court convicted the Khap Panchayat leader and six others. It sentenced five people to death and another to life imprisonment for murdering the young couple. Pronouncing the judgment the judge ‘criticised the Khap Panchayats for functioning countrary to the Constitution and said they had become a law unto themselves’. The trial lasted 33 months and 41 witnesses deposed during 50 hearings.

3. In Nainital, Reshma Pravin had married Shahbuddin against the wishes of her family in 2007. One year later her brothers killed their pregnant sister and her husband for marrying against their wishes. The court awarded life imprisonment to the culprits. (HT, May 19, 2009)

4. In a Andhra village a lower caste boy entered into marital relations with an upper caste Reddy girl. The two were stoned to death by angry villagers led by the girl’s father. (IE, May 27, 2009).

5. In another case of honour killing, a 30-year-old woman was allegedly murdered by her brother-in-law for eloping with her neighbour in Jaffarpur Kalan, southwest Delhi. (IE, June 28, 2009)

6. A young girl was hacked to death by her father and other family members over a love affair with a boy of the same caste in Khalidabad village in district Kaushambi, UP. (IE, March 29, 2010)

7. In Koderma (Jharkhand) Delhi-based journalist Nirupama Pathak was strangulated to death by her mother as Nirupama wanted to marry her Kayastha boyfriend Priyabhanshu Ranjan. (HT, May 4, 2010) The police registered a case of honour killing against her mother.

8. Rizwanur Rahman, a computer trainer, secretly married Priyanka. The Todi family took their daughter home for a few days. Rizwan was found dead near the railway tracks in Kolkata. (TOI, May 9, 2010)
9. In a Haryana village near Sonipat two girls were killed by the family members for allegedly having affairs with their cousins, (TOI, June 28, 2010)

10. In an inter-caste marriage case Reuben Joseph and the girl’s father, Edward, killed the duo on the spur of the moment after they found them in a compromising position at the girl’s residence in Friends’ Colony, New Delhi. The paramour Hari Lal was from Punjab and Bimal, a Christian from Bihar. (TOI, July 13, 2010)

11. In a suspected case of honour killing in village Ghari Madhiya in Ghaziabad, a Muslim girl and a Muslim boy were allegedly murdered by the girl’s family members who were opposed to their alliance. (TOI, July 14, 2010)

12. A 20-year-old Gujjar girl was allegedly cut into pieces by family members after she married her Dalit software engineer colleague. (TOI, July 20, 2010)

THERE is a strong ground to conclude that honour killing is caused by mis-matched inter-caste marriage. The girl’s family invariably opposes such self-made marriage tooth and nail. The infatuated girl pays a heavy price for transgressing the family’s matrimonial traditions.

Honour killing is a home-grown crime to safeguard family honour. Close kins of the girl’s family join hands with the girl’s parents and brothers to kill the girl. No third agency, such as Khap or Caste Panchayat, has a direct hand in the honour related crime.

Honour killing is not India-specific. Rana Husseini’s study reveals that it is practised in most of the countries and it carries the tag of ‘cleansing the family of the immoral act of woman’.

Honour killing is more about caste than gotra. A study on honour killing, commissioned by the National Commission for Women (NCW), and conducted by an NGO, ‘Shakti Vahini’, profiled 560 cases which reflected that honour killing was a north Indian phenomenon, Minister of State for Women and Child Development Krishna Tirath told the Rajya Sabha on August 9, 2010. The study revealed that in 88.93 per cent of the total 560 cases surveyed, perpetrators of the crimes were from the girl’s family, Tirath said in a written reply.

She added that honour killings were reported mostly from areas where Khap Panchayats were active and out of the 560 cases where couples were threatened, 121 persons were killed. The report mentioned that honour killings were less about the gotra issue and more about inter-caste marriages. Violence and threatening of couples have been reported both from rural and urban areas and from almost all sections of society.6

Do the perpetrators of honour killing deserve mercy? Defence of honour fall in the category of self-defence and law courts should take a soft view in such cases. The Supreme Court in Sushma Prabhu versus the State laid down that “it is a common experience that when the younger sister commits something unusual and in this case it was an inter-caste, inter-community marriage out of [a] secret love affair, then in society it is the elder brother who justifiably or otherwise is held responsible for not stopping such [a] affair”.

The judgment read: “If he became the victim of his wrong but genuine caste considerations, it would not justify the death sentence. The vicious grip of the caste, community, religion, though totally unjustified, is a stark reality.”


1. Julian Pitt-Rivers. ‘Honour’, International Encyclopaedia of the Social Sciences, by David L Sills (ed.), New York: Crowell Collier and MacMillan, 1968, p. 506.

2. Ibid., p. 504.

3. Fatima Najm, ‘Love and Punishment’, The Times of India, Crest ed., July 24, 2010, p. 12.

4. Rana Husseini, Murder in the Name of Honour, Oxford: Oneworld Publication, 2009.

5. Anupam Dasgupta, ‘A Lonely Fight’, The Week, April 25, 2010, p. 17.

6. ‘Human Killing is More About Caste Than Gotra’, The Times of India, August 10, 2010, p. 17.

The author is a former Librarian, University of Roorkee.

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