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Mainstream, VOL LI, No 1, December 22, 2012 [Annual 2012]

Caste, Sex and Crime: Aryavart in the Dark Age?

Thursday 3 January 2013, by A K Biswas


In a brief compass, the following article aims at an indepth focus on the history of female infanticides as we see in some of North Indian States. The materials used are drawn from the archival source of the colonial administration.

Perhaps many parts of India are unaware of the word, kuri mara, and its connotation. This means persons “who kill their female infants”. In his several writings, Guru Gobind Singh (December 31, 1666-October 21, 1708) severely condemned the kuri maras.1 His criticism precisely pinpoints the history, origin, prevalence and practice of female infanticides that we see today in Punjab and Haryana. The full-blown evil prevailed in the seventeenth century, if not in an era earlier than that of the tenth Sikh Guruji. His condemnation did not bring an end to the social vice or deter its practitioners.

A sordid social history of the contemporary Punjab becomes transperent to the posterity by his reference to the kuri mara. Sir John Lawrence, the first Commissioner of the Trans-Sutlej states, following its annexation by the British in 1849, directed his attention to suppression of female infanticides in Jullundar Doab. His three official commandments, reminiscent of Guru Arjun Singh’s concerns, bring out the gnawing evils which had engulfed the society: “Bewa mat jalao; Beti mat maro; Kohri mat dabao.” The official policy, translated, ordains: “Thou shall not burn thy widows; Thou shall not kill thy daughter; Thou shall not bury alive thy leper.”

The British stamped out the crimes of widow burning. They also succeeded in bringing an end to the burying of lepers alive. These offences could not elude the vigilant eyes of an energetic administration. But even after half-a-century, their administration was groping clueless how best to quelch the curse of female infanticide that invaded homes in Punjab as an epidemic.

Alongside the three aforementioned command-ments, we may also note a few more folk sayings in Punjab for a comprehensive picture of the social ambiance and attitude towards the girl child:

1. “Dena bhala na bap ka beti bhali na ek. It is not good to owe a debt even to the father, or to have even a daughter.”

2. “Jis nahin dekhea sher oh dekhe bilai, jis nehi dekhea Yama oh dekhe jawai. Whoever has not seen a tiger may see a cat, whoever has not seen Yama may see a son-in-law. Son-in-law is like the messenger of death.”

Ab initio, the colonial rulers adopted a persuasive approach to annihilate the crime as they launched their offensive against the perpetrators of female infanticide. But they were sure that the punitive measures would prove counter-productive and evoke widespread disapproval of the communities that practised female infanticides.

As a first and commendable step, a big conference of all the chiefs and notable persons of the Punjab was held at Amritsar in 1853 and a general feeling was generated that female infanticide should be curbed. Though the outcome of the conference was satisfactory and the incidence of this crime showed gradual decline, the vice did not die out altogether. The government passed an Act VIII in 1870 and framed rules fixing marriage expenses in four classes in monetary terms with the Deputy Commissioners of the districts to implement and monitor the rules.

The administrators focused on districts, tahsils and even cluster of villages for better implemen-tation of rules to curb the menace. Rule IX under the Act, however, shows the thrust area of the policy. It required that “All expenses incurred in carrying out these rules into effect on to any village to which they may be made applicable, shall be recoverable as an arrear of land revenue from Jats of that village.” On the Punjab Government’s initiative in 1884 the Jullundar Commissioner consulted “the leading Jat Sardars of the Division” and “framed some rules for curtailment of marriage expenses”. Another important conference in 1887 was held at Batala with a view to reducing ruinous marriage expenses. The Jat Association was involved in the consultation and support of the rules for suppression of female infanticides.

A poignant episode discloses the nature and ferocity of domestic violence practised in the Punjab and the difficulties in dealing with it.

Brother Witness to Newborn Sister’s Killing on Mother’s Order

An official document brings out how a newborn female child was killed soon after her birth in the labour room itself.

“Munshi Bakshi Ram Das Chibbar, a member of a tribe which followed the custom of hyper-gamy, says that when he was eight years old, he was awakened one night by a servant and was summoned to his mother’s bedside. He was told to sit on the ground and take his newborn sister in his arms. The midwife poured over the infant’s head water from a jar that had been chilled almost to freezing by being put on the roof of that cold December night. The child’s face instantly turned black, she gasped once and died soon after. From his childhood he had heard that milk of ‘Ak’ (calotropis procera) was used to poison newly born girls. He accused his mother of poisoning his sister and came out of the room trembling. This incident impressed itself indelibly on his thoughtful mind and suggested the many reforms he has been instrumental in initiating in after life.”2

Exactly over a century ago, this is how T.P. Russell Strachy traced in his History of the Muhiyals in 1911 the cruelty against a newborn girl, whose life was extinguished nonchalantly. A majestic Mohyal patriarch, Munshi Bakshi Ram Das (born December 25, 1850), was a social reformer. On his mother’s command, he abetted and witnessed the murder of his sister just born. A native of Bhera town, now in Pakistan, the Munshi was the Urdu and Persian tutor of the high and mighty of India’s colonial rule, for example, Lord and Lady Minto. Lord and Lady Hardinge, Lady Curzon, Lady Lansdowne and Field Marshal Roberts, the Commander-in-Chief of India. His philanthropic activities included a handsome donation of Rs 30,000 to DAV College, Lahore. A solitary instance unmasks the gruesome socio-cultural panorama of the region that forms the heartland of Aryavart. The woman was then, as today, totally vulnerable. The horrible methods employed for destruction of female child were as follows:

1. A common practice was “to place a few rupees under the pillow of the patient during confinement, to be given away as charity in case of a male birth [.......] when female infanticide was practised, this money was reserved for greasing the palms of persons who were in a position to ask awkward questions.”3

2. Where the persons concerned in the perpetration of the black deed had no compunction, the baby was throttled by pressing the thumb gently against her throat continuously for several minutes;

(1) little juice of akk (calotropis procera) was administered internally;

(2) an overdose of opium was mixed in the first potion (ghutti); and

(3) the device of pouring cold water on the baby used to be a familiar device in the chilly winter nights. But the most favourite method was starvation, that is, not feeding the baby at all or giving her totally insufficient nourishment, which reduced her to death in a few days.

The era of technological revolution was still far far away. So hundreds and thousands of households, including respectable and influential families, were the theatres of monstrous methods to snuff out the life of accursed newborn females.
The vigilant British officials did not fail to notice that pregnant women used to be sent away to their parents’ houses in other villages, by way of precaution, so that in case of birth of a female offspring, the infant could be disposed of without arousing suspicion of foul play.

The report of the Census of India, 1911 dwells on the shame of the valiant communities that Punjab is proud of. “A female infant was usually killed immediately after birth or within the first few days of her life. But if for some reason or another, this could not be arranged, her life was not out of danger till she was over one year of age. Among the leading Sikh Jats of the Lahore Manjha, it is still the rule for the midwife to report the birth of a female to the Sardar and to ask for his orders as to whether the first potion (ghutti) should or should not be administered. The permission is now given as a matter of course, although with many regrets.” A faithful picture of the social attitude towards the female child a century ago!

In the same breath we may note that filial love is an instinct that is not easy to extinguish. Love triumphed over powerful murderers; but it was regrettably very limited. Mothers in that pernicious environment were averse to the destruction of their female offspring even though they did not, under the peculiar social system prevalent in this country, have any voice when their elders were determined to adopt a destructive course. A shining instance of a mother attempting to save her daughter, both successfully and unsuccessfully, has come down to us. The Census of 1911 discloses that “In Lalton, a village in the Ludhiana district, a mother saved her girl some 15 or 20 years ago, by incessant vigilance during the first few days after birth and then took her away to her father’s house. But when the girl had grown about 2 years old, she was taken on a pilgrimage to Jwalamukhi and killed on the way.”4 A ghastly crime was thus committed under the cover of religion. What a tragedy of a mother! Juxtapose her beside Munshi Bakshi Ram Das’ mother and see her divinity and eternal love. And what a demonic progenitor!!

Skewed Sex Ratio—a Bird’s Eye View

In a long report in June 1852 to the Punjab Government, Herbert Edwards, Deputy Comm-issioner, Jullundar, raises his finger to the “Bedis and Khatris as the principal offenders” of female infanticides while, in the same breath, exonerates another section usually believed to be the habitual offenders of the crime, saying that “the practice was very rare among the Jats of the Doab”.5 In this context, a deeper look into the ground reality of the colonial era alongside the current position is essential for appreciation.

The Census of India 2011 brought out the imbalance in these sex ratio in the districts of Jind, Panipat, Sonipat, Rohtak, Jhajhar and Gurgaon; these ranged between 850 and 870 girls per 1000 men. Districts like Palwal, Hisar, Bhiwani and Faridabad had 870-890 females for 1000 males. The rest of Haryana boasted of 900 females for 1000 men. This does not present the sex ratio caste or sub-caste-wise. According to the Central Registration System (CRS), the sex ratio in the State is just 826 girls per 1000 boys in the age-group of 0-6 years in 2011.
This statistical projection of sex ratio in the focused districts conceals more than it reveals the inner reality. Demographic computation in India has never been free from manipulation and fudging. In 2011, the Census Report did not show the male-female ratio by caste and sub-caste, which the British had collected, collated and used for specific objectives to curb female infanticides. A look at the sex ratio by caste of the Punjab a century ago here may be rewarding. By virtue of their position, the alien rulers were uniquely privileged to document, without hesitation, what and as they wanted. Free India’s inhibition to take caste on board arises out of her own peculiar complexity of social composition and reality. In 1911, ratios of females per 1000 males by caste, by the way, are presented in Table-1.

Showing sex ratios by caste in the Punjab in 1911

Name of caste Proportion of females to
every 1000 males

Arain 776
Brahman 868
Chamar 709
Chhimba 939
Churha 728
Jhinwar 787
Khatri 862
Kumhar 906
Nai 723
Rajput 1074
Sunar 784
Tarkhan 740
Others 768

With 1074 females per 1000 males, according to Table-1, the Rajputs shone head and ears above others in sex ratio. The next notable were the Chhimbas with 939 girls for 1000 males. They were Muslims, by profession tailor, who converted from the Rajput community.

The Jats, gripped with the vice of infanticide, received special attention in official projection. Table-2 shows sex ratio of Jats in districts or states in Punjab Province.

Showing proportion of female per 1000 Jat males by district or state in 1911

District or state Females Percentage of 
 per 1000 Jats to total 
 male population

Jullundar 783 21
Kapurthala State 785 15
Ludhiana 762 35
Malerkot State 752 32
Ferozepore 782 25
Faridkot State 765 38
Patiala State 776 29
Lahore 741 16
Amritsar 774 23
Gujranwala 782 24
Ambala 750 14
Lyallpur 761 27

Lahore, Gujranwala, Lyallpur are no more parts of India where the historical evil of infanticide is still nursed avidly. In the absence of current data, we cannot hazard a guess whether the male-female ratio among the Jats obtaining a century back was worse off than today or not. But the pernicious practice had devout followers. Raja Todar Mal, the Finance Minister of the great Mughal Emperor Akbar, was a Khatri who did not conceal his misogynistic antipathy. He had “ceased wearing the Kalghi (aigrette) on his turban—a decoration indicative of very exalted position at the Court—at the birth of his first daughter, the feeling being that his pride had been humbled by the birth of a female child.”6 The Rajkot ruler, Suraji Jadeja, was caught by the British Government for abetting female infanticide. As a consequence, he was fined a sum of Rs 12,000 on November 6, 1833, 179 years ago. The colonial master attached the entire Rajkot taluka till recovery of the fine.7 Eclipse of sanity and wisdom by irrational ill-feelings even in prominent men portends disaster. With 886 girls for 1000 boys, Gujarat does not seem to have come out of the shadow even in the 21st century.

It has been held by some since ages that the tendency to destroy the female infant is largely due to the “exception taken by the most chivalrous classes to being called sala (bother-in-law) or souhra (father-in-law).” This oversensitivity or overreaction to relationship might be “only partially correct and probably a point which has assumed importance in recent times”, says a colonial document, “owing to the extreme ignorance of some of the fighting people, for no one takes offence at being called brother-in-law or father-in-law of a man to whom his sister or daughter has been married.” The epithets sala and/or souhra amount to an insult only when used by some other man. “The association of these terms with the insulting meanings commonly conveyed by them has in recent times created the idea that it would be preferable for one not to be placed in this predicament.”8

In independent India the inevitability of inheritance of family properties by daughter(s) is cited as a cause to provoke female infanticide, which would eliminate chances of partition of family property and wealth. We have no ready data nor do we have any report of study of male-female ratio of any areas to assess the gravity of the problem, bedevilling the social fabric of Haryana and Punjab per se. But a century back, the problem was no better than the present day. The government had, for instance, studied the deaths and births of three Tahsils, for example, Phillaur, Jullund and Nakodar in Jullundar district. The results were most revealing. The authorities found that “In all (Jat) sub-castes except Gil, the proportion of females is well below 700. Basi, Thakri, Sahi and Dasanjh show a proportion of less than 600, while Varah which is the worst of all, has only 472 females to every 1000 males.”9 The imperial table-3 below shows the male-female ratio in the sub-castes of Jats alone.

Showing proportion of females for 1000 males in sub-castes of Jats

Name of sub-caste Proportion of females
of Jat to every 1000 males

Basi 582
Dussanjh 544
Gil 710
Hinjrai 685
Johal 682
Man 637
Puriwal 601
Sahi 547
Sabota 662
Samrai 647
Sanhgera 642
Sindhu 645
Thakri 572
Varah 472
Others 916
Average 656

The alarmingly low sex ratio of the sub-castes in Table-3 presupposes catastrophe in social life. The Varah with 472 girls per 1000 males made the case most alarming. The Ferozepure Deputy Commissioner reported that “the only caste which continued the practice was that of Sindhu Jats.”10 In 1889, the Jullundar Deputy Commissioner highlighted the case of 40 married Gil Jat women who had many male offsprings but no girl child in some pockets. In 1892, the Punjab Government asked the Sanitary Commissioner to make enquiries into “the large excess of female over male infant deaths in the districts of Amritsar, Jullundar, Ludhiana and Ferozepore.”

The communities that practised female infanticide were known to indulge in wonton expenditures on the occasion of the daughters’ marriages, which were marked by extravagant pomp and vanity. The Lieutenant Governor of Punjab, Sir Dennis Fitzpatrick had observed that “female infanticide prevailed to a most lamentable extent in the Ludhiana and Ferozepur districts”.11 “At present,” the Lieutenant Governor noted, “a man objects to have a daughter because among other reasons he has to ruin himself in providing the cost of her marriage.” In 1885, the government had put in place ceiling in expenditures on daughter’s marriage under an Act VIII of 1870, displaying their determination and courage for social reform. In 1870 Act VIII, aimed at curbing the menace, was passed. The Punjab Government was of the view that “Jats in certain Jullundar villages, at least, commonly got rid of their female offspring.”

Vast tracts of Haryana today with skewed sex ratio are a genuine cause of serious anxiety for development planners, police administration, sociologists, and social peace per se. To repeat, females in Jind, Panipat, Sonipat, Rohtak, Jhajhar and Gurgaon ranged between 850 and 870 for 1000 men. There is no ground to believe that the communities or castes which traditionally favoured female infanticide have overcome the bind at all. In the absence of appropriate data we guess the situation might have nosedived further than what was there a century back.

Part-II Rape State and its Victims

The National Commission for Scheduled Castes has castigated Haryana as “balatkar pradesh” (rape State) of India. 12 The staple for the media from that State is being furnished by the chain of violence, outrage and rape and other forms of physical abuse of women in particular and atrocities against men in general. Continuous outflow information of rapes from Haryana to the media surprisingly does not shock and embarrass thinking people or overwhelm the State administration. The lamentable failure to put in place a commensurate administrative mechanism to vigorously counter and confront the situation by effective and decisive action encompassing all fronts— police, judicial, social, besides rehabilitation of the victims—is to be viewed, in the given circumstances, as outright connivance of the political masters at the helm of affairs. The deviant behaviour of a section of the dominant people towards women, mostly of lower caste origin, has thus been receiving patronage of vested interests at the highest level with partisan objectives.
Several years ago, while doing dissertation for a Ph.D degree on inland and overseas emigration of working classes, usually called coolies or indentured labourer, in the nineteenth century from Bihar, I had learned that sexual crimes amongst them in overseas colonies were disproportionately higher than those in their homes. The reason was simple: women in adequate proportion did not accompany the coolies abroad. The colonial laws required that each batch of coolies had at least 25 per cent women in them; however their actual numbers invariably fell widely short of this minimum. So, prostitutes from Calcutta’s red-light areas were picked up and thrown with the migrant labourers, to conform to the statutory minimum requirements of law, into ships bound for destinations like Surinam, Tobago, Trinidad, Mauritius, Fiji, Grenada, Demerara, Jamaica, Natal, St. Vincent, etc. Once there the labourers fought fiercely for sexual company and favours of these women, resulting in excessively higher rate of crimes as contemporary Haryana presents and/or exemplifies.

This reflects a universal pattern: sex starvation presupposes dearth of and imbalance in female-males ratio in any given place and time. Dearth of females infuses a sense of depravity among the men; and depravity is the cesspool of sexual crimes. Sex starvation turns them into beasts. Beasts have no moral compunction nor commitment. They are no respecters of moral code or ethical boundaries either. These animals, with a perverse sense of protection, freely graze around and behave uninhibitedly. The concerned citizens’ recent initiatives aimed at creating awareness against ‘female foeticide, rapes, domestic violence, dowry’13 assumes wider ramification, suggesting that the wolves are no more at bay. Already on prowl, they have started knocking indiscriminately at every door in Haryana. There is no room to believe that Dalits are their only targets. The hyenas having tasted blood may not discriminate between the flesh of one section to another, will they?

Honest and fullfledged revelation of the extent as also dimension of domestic violence is yet to become public knowledge. That Haryana has been receiving women from far-off places for marriage is no more a secret. Analysis, extending over a period of six years, shows that the “highest percentage (23 per cent) of bride trafficking takes place from West Bengal. Assam is the next State from where 17 per cent of girls have been lured into the trap. Undivided Bihar is next to Assam from where 13 per cent of girls are trafficked.”14 These unhappy souls, purchased from their respective native places, are treated as “commodities” and subjected to incessant “domestic violence and abuse, forcibly cloistered inside their homes to cook, keep house and, above all else, produce male offspring(s). Thus, the major expectation from these girls is that they will provide the family with the son of the house.”15

In conclusion, it may not be wrong to say that misogynistic men are solely responsible for the skewed sex ratio in Haryana. Shortages to satisfy the biological needs of human beings throw a dark, long shadow over a wide spectrum. The crisis has already been looming large in the backdrop of imbalance in sex ratio with fewer women for marriageable men. The time for the outbreak of serious civil strife over the shortage may not be far. Like food shortages that lead to food riots and water scarcity conflicts over water, shortages of marriageable females could very well result in internecine conflicts within the local communities. And in the foreseeable future village after village, tahsil after tahsil or district after district will get engulfed by the fire ignited by the dearth of females for males. Suspicion will overshadow the mind and outlook of every man and woman there; embitter relations between them. The fidelity of women will be questioned. A time may also not be far off when the journey for women and irrespective of age, without heavy security guard escorting through Haryana, would be considered extremely hazardous.

A suggestion has been made by unelected village councils and loudly hailed by political leaders for reducing the marriageable age for girls to 16 years from 18. They want girls to be married before attaining puberty. Some have insinuated that 90 per cent of rapes in the State were consensual. If widows are alleged to be involved in sexual intrigues with men, bringing indignity to their families, I am afraid, revival of sati, widow burning would be equally strongly advocated as the solution.

Some Haryanvis have opined that Chinese food chowmein, mobile phones, jeans, cinema provoke sexual impulses and immorality, leading to rapes. Strange! They require no proof in support of their views. The same food, dress, cell phones etc. are popular worldwide including India. The users are not found specially guilty of sexual immorality like the Haryana Jats targeting Dalit girls.

But we can be sure that the boys who are targeting the Dalit girls will not keep their sexual prowess reserved for the underdog girls alone. Be sure, the roving eyes of their youthful males will not spare even their community girls. Their safety is under threat in their own homes too, for once the barbarians taste blood, they would not make distinction between castes and communities and between girls and girls.

Let me cite a historical instance from nineteenth century Calcutta with babus dominating the city: “Calcutta......... became a city of whorehouses because of lecherous babus. There were more whorehouses in a single locality than ever before. But it seemed the licentiousness of the babus spared no one literally, not even women in their family. Within homes, quacks and mendicants supplied herbs, and abortions were always discreetly carried out.”16 Licentious babus were never sex starved rather they were oversexed. Nonetheless they ravaged women of their own family within the four walls of their own houses with predictable consequences. Dr Norman Chevers, a reputed name in medical jurisprudence in nineteenth century stated that in Bengal monthly abortions accounted for no less than 10,000 cases. The predators had a their ardent followers outside the metropolis too. Are we sure the same has not been happening in Haryana too with similar results?

A publication in August 2012 under aegis of the United Nations’ Population Fund (UNPFA) claims that “almost 117 million women can be estimated to be “missing” from the demographic records.….... Almost 57 per cent of the total number of missing women are from China, while India accounts for 30 per cent of the total.” It further anticipates that “the number of single men trying to marry after 2030 might exceed for several decades the corresponding number of unmarried women by 50-60% in both countries. The expected socio-economic consequences of these trends are alarming including potential risks of human rights violations such as abduction, trafficking and sale of women and girls for the purposes of marriage or sexual exploitation.”17

A new era is in the offing with real bad news for males—one out of two will have a life partner. Uncertainty will stare in the face of all eligible bachelors who will go abegging in marriage market. The brides will dictate terms to their prospective life-partners—a reversal of prevalent practice of selection of brides by holding interviews and putting them to glaring humiliation and indignity.


1. Census of India 1911, vol. XIV, Punjab, pp. 249-250.
2. Ibid., p. 249 and T.P. Russell Strachy, History of the Muhiyals, p. 15.
3. Ibid., p. 257.
4. Op. cit., p. 258.
5. Ibid., p. 243.
6. Census of India 1911, p. 249.
7. The Times of India, ‘When British fined Rajkot ruler for female infanticide’ by Saeed Khan, November 6, 2012.
8. Ibid., p. 252.
9. Ibid., p. 252.
10. Ibid., p. 255.
11. Ibid., p. 246.
13. The Times of India, November 7, 2012 ‘Drive to curb crime against women to be launched from Jhajjar’ by Deepender Deswal.
16. The Observant Owl Hootum’s Vignettes of Nineteenth-century Calcutta by Kaliprasanna Sinha; Translated from the original Bengali by Swarup Roy; A Black Kite book, published by Permanent Black, New Delhi, 2008.
17 UNFPA (United Nations’ Population Fund), Sex Imbalance at Birth, Current Trends, Consequences and Policy Implications, Asia and the Pacific Regional Office, August 2012.

The author is a former Vice-Chancellor, Babasaheb Bhimrao Ambedkar Univrsity, Muzaffarpur, Bihar. For comments and observations, if any, please contact him at

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