'Honour' Killings –
Worst Form of Feudal Patriarchal Reaction
A recent study by two Chandigarh-based lawyers Anil Malhotra and Ranjit Malhotra has estimated that more than 1000 'honour' killings take place every year in India. According to this study, the vast majority of such cases (around 900 per year) take place in the regions of Punjab, Haryana, and Western UP. How can we explain this phenomenon? Clearly, such killings, especially in the form (mob murders instigated by khap panchayats) they take in these regions, represent an aggressive feudal reaction against changing social patterns. It is often assumed that feudal remnants manifest themselves mainly in some small pockets of rural Bihar, Jharkhand, or Eastern UP, where capitalist development is yet to make deep inroads. But the evidence of 'honour' killings shows that it is the most advanced areas of capitalist development in agriculture that are home to this extreme brand of feudal patriarchal reaction. It is also evident that not only rural regions but even semi-urban centres and cities have witnessed a rise in this phenomenon. 'Honour' killings are among the strongest evidence of the semi-feudal character of Indian society – of the continued presence of stubborn, deep-rooted feudal survivals that the Indian variety of capitalist development has failed to eliminate.
Virulent Feudal Reaction
Control of women's sexuality and reproduction coincided with the emergence of private property – as a means of ensuring inheritance from father to legitimate son. In India, control of women's sexuality is integral to maintaining the caste system – and women's freedom to choose a partner threatens the disintegration or breach of caste boundaries. Patriarchal ideology identifies the 'honour' of the community with the 'chastity' of the community's women. On the one hand, this provides the basis for the assaults on 'women of the other community' during communal violence and caste atrocities. On the other, it legitimises the attacks on women within the community for breaching sexual codes, marriage norms and caste/community barriers.
With the rise of capitalism, community norms and traditions break down. Just as the labourer is no longer tied to a landlord and is 'free' to sell his/her labour to any employer, the individual too is 'free' to marry according to 'choice' rather than have the marriage arranged by one's parents or community. Of course, capitalist society too regulates female sexuality – but its means of doing so are more subtle than those of feudal society. The worker's 'freedom' in capitalism is circumscribed by the fact that the worker is forced to sell his labour in order to survive and does not enjoy the 'choice' not to sell his labour. Similarly, women's 'freedom' in capitalism (a result, in part, of capital's need to draw women into the workforce) is circumscribed by capital's simultaneous need to exploit women's labour within the family. So, even in advanced capitalist societies, where women's freedom to choose a partner is no longer under attack, women's rights in other spheres – to equal wages and rights, to childcare and freedom from domestic labour, to abortion, etc are still contested and denied, and patriarchal double standards and moral codes smacking of gender-bias continue to be in operation.
That said, however, it is undeniable that the destruction of feudal relations and development of productive forces and capitalist relations weakens many fetters and arms the working class and women with greater freedom to further the struggle for their emancipation and for revolutionary social transformation. In India, however, the path of capitalist development adopted has nurtured feudal remnants instead of making a decisive break with them.
Colonial power bolstered feudal land relations; and in independent India, too, the bourgeois class made its peace with the landlord class and never seriously implemented land reforms or disempowered the feudal forces. Political assertion of the rural landless labourers demanding land, wages and social dignity was met with a virulent feudal 'Ranveer Sena' type backlash in Bihar. Even regions that have witnessed the 'Green Revolution' and capitalist development in agriculture are yet to do away with feudal practices like usury and bondage. Feudal forces in these regions, rather than being rendered weak and irrelevant, continue to exercise control over land and other resources, and command enough clout to organise a formidable feudal reaction – which take the form of caste atrocities like 'social boycott' of dalit villages where dalits have demanded more wages or homestead land, or 'honour' killings of couples who have opted for own-choice marriages, and other 'honour' crimes targeting the dalit community in cases where a woman from a 'higher' caste has married a man from a dalit caste.
Attacks on Own-Choice Marriages
In Parliament, during a discussion on the question of legislation against 'honour' killings, Lalu Yadav took it upon himself to be the representative of the rights of caste custodians. Claiming that a law being against 'honour' killings (currently being considered by a Group of Ministers) would impinge on the 'sensitive' domain of caste, he demanded an all-party meeting on the issue, declaring, “GoM (on honour killings) bhagyavidhata nahin hai." (GoM is not God). Can caste panchayats and community custodians be the 'bhagyavidhata' for couples, then?!
Political defenders of the khap panchayats can hardly afford to openly defend the violent murders perpetrated in the name of 'honour.' Therefore khap panchayats and their political representatives – including Congress' Haryana CM Bhupinder Hooda and MP Naveen Jindal – have erected a respectable pseudo-'scientific' smokescreen with the demand for an amendment to the Hindu Marriage Act (HMA) that will ban same-gotra marriages, falsely claiming that same-gotra marriages lead to 'genetic disorders.'
In Birbhum district of West Bengal recently, a horrific incident came to light, in which a 17-year old adivasi girl, for the 'crime' of having a relationship with a boy of another community, was stripped naked and made to walk for 8 kms to the accompaniment of beating drums, while men molested her and made MMS recordings which were then circulated on the internet. In a distorted brand of social mobility and assertion, it seems that a section even among oppressed communities like dalits and tribals too are indulging in 'honour' crimes, in a bid to prove that they are no less 'honour-bound' than the upper castes.
AIPWA's West Bengal State Unit took up the issue with the West Bengal Women's Commission, which sent a team to look into the case. An AIPWA delegation met with the WB Women's Commission Chairperson after the team's return and put forward their demand for punishment of the perpetrators, as well as those voyeurs who taped and circulated the MMS.
This smokescreen is patently absurd. In the first place, linking 'gotra' and 'genes' has no scientific basis. In Haryana, 'bhaichara' or brotherhood within a village or a cluster of villages originated as a form of social organisation of land ownership, and had nothing to do with blood kinship. Moreover, if the khap panchayats are so concerned about ensuring genetic diversity, why do they not campaign for inter-caste and inter-religious marriages?! The khap panchayats should also tell us – if they have their way and get same-gotra marriages banned under the HMA, will they stop murdering couples who elect to get married under the Special Marriages Act? Or will they next demand that inter-caste marriages also be banned?!
Above all, there is the glaring fact that most 'honour' killings by khap panchayats are not happening in cases of same gotra marriages at all. A recent study sponsored by the National Commission of Women (NCW) and conducted by an NGO Shakti Vahini, looked at 326 cases of 'honour' killings in recent times. They found that only 3% of these cases involved same-gotra marriages. 15% of the cases involved own-choice marriages within the same caste but without consent of the family. And 72% of the cases involved inter-caste marriages. Quite clearly, it is own-choice marriages – whether within or outside the castes – that are the main targets for the khap panchayats and 'honour' killings.
Women's assertion poses a threat to feudal control over land. Under the Hindu Succession Act, daughters can inherit property. A daughter who makes an own-choice marriage is more likely to claim her share of land and property – which is why such marriages are under such attack. In Haryana and Punjab, there is a long history of opposition to the Hindu Marriage Act and Hindu Succession Act. The Haryana Assembly passed a resolution for a change in the Hindu Succession Act to restrict daughter's rights to inherit twice - once in 1967 a year after the state was formed, and once again in 1979 when the Congress Government led by Bhajan Lal moved the resolution and among the MLAs who supported it was Sushma Swaraj.
Anxieties Caused by Globalisation and Agrarian Crisis
As seen above, opposition to women's rights to marry by choice and inherit has a long history. What accounts for the increased incidence and virulence of 'honour' crimes and killings?
It is possible that the killings represent a feudal backlash against political assertion of hitherto subordinate caste groups, as well as against a brand of rapid capitalist development and urbanisation that has nevertheless failed to create avenues of productive employment. Unemployment is rife among Haryana's youth, for instance, – thereby making youth dependent on the landed elders who control the khap panchayats. An abysmal sex ratio in this region of Haryana-Punjab-Western UP, thanks to female foeticide and infanticide, leads to a shrinking pool of marriageable women, resulting in intensified resentment over any 'outsider' who trespasses into the pool.
Globalisation and liberalisation too may have sharpened the contradiction between evolving social/cultural patterns and well-entrenched feudal-patriarchal codes. At the same time, the acute agrarian crisis experienced by this region may also have contributed to the spike in 'honour' crimes, with anxieties on the economic front ending up reinforcing social fundamentalism.
The shame of honour killings and 'death sentences' by khap panchayats and the shame of Bhopal (where interests of Indian victims of a disaster have been blatantly sacrificed by governments to appease US corporate criminals) – are these not proof positive of the semi-feudal semi-colonial character of our society? The struggle against 'honour' killings is a battle against feudal remnants, and for women's rights and the dignity of oppressed castes. Women and all progressive sections of society committed to struggling for democratic transformation of the semi-feudal order must take on 'honour killings' and defend the right of individuals to choose a partner with all their might.