A Matter of Honour

Tue, Sep 14, 2010

Social Issues

“Morality is not really the doctrine of how to make ourselves happy but of how we are to be worthy of happiness” – Immanuel Kant (German thinker).

It is reasonable to presume that among the many heinous, vicious and immoral deeds that are a regular stain on every newspaper in India, nothing quite comes close to the mind numbing and cold blooded regularity of the so called ‘Honour Killings’ plaguing our country. The brutality of the act itself sometimes feels overshadowed by the brazen impunity displayed by such human rights violators. The official figure of honour killing, in thousands, is unfortunately just the tip of the iceberg. But what truly is the story behind these dastardly acts?

Honour killing is a phrase which is basically used to denote the murder of a member of a family or a clan by his/her own family or clan. The motive for this murder is the belief that victim has brought the entire family or clan into disrepute due to his/her actions. As the previous statement clearly indicates, the family or clan members are both the judge and the jury. Their perception of an act bringing disrepute to their honour is sufficient grounds for inflicting torture, humiliation and, as seen increasingly, a gory and public death.

Previously, the mob ire used to be primarily focussed on racial discrimination. Caste and creed based killings were rampant till the change in political demographics along caste lines. Since then, reporting of caste based killings have been subdued in the media though the situation is still severe in many parts of the country. With a clearly demarcated social fabric on caste and creed lines, the family honour now needs to be protected from sagotra marriages. “Sagotra” or same-gotra marriages quite literally mean marriage to your own kin or your own blood. While this literal meaning evokes pictures of incest, the truth is a bit divergent. A gotra is the lineage assigned to you based on your birth.  This means that every individual has his/her gotra assigned based on his paternal lineage. Generally, these lineages mean patrilineal descent from the sages or rishis in Brahmins, warriors and administrators in Kshatriyas and ancestral trademen in Vaisyas. Over the centuries that the Hindu religion has survived and thrived, these gotras have been handed down as a reminder of our origins. While most religions metamorphose with time as is true of even the Hindu religion in certain other areas, this particular oddity has a chilling popularity among the fanatical purists.

While the pros and cons of marriage within ones blood lineage has been debated from the philosophical level to the genetic level, the point here is that does same gotra even remotely represent blood lineage? Hindu religion being over 5000 years old, a gotra created at the onset of the religion on patrilineal lines is hardly expected to remain true, pure and uncorrupted for so many centuries. This core question has been conveniently pushed to the shadows as a powerful presence has taken over the mantle of spearheading this cleansing drive. The Khap panchayat has become the centre stage of this macabre theatre of death.

Khap panchayats are unofficial panchayats which are composed of multiple villages spread across the diverse ethnic fabric of rural India. These panchayats are headed by the wise men of the community to govern and serve justice to the people. While some of the work done by the Khaps is definitely noteworthy, the pitch is queered by such sensationalistic and cowboy style justice delivery. No matter how learned and wise one professes to be, the taking of a life for any reason must be the absolute last resort. After all, taking and giving life are considered sacred and work of God, the Almighty by the Hindus of this country. Yet, such Khap Panchayats are spreading their reign of fear and retribution throughout the nation.

While such unconstitutional acts necessarily must be treated as a law and order problem, the political class is still in two minds on their reaction towards such panchayats. The clout which such bodies hold on the people makes them an attractive investment for earning votes whenever the need to encash arises. A case to note is the unconditional support given to Khap panchayats by Naveen Jindal, a minister in the ruling Congress party. Even the opposition which licks its lips at any opportunity given to lambast the government is unusually silent on this matter. Needless to say, where there is the hand of a politician, nothing can be changed. Hence, even when our apex body, the Honourable Supreme Court, gives a clear rap to some of the backward states to combat this social evil, there is precious little which is done at the ground level. The brazenness of these Khaps came to the fore when a Haryana court order pronouncing 5 perpetrators guilty was met with an open challenge to the authorities to act on the court orders.

While the presence of Khap panchayats fills a void which even 60 years of independence hasn’t completely been able to effectively address, its style of functioning needs to be aligned to conform to the law of the land. A parallel government working divergently does not serve any purpose other than creating confusion, fomenting non-accountability and pegging progress back. There needs to be open dialogue on this matter between the elected government representatives, the local authorities and the khap panchayats on the broad contours of their functioning. The tone and manner of this dialogue should be open but non-compromising. There remains no place for ego massaging, fence sitting or wishy-washy politics when fresh blood is spilt on the streets every day. Secondly, the drastic retribution doled out in the name of preserving honour needs to be curbed. For this, the khaps need to be persuaded to mellow their hardliner approach in lieu of government support. Thirdly, there needs to be a central uniform policy and voice of all government functionaries on the ‘Honour Killings’ as well as Khap panchayat recognition.

Only a balanced view and a voice of reason can help us in resolving this long standing issue. Theatrics and ineffectual laws will not stem the flow of blood anymore. This issue is something that is at the core of our nation’s credibility. After all, how can a country preserve its honour when the fundamental rights of its citizens are no longer secure?

Nabarun Sengupta

Nabarun Sengupta

MBA, IIT Kanpur

( Batch of 2010 – 12)



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