A Matter of Honor: Murder as a “Way of Life”

by Maureen Nandini Mitra
India/USA

In March this year, a court in the northern Indian state of Haryana sentenced five family members to death for killing a young couple who married within the same sub-caste. It is the first time an Indian court has awarded such a harsh penalty in an honor killing case. But, even as women’s rights activists are hailing the decision as a landmark judgment, honor killings continue unabated and defiant khap panchayats - village councils that order such killings – are calling for an amendment to the Hindu Marriage Act to fit their beliefs regarding sub-caste and inter-caste marriages.

Honor killings are almost a way of life in northern India. Perpetrated under the garb of saving the “honor” of the community, caste or family, such killings include public lynching of couples, murder of either the man or the woman concerned, public beatings, rape, humiliation, incarceration and social boycotts.

A few years ago in an attempt to understand the impulse behind such killings I made a trip to the remote interiors of Uttar Pradesh, one of the most populous and caste-ridden states of the country.

Accompanied by Carlos Reyes Manzo, a documentary photographer and poet from London, I went searching Alinagar ka Majra – a tiny village in Muzzaffarnagar district where, in 2001, a teenage couple was lynched by their families. Carlos had read media reports about the murders of Vishal, a 15-year-old Brahmin boy, and Sonu, a 16-year-old Jat girl, when he last visited India and he wanted to see the village where the killings took place.

As we rattled toward Muzaffarnagar on a dusty state bus I had some inkling the trip wouldn’t be trouble free. A white man and an Indian woman traveling alone, we would be the cynosure of all eyes. But I wasn’t quite prepared for what followed.

After a long day’s journey we stopped for the night at Shamli, a small town en route to Alinagar. We checked into the town’s only hotel and walked to a local shack for some tea. Soon enough we were surrounded by a crush of men who began plying us with questions. Suddenly one of them spoke up: “It’s not safe for you to stay here at night. Take the bus back to Delhi.” The words weren’t meant to caution. They threatened. There was a banked rage in the gaze of the young man who uttered them.

I was taken aback by the hostility in his face as well as in the eyes of the other men gathered around us. Their collective gaze produced a vague sense of humiliation in me. I knew at once that in their eyes I could only belong to the oldest profession – bought by a “rich” Westerner to serve his pleasure.

“Any particular reason why?” I asked, trying to stare the man down. “All I can tell you is it’s not safe here for you and that man,” he replied. The rest of the men murmured in agreement. Like me, Carlos, who’d been observing the byplay closely, sensed danger. We quickly collected our things and beat as dignified a retreat as we could.

Back in the dingy, dorm-like hotel, we both tried to pretend we weren’t too shaken. But I didn’t have the guts to go back to my room with its rickety door. So Carlos and I stayed in his room, sitting on the only available furniture - a huge bed, full of grit and rank with the sweat of innumerable customers.

The hours trickled by at an agonizing pace. Three times during the night loud bangs shook the tall iron gates of the hotel and angry male voices pierced the darkness, asking to be let in. Carlos and I tried to talk but my whole being was focused on the street outside. Now and then blasts of devotional music blared from a vehicle as it crawled around the pre-dawn town. It was the night before Shivratri – the festival of Lord Shiva, the Destroyer.

Stuck in the musty darkness, I couldn’t help but reflect on the resonance between our situation and the Alinagar murders. Sonu and Vishal too, had been locked up in one room for several hours the night they were killed. I couldn’t even begin to imagine what black, hopeless, helpless, terror they must have felt.

Sonu and Vishal’s families hung them from a ceiling. When the ceiling proved too low to do the job, they dragged the teenagers down, strangled Vishal with the noose and crushed Sonu’s throat by stomping on it. The entire village helped burn the bodies in a joint pyre at the local cremation ground and then went home to sleep, “honor” restored.

Truth be told, this skewed idea of honor isn’t totally alien to me. As a woman growing up in India, it had been fed into me by cultural osmosis that we are the repositories of family honor and the ideal Bharatiya nari (Indian woman) was always chaste and pure. While this may no longer hold true for urban, middle and upper class India, in much of the rural north a woman’s chastity still equals caste and family honor and is worth killing for.

The National Crime Records Bureau in India doesn’t list honor killings as a separate crime. It lists it under murder. But the All India Democratic Women’s Association says these killings comprise more than 10 percent of all murders in India. UP, Bihar, Haryana and Punjab are the worst offenders. And the district I’d traveled to, Muzaffarnagar, tops the list in UP. According to a 2007 survey by the Delhi-based Indian Population Statistics Survey, 25 percent of the murders reported here are honor related.

Following sustained campaigns by womens’ and human rights groups, the Indian government is currently contemplating new legislation to make honor killing a separate offense.

Early next morning as we were settling our bill, Rajbir, the hotel’s lone waiter and security guard, told us the men rattling the gate last night had offered to pay him 200 rupees if he let them in. We tipped Rajbir handsomely, took the first bus out to Jhinjhana, the closest town to Alinagar accessible by public transport, and breathed a little easier.

At Jhinjhana we ran into a local journalist, Vinod Jain, who had covered the murders for a Hindi language daily. Jain introduced us to Ashok Kumar Sharma, a distant uncle of the murdered boy, Vishal. Sharma walked with us to Alinagar - a tiny cul-de-sac of six brick houses around a main square, surrounded by lush sugarcane and mustard fields.

Vishal’s house, a modest, un-plastered brick affair, lies abandoned. His brother and sister-in-law are serving life-sentences for their hand in the killings. The rest of the family has moved to a town further up north. Sonu’s extended family sold off their home to a neighbor. Sonu’s parents are in prison for life. But the khap panchayat members who had ordered the killings got away. Lack of substantial proof the courts said.

Not unusual. The conviction rate for murder in India is two to three percent. Getting witnesses to testify for the prosecution is next to impossible. Most fear retribution or are bought off with bribes. The record of acquittals in honor killings cases is especially high since the views of local authorities on the subject of honor are often not too different from that of the community.

I walked around the village wondering how this green, peaceful, friendly place could harbor people with thoughts of murder so foul? “We carry a lot of love in our hearts, but an equal amount of anger too,” Jain told me. “When honor is at stake, people will do anything.”

I turned to the genial Sharma, who has a college-going daughter. “What if your daughter falls in love with someone outside your caste? Would you let her marry the man of her choice?”

“That won’t happen,” he replied firmly.

There it was again. Beneath the smiling face, the same proprietary hostility I’d seen in the men’s eyes at Shamli. It spoke of a patriarchal culture that suffers from a compelling need to control women’s sexuality. Over seventy years of democracy and social reform measures hadn’t subdued it.

Carlos and I were lucky it cost us only a sleepless night in a small town hotel with a chair pushed against the door. But for the thousands of young Vishals and Sonus for whom escape is impossible, this cycle of violence is part of everyday life, festering beneath a serene rural landscape.

Yet love is stubborn and headstrong and heedless. It continues to blossom again and again and again on such blood-soaked soil. Maybe therein lies the defeat of this demon.

About the Author
Maureen Nandini Mitra is an independent journalist of Indian origin who divides her time between Berkeley, CA, and Calcutta, India. A journalism graduate from Columbia University, her work has appeared publications such as The New Internationalist, Sueddeutsche Zeitung, The Caravan, Economic and Political Weekly and Down to Earth magazine. Her website is maureennandinimitra.com

About the Photographer
Carlos Reyes-Manzo, documentary photographer and poet, was born in Chile. Following the military coup in 1973 he spent two years in prison and was exiled to Panama. He has been living in the UK since 1979. He has held over 30 solo exhibitions around the world. His work is published regularly in books, newspapers and magazines.

5 comments on “A Matter of Honor: Murder as a “Way of Life”
  1. Zee says:

    What an amazing and horrifying article. Amazing because the story you convey is so simultaneously personal and global, it reaffirms my desire to fight against gender-based violence. Horrifying because it reveals how challenging it is to fight against injustices like this. How do you work to change something so deeply-rooted in culture? I applaud the work of Indian activists on this issue and hope they can make a difference.

  2. rkumar336 says:

    1. Khaps or the so called village councils never order killings. Jats who are often confused with Khaps, do not marry in the same gotra as a long held custom. girls and boys from same gotra are considered like real brother and sisters. Marrying in the same gotra is considered highly immoral among Jats. Family members of such couple find it extremely difficult to face the society. People often chide on them. Under mental pressure the parents/ relatives of such couples often take extreme step of killing them. To avoid this, Jats want that the Hindu Marriage act should be amended. People from other parts of India might think that this demand of Jats a step in wrong direction, however, to Jats this is a highly emotive and sensitive issue.
    2. I am really sorry that you had such rough experience in Shamli and other places during your trip. I was born in a village just next to Shamli and still maintain regular contact with the people over there. In fact I spend good deal of my time there. Let us accept that facilities like hotels etc are not yet developed in small towns like Shamli. Staying in hotels was not the part of rural and small size town Indian culture. A white man is still a rarity in most of rural India. Many of my white friends became an object of curiosity when they visited the area with me. Rural India is not on the International visitors highway. I am not really sure if people at Shamli would have harmed you and your friend. However, for any of your future trips to rural India I would advise that you have some known local person as your guide/ caretaker. Its always better to be the guest of someone locally and whom you know either directly or through some close friend. Hospitaly industry in rural India will take quite sometime.
    3. We have a website Jatland.com and on that we have many threads on Khaps. If you get sometime, please go through. You will get a good picture of the whole thing and how people feel about it. I myself have initiated a thread titled, ” Khaps and Urbanite India” under history section. You can get a good amount of information from the stuff we have posted over there
    Rajendra

  3. rkumar336 says:

    Could not stop commenting further. If one looks at the pictures in the article, one would imagine that time stopped in rural India. When time stops, almost everything stops and that includes how people look at anything. If people live in past, as seen from the images, they think also in the past. There is total mismatch between what a urban Indian thinks and what a rural Indian thinks. Urban Indian has complete control on media and can write whatever he/she thinks. It may mean nothing to rural Indian. There is urgent need for urban India to understand rural India. Spending a night in a small town is too little. Going by the experince of the author it seems that was to be the last night in rural India. Rural India constitutes 70% of India and one can not talk of understanding India unless one spends good amount of time there and understand how people live and how they think.
    Rajendra

  4. MaureenNandiniMitra says:

    @Zee: This is indeed a deep-rooted problem in not just Indian, but several other societies across the world. It’s a practice that cuts across cultures and religions. The United Nations Commission on Human Rights has reports of such killings from Bangladesh, Morocco, Turkey, Uganda, Egypt, Pakistan, Jordan, Brazil, Italy, and Great Britain, to name a few.
    I think this issue, as with most human rights violations, has to be addressed both from within – by pressuring governments to enact laws to protect their citizen’s right to life and educating the public about human and women’s rights, as well as from without – by bringing international attention to it.
    As an Amnesty International official once said: “Change can’t happen if it’s just people working inside the system; they’re overwhelmed. International campaigns and media attention give them some ballast and the ability to say, ‘Look, the world is watching what is going on here,’ and provides support for making change in their own countries.”

  5. MaureenNandiniMitra says:

    @R Kumar:
    Thank you for your concern and your comments, Mr Kumar.
    It is true that khap panchayts don’t always order the killings outright and even when they do so, it’s hard to prove because the village councils don’t record their decisions. But, as K.S Sangwan, a sociology professor at Harayan’s Maharishi Dayanand University told the Los Angeles Times recently (http://bit.ly/cnCOoD), even if no explicit death verdict is given, “there’s an implicit understanding that there should be a murder or else it will bring a bad view of the village.”
    I understand that marrying within the same gotra is, as you say “a highly emotive issue,” but I can under no circumstances condone murder in the name of tradition. Also, as I mentioned in my reply to Zee above – such killings aren’t isolated to one particular community or prompted by one particular reason (other reasons include inter-religious and inter-caste relationships).
    I agree with you that there is a big mismatch between urban and rural India and one can’t understand rural India by spending a night in a small town. However, though I do identify myself as an urban Indian, I’m no stranger to villages. I’ve spent much of my childhood in rural and small town India and I’ve devoted most of my reporting career traveling and living in villages in UP, Orissa, Chhattisgarh, Assam, Sikkim and West Bengal (to name a few). Understanding how people live and think doesn’t automatically mean that one has to support all their views, customs and actions.

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