Less than one month after the death of a young Delhi gang-rape victim sparked a massive series of protests across India demanding a change in the country’s attitudes toward its women, a group of council elders have defended another type of violence against females -- the ancient practice of "honor killings" in the country.
Honor killings, which are widespread in India, Pakistan and across much of the Middle East, typically involve the murder of a young woman who has “violated” notions of family “honor” and “purity.” Such “transgressions” may involve anything from eloping with a lover who is not accepted by her family to rejecting an arranged marriage to simply wearing revealing clothing in public.
Such killings are frequently disguised as “accidents” or even ”suicides,” rendering it impossible to accurately gauge the number of such incidents. In India, such murders typically occur in the Northern regions of the country.
On Monday, in documents presented before the Indian Supreme Court, the Sarv Khap Panchayat, which comprises 67 “khaps” (or unelected caste-based councils) from the Rohtak district of Haryana, a state in northern India, explained the reasons behind honor killings and absolved themselves of any responsibility in them.
The Panchayat’s appearance before the court arose as a result of a petition filed by Shakti Vahini, a leading Indian women’s rights organization, back in 2010, which called for, among other things, the government to reduce the powers of khap panchayats, particularly in the states of Haryana and Uttar Pradesh.
“The khaps, though not directly involved in the killings, are guilty of providing sanctity to such crimes,” Shakti Vahini stated in the petition.
The Times of India reported that in response the Panchayat declared before the court: “The main culprits [behind] honor killing are not the representatives of khaps but the near and dear ones of the couples and more so the relatives of the girls, when they cannot resist the social pressure of the locality and the taunts of relatives."
The statement asserted that regulating meetings of khaps, which generally enjoy tremendous authority in local villages and serve as a kind of de facto “government,” would not bring down the number of honor killings.
“The killings are initiated by the family members of such couples -- marrying inter-caste or within the same gotra [clan] -- and especially by the relatives of girls. It is observed that such incidents happen only [among] the peace-loving and law-abiding people of the village and not [among] the mischievous families,” the Panchayat said.
"Such ‘love marriages’ being socially, customarily and traditionally prohibited relationships against the age-old custom and tradition of marriages, their relatives and friends cannot withstand the hostile taunts of their companions and [the] public at large and this aspect forces them to commit such heinous crime of killing the couple on the pleas of saving the honor of their families in the eyes of the villagers.”
Moreover, the panchayats, who have been widely blamed for ordering the deaths of people who have violated social codes, claim they are not opposed to mixed marriages.
"The khaps are not against inter-caste marriages, whatsoever,” they said. “The companion can be of any religion, caste or creed and of any age group and may belong to any state."
The victims of most honor killings in India (as well as Pakistan and the Arab nations) tend to be women, who are viewed as the holder and symbol of a family’s “honor.”
By choosing her own husband in defiance of her family’s wishes, a young woman in India is “seen as polluting not just herself but also her domestic group,” Delhi-based sociologist Deepak Mehta said to the Wall Street Journal.
Shakti Vahini estimates that 80 percent of honor killings in the state of Haryana occur over women marrying without their family’s consent.
Last October, a young woman in Panipat, Haryana, named Indu was murdered by her own family after marrying a man they disapproved of who belonged to another caste. Police did not even bother to make arrests in the case until neighbors of the young coupe loudly protested.
In May 2008, five men in a Haryana village of Baila murdered a pregnant 21-year-old woman and her boyfriend. According to reports, most of the village strongly approved of the double murder. In this case, the couple were killed because they hailed from the same village, which is viewed as “incestuous’ by older, conservative folk.
In many such incidents, the local panchayat is believed to have sanctioned -- or even explicitly ordered -- such killings.
The panchayat’s document to the court comes about five weeks after a particularly gruesome honor killing in Kolkata in the eastern state of West Bengal. A man decapitated his sister and even brought her head (and the knife he used in the killing) to the local police station to surrender.
Mehtab Alam, a 29-year-old, murdered his sister, Nilofar Bibi, 22, after finding out she was living with a former boyfriend. He beheaded her on a public street, saying "she had sinned and had to be punished."
Al-Jazeera noted that the mega-violent death of Bibi hardly registered much media coverage in India, while the Delhi gang-rape victim continues to generate huge attention.
"Killing is killing. It is unconstitutional and illegal; it's an offense. There is no 'honor' in killing," Nirmala Samant Prabhavalkar, an official of India's National Commission for Women, or NCW, told Al-Jazeera.
Palash has worked as a business journalist for 21 years in New York.