Above the Law, beneath Contempt: Why Indian 'Honor Killings' Are So Hard to Stop

By McGowan, Jo | Commonweal, September 10, 2010 | Go to article overview

Above the Law, beneath Contempt: Why Indian 'Honor Killings' Are So Hard to Stop


McGowan, Jo, Commonweal


Honor killings--in which families murder their own children for defying the elders' wishes for their marriage--have become so frequent in North India we hardly have time to absorb news of one before another is reported.

The Indian Supreme Court recently ordered the governments of six states (including Punjab and Haryana, two of India's wealthiest) to end the practice. The number of victims reported each year varies (from four hundred to a thousand), but civil-rights groups claim even the higher figure is too low, because many such killings are called suicides or not reported at all.

The term "honor killing" implies a certain degree of virtue--a wronged citizen is forced by his own higher standards to take the law into his hands to protect his family's name. Under an archaic community legal system, a khap panchayat, or village council, believes it can still order that an offending couple, or just the woman alone, be killed. The woman's own family is expected to carry out the sentence.

The community is so united that those directly responsible have no problem admitting to the crime or claiming it was justified. In June, for example, a nineteen-year-old woman and her twenty-one-year-old boyfriend were beaten mercilessly in Delhi and finally electrocuted by the woman's father and uncle. "I have no regrets," the uncle later told reporters, explaining that the couple's intercaste relationship was against the family's beliefs and had brought shame on them all. "I would punish them again if given another chance."

Attacks are sometimes publicly witnessed. The bodies of the victims may be displayed as a warning to others. The involvement of the village council in many of the killings adds a dimension of authority to what might otherwise be seen for what it is: vigilante vengeance carried out in broad daylight.

Politicians have been reluctant to speak out against panchayat policies because the local councils can deliver blocs of votes. In June, India's governing Union Cabinet met to discuss the issue and decided that the existing Indian Penal Code on murder should be amended to specifically include "honor killings." It also decided that when such acts were ordered by the panchayat all members present should be tried for conspiracy and incitement.

In a landmark judgment three months before, a court in Haryana had done just that. It sentenced five panchayat members to death for the murder of a couple who had married against the wishes of the community. Perhaps more radically, the council president was also tried and sentenced to life imprisonment for incitement to murder. It was the first time a victim's family (in this case, the man's) had ever won in court after a panchayat had ruled against him.

The proposed amendment might have ensured more such judgments, but statements against it by prominent politicians--some from the ruling party--cast doubt on the government's commitment. …

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