Friday, October 28, 2011

Proposed (Dis)Honor Killing Bill by India Government

Writing at the Lounge today, Aakar Patel focuses on a new Bill proposed by the Government of India, called “The Prevention of Crimes in the Name of ‘Honour’ and Tradition Bill”. As Aakar notes, all the heinous acts which find mention in this Bill - committing and abetting murder, coercion - are already punishable, but the Bill's sponsor, Dr. Girija Vyas, Member of the Indian Parliament, intends to create a separate law that will allow the prosecution of perpetrators of specific gruesome acts, coyly termed as "honour killing". Aakar shares his concern that this Bill, if passed into law, will fail to address the intended problem, a deeper and convoluted societal issue.

Read Aakar's write-up at Livemint. With his reasoned arguments (and a Hall-of-Shame-worthy list of such incidents occurring in the recent past), he creates a sad and shocking commentary on a society that, stuck between the modern and the medieval, nevertheless places undue and unthinking premium on tradition and other such nebulous concepts that are often bolstered by religious belief.

Aakar notes that not all communities in India, in general, share the anachronistic and outmoded sense of 'honor and respect as defined by tradition', that prompts certain communities to engage in violent acts against their own flesh and blood. He writes:
The Brahmin does not feel honour, nor does the merchant. Two communities feel honour in India, the peasant and the warrior. Every year, Indians murder over a thousand daughters for falling in love. Of these, 900 are from the peasantry of Haryana, Punjab, Delhi and north-west Uttar Pradesh...
Haryana also has Baniyas (Note: Merchant communities), but they don’t do honour killing. Gujarat has other castes, but only one does honour killing. We have seen the Rajputs (Note: Warrior communities, hailing from warrior ancestors) of Gujarat act as savages with their children.
Aakar puts his finger on the pulse of the problem when he reasons why in these communities this problem is so pervasive.
In our peasant cultures, family honour is reposed in the body of the woman. This is because she is seen as a possession, though not necessarily an asset. Honour is lost when the girl is taken away, and gained when we kill her and take it back...
There are no honour killings in Gujarat’s dominant peasant caste, the Patel. Why? Because he has absorbed the Baniya’s pragmatism over time. How? Through culture. There is little value for honour in a mercantile culture, because inflexibility brings pride but always causes loss.
Treatment of womenfolk as chattels and the deep-seated misogyny ingrained in the patriarchal mindset of the Indian society are not new. And neither is the glorification of a sense of honor or anything perceived to be associated with it, even violent acts directed towards one's own self or others. In Indian history, paeans are still sung to Jauhar, the act of en masse voluntary immolation of Rajput women and young children in order to avoid dishonor of being captured by an invading army - concepts that are hard to imagine as valid in the 21st century. The solution, Aakar opines, is to disconnect the violent acts from a personal sense of honor and achievement through their commission. He writes:
Honour is bestowed on us by others. We cannot honour ourselves. Honour killing is successful only when society gives the killers honour. The antidote is to make them feel loss of honour... What is needed is to treat them as criminals, not enemies of honour and tradition, because honour and tradition are on their side... Hindi newspapers use “aanar killing” to describe these murders. There is no Hindi phrase for the act. Izzat kay liye khoon (murder for honour) becomes a positive act. This is because izzat is a positive attribute. Something done in its defence cannot be bad. There is no negative side to honour in our vocabulary: Laaj, sanmaan, izzat, aabroo, kirti are all positive words, warm words...
And that is why Aakar is justly concerned that the proposed Bill, even with honor under scare-quotes in its name, will end up endorsing this shameful behavior further; that the moniker of 'honor-killing' becomes a badge of honor for the perpetrator, a mark of achievement that immediately raises him/her above the common criminal in the popular sentiment.

If this Bill becomes law, perhaps its fate will be much like that of the (mostly) toothless law against dowry in India. Like Aakar, I don't know if it will provide a redress to the issue or worsen it. However, in the final synthesis, it's not the law that will change this people - but awareness, education and concerted, sustained efforts by saner and more rational people. But will that happen in my lifetime?

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