Fourteen painful years after the brutal murder of Nitish Katara, his killers were recently sentenced to 25 years in prison with the Supreme Court terming it an honour killing. It was the tenacity of a mother who never gave up in the face of a painfully slow criminal justice system for her son who made this possible. Day after day, she made the rounds of the courts seeking justice for her son, whose body was burnt by his killers. His crime was that he was in love with the sister of one of the killers, (she was a cousin of the other) who felt that this degraded their honour. In most such honour killings, the women are victims, one of the many violent crimes which make India one of the most dangerous places for women.
Civil society, feminists and political parties have worked from the 1970 to politicise the issue of violence against women. And indeed they were successful in pushing for change in the laws and other arms of the state. On and off their campaigns worked with the criminal justice system kicking in with alacrity. The panchayati raj system also worked in favour of taking on issues of violence at the family and community level. There is not a day when some form of violence like rape or stalking is not reported against women. As for domestic violence, it often takes place in the shadows and to prevent the honour of the family, the women force themselves into submission and silence. The myth that such violence does not take place in the so-called educated south has now been shattered. Kerala has among the highest incidents of wife-battering.
Much of this happens as the criminal justice system has failed women in particular. The other is tradition. Some years ago, I visited the offices of the Rashtra Sevika Samiti, supposed to be the women’s arm of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. The women, all educated, were so conditioned to accept violence as part of their lives and the right of their husbands to inflict this on them that they said a woman should adjust to conditions in her marital home. When I wrote about how retrograde this was, they accused me of being an odd Indian woman and how they were fooled by my traditional sari and bindi.
In honour killings too, the woman is seen as having besmirched the honour of her family, the reason the Yadav brothers decided to eliminate Nitish Katara.
Thanks to silence, conviction rates are poor in the case of women. There is a powerful prejudice both among the police and the lower judiciary in dealing with violence against women. In the case of the now famous Bhanwari Devi rape case, the judge concerned seemed to think a low-caste, ugly woman could not have been raped by Brahmin men, and that too when the assailants were an uncle and two nephews.
The political response to the issue of violence, especially from the NDA government, has been disappointing. And it has not been much better from other political formations. There is the condescending nonsense of victims being our daughters or sisters, as if that should them make them feel better about being subjected to violence in their daily lives. Remember all the references to the Delhi gang rape victim as a beloved daughter of India. Haryana chief minister Manohar Lal Khattar has justified khap panchayats, which have often ordered honour killings as part of our tradition. The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh chief has time and again spoken of women who don’t carry out their husbands’ wishes as being no longer worthy of that role.
These are powerful and influential people whose voices carry a lot of weight. Of course, the judiciary and the police should take a more women-friendly approach. But at the same time those who make the laws have the responsibility to lead the way by at least not pronouncing their backward, indeed dangerous, views. I followed the Katara case right through, marvelling at the strength and commitment of this lone mother. Apart from the initial days, she got little sympathy from the political class, perhaps because the killers came from a powerful political family.
This is not to blame politicians for everything that goes wrong. But when it comes to women’s rights they seem notoriously reluctant to weigh in. Messages are powerful and the right ones I think would make society safer for women. In the Jessica Lall case, where the model was shot dead by yet another political scion, the noises that came from many in the political class amounted to asking what she was doing tending a bar at night. That is telling, isn’t it?