On Tuesday, readers awoke to the Capital’s night of horror. A young girl, Asha, and her lover, Yogesh, were tortured to death by her family members inside her home, even as neighbours chose to shut out the victims’ screams. Those who tried to intervene were brushed off by family members claiming it was a ‘private matter’.
This gruesome crime, committed in the name of ‘family honour’, raises three important questions. First, how can there be any honour in punishing your children, with death no less, for the life choices they make? Second, how can the quantum of any such ‘punishment’ — one that is meted out with shocking regularity not only across our country, but in societies around the world — be left to the discretion of a bunch of patriarchs for whom ‘honour’ is synonymous with preserving outdated social diktats? Third, how can such a crime be a ‘private’ matter and why are we, as a nation, not outraged?
The idea that honour killings are restricted to Taliban territory or feudal groups in nondescript villages is like saying that domestic violence or marital rape occur only in those wretched slums. Be it books, Bollywood or saas-bahu capers, popular culture around us is full of references to the fate of those who choose to defy parental choice. From the native tales of Heer-Ranjha and Sohni-Mahiwal, to Laila-Majnu and Shakespeare’s famous star-crossed lovers or even Aamir Khan’s debut hit Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak, most (forbidden) love stories it seems don’t end well for defiant lovers. A look at any matrimonial ad will tell you how prospective life partners are slotted into neat little squares of desirable conformity.
Indian society, especially, continues to weigh in on the side of tradition. From parents forcing their children into loveless marriages to refusing to let them leave abusive ones, honour raises its ugly head in the most dishonourable of ways. What’s more, there is no bar on the sort of offences that can turn the wrath of a family upon its own. From marrying outside the caste to marrying within the gotra, from being the victim of rape to being in a same-sex relationship, a misguided sense of wounded family pride is all the justification it takes to claim a life.
Here we are not alone. Ghettoes of intolerance exist wherever there are men (or women) who cling to the absurd notion that their children are their property or asset. In 2008, faced with numerous complaints from immigrant communities, and a spate of murders in the name of honour, the British government passed a law under which anyone can ask a court to implement a Forced Marriage Protection Order, which can stop a person being married against their will, prevent them from being taken abroad, and ask those involved to hand over passports or face imprisonment for up to two years.
Similarly, giving more power to the community without criminalising forced marriages back home might help harassed youngsters take on their families to avert a tragedy, but creating awareness must be the first step.
The very idea that a parent can kill his/her own child places honour crimes in a macabre league of their own, so the lack of remorse shown by those accused of killing Yogesh and Asha should come as no surprise. What’s more distressing is the fact that — even as we are quick to call the police over minor matters like loud music or parking rights — the neighbours of the ill-fated couple did nothing to stop the gruesome crime.
There has been a debate in recent months about the need for a separate law to deal with honour killings. Suggestions vary from enacting an abolition-of-Sati type of provision, to changes in the Indian Penal Code, which can add urgency to prosecuting such crimes. Perhaps there is some merit in that, but more important is the need for an immediate withdrawal of the carte blanche that seems to have been given to a bunch of elders in village/caste panchayats, enabling them to order the annulment of legal marriages, demand public apologies and ostracise entire families — leading to an unfortunate trickle-down effect.
Heaven and hell, they say, are ours to choose. By that logic alone, no one should be allowed to determine who we decide to spend the rest of our lives with, much less punish us for the choices we make.