Honour killings: A clash between tradition and modernity

Fast changing social mores are leading to clashes between tradition and modernity. Honour killings are a symptom of this evolution, reports Navneet Sharma. See graphic

delhi Updated: Jun 24, 2010 09:48 IST
Navneet Sharma
Navneet Sharma
Hindustan Times

Asha Saini, 19, and Yogesh Kumar, also 19, both residents of Delhi, were killed last week for being in love.

Asha’s family is in the vegetable business and Yogesh Kumar was a cabbie. The girl’s father and uncle, allegedly behind the murder, are “good people”, the neighbours say.

Then why did they indulge in such an act?

What Asha did “left them with no choice”, they reportedly answered. The police said the father and uncle were “unrepentant” about it.

After all, they reportedly told the cops, the family’s honour was at stake.

Within a week of this incident, Kuldeep Singh (26), a Rajput, and Monica (24), a Gujjar, were killed in Delhi, and here, too, the girl’s family members are prime suspects.

“Theirs was the first inter-caste marriage in our village (Wazirpur, in north Delhi)… in the light of what they did, the fate they met with was inevitable,” says Mahendar Singh Khari (70), sarpanch of the Gujjar community.

Incidents such as the ones described above seem to have gone up manifold over the last couple of years. One reason for this could be that many more cases are being reported now.

But sociologists also detect in these killings a backlash against the tectonic shifts that have taken place in Indian society over the last couple of decades.

“It’s a conflict between the new generation, which is getting influenced by cosmopolitan culture, and tradition. Young people are getting influenced by TV channels and movies and have scant regard for age-old traditions,” says Khazan Singh, dean of social sciences, Maharishi Dayanand University.

“A gap has opened up in a tradition-bound society, and this is disturbing the deeply entrenched social order, especially in rural areas,” he adds.

And this clash of civilisations – for want of a better phrase – is leading to violence.

Lined up on the side of tradition is a group of people who (probably genuinely) believe that they are standing up for morality, social order and family honour.

They believe either that marrying within the same gotra (a grouping of so-called descendants from the same mythological ancestor) or same village is tantamount to incest and that marrying outside or “below” their caste brings dishonour to their families.

Neither of these positions have any legal sanctity.

Ranged against this lot is a group of younger people who want to take charge of their lives and choose spouses based on love and compatibility rather than on caste or gotra considerations.

Make no mistake: the traditionalists are not just a bunch of anachronistic social satraps. They have solid bases in the societies they claim to represent.

A Hindustan Times survey last month found that 81 per cent of the respondents in Haryana did not support people of the same gotra marrying; 69 per cent were in favour of the government banning same-gotra marriages; and 2 per cent even supported the death sentence that khap (clan) courts sometimes award for violating their orders on such marriages.

No wonder politicians belonging to mainstream parties are unwilling to take on this sub-stratum of the social power structure. Congress MP Naveen Jindal and Indian National Lok Dal head Om Prakash Chautala, political rivals though they are, find themselves on the same side of the fence when it comes to recognising the authority of khaps.

Even Haryana Chief Minister Bhupinder Singh Hooda, whose job it is to stamp out these extra-constitutional bodies, has hedged around the issue and avoided taking a stand. Other parties, like the BJP, have also fought shy of unequivocally condemning honour killings – whether of the gotra or upper caste-lower caste variety.

Clearly, politicians are unwilling to antagonise caste leaders who command large vote banks of their brethren.

And it is this political patronage that gives the perpetrators of honour killings the wherewithal to defy the state.

But every society that has gone through gut wrenching changes has had to face a clash between tradition and modernity – only the expression has been different.

Says B. Purkayasta, former professor of sociology, Calcutta University: “The Industrial Revolution led to tectonic shifts in 18th century British society. Those who felt threatened by the changes reacted by destroying machinery, which they blamed for tearing the fabric of their society. They were led by a man called Ned Lud, who gave us the term Luddite.”

It was this clash that prompted Lord Tennyson to write in his epic poem Idylls of the King: “The old order changeth, yielding place to new, and God fulfils himself in many ways, Lest one good custom should corrupt the world.”

His remedy: stand firm; don’t bend, whatever the pressure. The winds of change will do the rest.

First Published: Jun 24, 2010 00:57 IST