One fine day, you discover that your dear little sister has a boyfriend, whom she loves very much and who loves her very much.
What do you do? Feel happy for her, and hope she has a joyous romantic, sexual, and – if she chooses – matrimonial life ahead?
Horrors, no! That way lies decadence, miscegenation, and ultimately the collapse of the social order.
No, if you’re a North Indian from what the rest of the country derisively calls the cow belt, this is what you do:
If you’re too kind-hearted and soft-natured for your own good, you merely threaten the couple with social ostracising and expulsion from their native village unless they not only break up but declare each other to be brother and sister. This may or may not be accompanied by a few salutary beatings, depending on the circumstances and just how soft-hearted you are.
If, on the other hand, you’re a red-blooded he-man, what you will probably do is kill the two little social criminals – kill them, preferably, in as sadistic a manner as possible, burn, bludgeon, or hang them; but kill them anyway, anyhow, at all costs. Being a red-blooded North Indian he-man, you’ll as likely as not be a gun owner or have access to a gun you can borrow, so it becomes easier still.
And then what happens? Unless you’re really stupid or really careless, you’ll not just get away with it, but you can use this as a stepping stone to a political career. You’re a defender of society, you see; you’ve just saved it by cutting away a portion of cancerous cells. You’re a hero, and you’ll find plenty of defenders among the politicians and, yes, among the police and with any luck, among the judiciary as well.
No, I am not making any of this up.
There’s a widespread misconception in much of the world that the so-called “honour killing” is a feature of Muslim countries and Muslim societies – and Islam being, as we all know, the (unspoken) Enemy of the World, the Green Terror of today (like Communism, the Red Terror of yesterday) – this is seized on as yet another reason to hate Islam. It comes easy, it comes naturally, and as usual in such cases, it’s totally and hopelessly wrong.
Fact: “Honour” killings, so-called, have little to nothing to do with religion, and are rampant throughout North India, where it primarily involves Hindus and Sikhs, not Muslims. These killings, in fact, are always more prevalent in areas with deep caste and sub-caste divides, and are often getting more blatant and in-your-face than ever before.
At the moment of writing, in fact, the Delhi police have just arrested three young men (two of them cousins), who are “suspects” (since they pretty much boasted of their involvement, “suspects” is kind of a weak word) who killed two of their sisters, and were trying to hunt down a third – all for the crime of marrying against “social norms”. Listen to what the uncle of one of these murderers has to say, on live TV at that (Source No 1, below):
Prime suspect Mandeep’s uncle Dharambir Nagar … said “they supported the crime for the sake of family honour”.
“Everything has a limit. Murder is unacceptable but in this case it is good for society. I think these youth should be made to join politics, they are the right role models,” said Nagar before TV channels.
Earlier this year there was a big ruckus when an association of “khap panchayats” (caste councils) demanded a change in the Hindu marriage laws to ban marriage within the same “gotra” (subcaste) since – allegedly – such marriages were tantamount to incest. The ruckus was intensified when certain politicians including a Member of Parliament and the Chief Minister of the state of Haryana (both members of the ruling Congress party) supported these “khap panchayats”, which are not just illegal but in many cases have been known to order expulsion or murder of men and women for marrying whom they wished.
Since one might think it’s a strange anachronism for a modern society to believe that marrying according to one’s choice is a crime worthy of death, it might be useful to just take a small step back and look at the mechanics of caste and how it originated.
Now, I’m no social anthropologist, so anything I’ll say will be speculation, but (since I’ve lived for years in North India and know the society I’m talking about) informed speculation.
Caste, and this is what I learned at school, started out as a simple division of labour, rather like modern professions, and theoretically there wasn’t any bar in shifting from one caste to another. Of course, in practice, castes soon became guilds, with knowledge jealously protected from dissemination to non-guild members. Pretty soon, obviously, the world outside the guild will become the world of the distrusted Other, and, equally obviously, nobody will ever want to migrate outside the guild to one with poorer career prospects. In other words, the richer professions will become the upper castes, alert for competition from arrivestes from the lower depths of society. You see how the division of labour rapidly becomes a hermetically sealed caste system?
There was another dimension to it, though. Early North Indians – Aryan entrants from Eurasia – did not immigrate into a vacuum. The land was already inhabited by various earlier settlers, mostly of Dravidian stock. These peoples were subjugated or displaced southwards, and those of them who remained were relegated to the bottom ranks of the system. Easily recognised by their skin, much darker than that of the Aryans, they became the labourer and worker underclass, the helots of the Aryan society. And even among them, as in the higher castes, the logic of the guild worked, so that goldsmiths would not intermarry with leatherworkers, or carpenters with barbers. Each caste split into a hundred subcastes, each with its own place in the social hierarchy.
This led to a further problem. You see, in a relatively small community, the members of a particular subcaste would soon be related to each other by intermarriage, and inbreeding would soon be a real problem, even if not consciously recognised as such. Just as cow slaughter was made taboo in order to protect cattle for use as draught animals, it became taboo to marry anyone from the same subcaste from the same village. And since traditions die slow and hard, when these people migrated to the big cities, they took their traditions with them. North Indian cities being primarily populated with migrants from the villages, the cities themselves became – sociologically – giant villages. (An interesting contrast can be made between North and West Indian cities, the latter being far more liberal.)
Not too surprisingly, if you don’t allow people to marry either outside the caste or within the closer subcaste, you’d better keep a tight control over just whom they marry. Free marriage can’t be countenanced, of course; and keeping a tight rein on people marrying is made much easier if your society already keeps women in a subjugated position. Historically, in fact, arranged marriages have been generally commoner in human society than free marriages, and in the huge swathe of territory between West Africa and East Asia, such is still the case. So, you have two traditions neatly dovetailing; very convenient, as you can see.
Here, then, is where we get to the “honour” bit. Since tradition demands not only that young men and women marry whom they are told to marry, but also that they marry only others within a fairly narrow social spectrum, it is incumbent on the family (as those immediately around them) to ensure that they marry according to these restrictions, and no one else. If a family should fail in this task, the (by this time long since forgotten) rationale for the existence of such restrictions is endangered. Therefore, some means has to be found to compel the family to exercise such vigilance. The concept of “honour” is perfect.
I suppose this concept of family honour must have arisen as a means for internal policing, of keeping delinquent members in check, and to keep the family to its rightful place in society. Once the family became the custodian of its own honour, of course, any transgression of those rules became a stain on the honour, to be ruthlessly excised. And, as usual, the victims were primarily the women, as the weak (physically and socioeconomically) members of the family unit.
For centuries, this taboo didn’t actually face any real challenge. People stayed within the narrow boundaries of their villages, leaving only very occasionally for particular tasks like taking goods to market. Women who were made to marry men from another village went there and stayed there, and seldom if ever revisited the home of their birth. Nobody was educated or aware enough to challenge what they saw around them from birth, and if there were any cases of rebellion, they were too few to matter.
But this is the twenty first century, and the borders are breaking down.
Here’s another speculation I’m making, without adequate qualifications to make it: any society responds to sudden change by feeling threatened, and it promptly tries to retreat into tradition as fast as it can go. Ultimately, in every case, this retreat fails completely and utterly, but while it’s in the act of failing, it causes much misery, pain and heartbreak all around, for all concerned. India has changed unimaginably in the last sixty years, and even more so in the last twenty years. Things are changing far too fast for people to adapt themselves. Suddenly, the traditions they always took for granted seem to be the only anchor in a changing world.
So when your sister meets some guy from another caste and perhaps another region of the country, or maybe another religion too, it’s not just something you can’t handle on a personal level; your sister’s relationship is a symbol of everything that’s wrong with the world, and if you crush it flat, you’ve got a handle on change. In a little way, at least, you’re fighting back against what you fear.
And that, precisely, is why this stuff is happening so much these days.
There’s one other question that deserves to be asked about “honour killing”: why does it attract, generally speaking, police and political support? There are reasons.
First is the fact that the police in India, by and large, are drawn from the ranks of the same people they police. What the law says is only what the law says, to them; social customs are far more important, far more inbred in them, and in a nation like India, laws are meant to be broken anyway. So any runaway couple who go to the police seeking help will only be turned away if they’re lucky, and imprisoned or otherwise harassed if they aren’t. If they actually want protection, they’d better move court, and eloping couples can be murdered literally on the court steps. It’s been known to happen.
Let it be clearly understood that policing in India is a political function before any other. The Indian police still operates as it did in colonial times; it follows political orders rigidly and will only enforce the law if ordered politically to enforce the law. Therefore if the politicians are soft on honour killings, the police will follow their natural instincts and disregard them totally.
Why would politicians be soft on these murders?
Politicians, even more than the police, are drawn from the dregs of society in a nation like India. The average politician is uneducated, illiberal, and basically out for power by hook or by crook. Therefore, the politician will quite shamelessly pander to the lowest common denominator in his quest for power, unless restrained by party discipline.
And there, the last parts of the puzzle fall into place.
The mainstream Hindunazi right in India is in steep, perhaps terminal decline. They haven’t won a major election in years, and the right wing space is lying vacant. The previously left of centre Congress party is shifting rightwards as fast as it can go, to the extent that it’s now more right wing than the main Hindunazi party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), in many respects. It’s not surprising at all that the politicians defending honour killings belong to the Congress, while the BJP has joined forces with the Left to call for prosecuting these as plain and simple murder.
I remember an old woman being interviewed on TV some years ago, a resident of a village whose men had vanished after murdering a young couple in some particularly gruesome fashion, The interviewer asked her what she thought of the incident. With her toothless jaws working angrily, she spluttered that the dead couple were the guilty ones. “Of what crime?” the interviewer asked.
“Of crime against society,” she replied.
It doesn’t seem quite so incomprehensible any more.