Newsletter May - Aug 2010

It is dramatic events that find space in the media. Everyday discrimination, inequality or injustices rarely get reported unless compiled into a statistic or a report released with fanfare. Not just this, when dramatic events happen the media tends to focus on the event and not on the broader picture.

And so it has been now, with the reporting on a series of killings of young people – inappropriately termed ‘honour killings’. Each of the killings brought into sharp focus the resistance there is to relationships or marriages of ‘choice’ made by couples. Nirupama Pathak, a young Delhi based TV journalist who wanted to marry a man of her choice – not of the same caste, class or region – was killed by her family in April 2010 in Jharkhand when she went back home for a visit. Babli and Manoj, two young people in Kaithal, Haryana who wanted to get married, ran away and sought police protection. They were found and were brutally killed by members of her family – her brothers, cousins, and uncles. The ostensible problem: they belonged to the same gotra. The news of their death not only highlighted the role of the Khap Panchayats in supporting their killing, it also pointed to the complicity of the police who failed to give them protection. Given that Khaps wield social and political power over communities, local dissent is silenced, including, in this case, the dissent of Manoj’s mother and sister. Despite the frightening way in which the Khap Panchayats have supported the killers – to the extent of calling a MahaKhap Panchayat meeting and collecting money for legal help for those found guilty by the courts in the Babli and Manoj case – some politicians have come out openly, in this pre-election moment, in support of the Khaps.  

These violent responses to instances of choice relationships – whether inter-caste, inter-religious, or marriages that in some way are seen as going against the rules of marriage – indicate the extent to which parents or a community are willing to go in order to reproduce caste and to keep community lines separate.  But is it the ‘blood purity’ of the caste group that motivates these parents and these communities to kill their daughters or sons?  The number of inter-caste and interreligious marriages in contemporary India, (and not only in recent times), in which the parents and community did not react in this violent way, will convince us that something else is at play. For example, how do we explain the large number of marriages between men in Haryana and women from different states, such as Assam, Kerala, and Uttar Pradesh? These marriages are not only across region, but are also across caste.  In these cases, does the low sex ratio and the dearth of women in Haryana, coupled with ideas of compulsory marriage, suspend blood purity considerations?  Why is it that people turn a blind eye in these cases?

These and many other cases indicate that marriages or relationships that go against prescribed rules of marriage are made ‘a problem’ when power has to be asserted. The woman is ‘taught a lesson’ for defying the authority of her parents and/or brothers, or the man killed for daring to love a woman as in the cases of NitishKataria (in Delhi) and Rizwanur Rahman (in Calcutta).  Cases in Haryana have shown that even in instances of marriages arranged by the family, with the consent of the community, months or years later a ‘problem’ is found with the marriage. In many cases in which the gotra or lineage of the couple has been an issue, it has been shown that rather than the idea that the khaps are protecting ‘tradition’, more and more gotras are being declared as ‘kin’. The rules here tend to come from the dominant caste in the region.  The diktats are in fact ways of asserting power in the region. This aspect of killings shows up why the term ‘honour killing’ is so inappropriate – because it masks the idea of power and control. It conceals the understanding that the way ‘honour’ is defined is not only cultural but also linked to an assertion of power.

Cases of killings also show that there are other hierarchies that are being protected – the violent response to cases of intra-village marriage is a response, as Prof.PremChowdhry has argued, to the fear that women will assert their right to their share of property if they stay within the village after marriage.

In the face of these murders, we need to cry out louder for our Constitutional rights – the right to life and liberty, the right to equality and so on. We also have to reiterate our right to choice and our right to love irrespective of caste, gotra, religion, region, gender. 

However, the right to choice brings up another issue. And this is the right of a woman to say NO – not just to parental choice but also to a man who may fancy her. Too many cases of Acid Attacks or murders by men who feel jilted or rebuked tell us that we need to reiterate that a woman has a choice to say NO to whoever it is – parents, brothers, community, or the man who professes his love for her. The recent murder of a young woman who studied at IIT, by her friend when she said that she could not marry him, is one of the many examples we have witnessed recently. In another recent incident a man and his friend in Delhi threw acid on a woman who had refused his proposal and her sister, blinding and maiming both of them. 

That a man chooses to kill or maim a woman as revenge for her saying NO to him is part of the masculinity that brothers and parents embody in choosing death for their sister or daughter, when she chooses to assert her own will. Asserting the right to choice and the right to love must then be seen as an assertion of a woman’s autonomy and independence. An assertion that should remind everyone that women and girls are not objects to be owned or possessed.

Box 1


The Saheli office was agog with enthusiasm and energy on the 15th of May, 2010 as volunteers and members made posters and practiced songs for a protest demonstration against crimes in the name of ‘honour’ and for our right to choose our own partners irrespective of caste, class, religion, ethnicity or gender! There was no electricity nor water in the Saheli office that day, but it did not dampen the energy! In the evening at about 4 pm we picked up our posters, the daphli, pamphlets and Saheli banner and went to Lajpat Nagar market where we had planned the protest. By about 5.30 pm a fair number of people had gathered around us listening to our songs and slogans. We then walked  through the lanes of Lajpat Nagar Central Market distributing leaflets, singing songs and shouting slogans. Many people came up to us and enquired about what our protest was about.  Listening to us they appreciated our effort of reaching out to people for consciousness raising. Some also joined our dharna with their children.

Box 2


“Babli and Manoj Killed”…. “Nirupama killed”… “Khap Panchayat diktat out against couple”... “Couple seek police protection”…

These are often the headlines of the newspapers. The family or community’s problem with these relationships vary – they belong to different castes or religions, they belong to the same gotra, they belong to the same village, or they are both of the same gender. But why can’t an adult choose her own partner? Even while arranged marriages are the norm, shouldn’t women have the right to choose their own partners; to love across lines of caste or religion; to love someone of their own gender?

Why are these relationships seen as eroding the ‘honour’ of a family or community? Does honour lie in controlling your daughter?


The Khap Panchayats are exercising power and control through various diktats and valorising the murder of young couples. In some cases family members are killing their own daughters or pushing them to suicide to protect so called family honour. These incidents have multiplied and have become widespread not only in rural areas but in big cities and among people of all classes and castes. One estimate puts it at 100 such murders every year.

Such barbaric acts and support of these acts must be condemned. No caste or community has the license to kill under any pretext, nor to glorify such murders. These are criminal acts.

The Government has mostly remained silent in the matter – often denying protection while its functionaries are known to connive with the murderers. We are also shocked by the active support to the Khaps given by State governments, the local judiciary, police and political leaders like Naveen Jindal who provide new legitimacy to this criminal behaviour .

while politicians make pre-election compromises and appease the Khap panchayat leaders over the dead bodies of young people, can we assert that women have to be given the agency to choose who they want to love and live with?


-      That state governments take prompt action to protect the rights of citizens to choose their own partners irrespective of caste, religion, region, ethnicity or gender.

-      That action is taken against the Khap leaders for glorifying murder and valorising the killers.

-      That the ugly nexus between Khap leaders, the police, and local politicians is exposed to ensure that fundamental rights laid down in our Constitution are upheld.

Saheli Women’s Resource Centre, Under Defence Colony Flyover, (South Side) New Delhi

Parchi distributed during the protest on 15th May 2010