Hostile to love

The recent spate of so-called honour killings in Haryana, western Uttar Pradesh and especially those in the heart of Delhi have come as a shock to most ordinary people who might be under the mistaken impression that our society has been moving towards becoming liberal and tolerant. While some of the killings have taken place in the background of heightened khap panchayat strictures on same-gotra and other marriages which ostensibly transgress rigid community norms (many of which are actually upheld today only in the breach), the concern here is with killings of couples who have married for love and across caste lines.

As far as khap panchayats are concerned, their behaviour is most likely a response to the heightened competition of gotras (or locally ranked clans) for scarce marriageable women, with each gotra trying to protect its pool of women and maintain its ascendancy in the local ranking system. Local rankings have been upset due to changes in the economy with land no longer being the only source of power and status, and with education and government employment becoming more attractive to parents seeking suitable grooms for their scarce daughters. When old equations are challenged, and more so across caste lines, self-styled representatives of society such as khaps, whose power is now actually peaking, tend to take up cudgels to preserve the old order.

While khap panchayat activism can significantly be attributed to the above underlying causes of changes in political economy conjoined with abysmal sex ratios, the violence of families towards their own kin and the people they choose to marry needs a separate explanation. Such violence against women and against young couples while being truly reprehensible may have other long-term consequences, which if effective would set back women's progress by several decades. Already, there is a demand to lower the age at marriage of girls to 15 and of boys to 17 — this to prevent the young from falling in love and choosing their own spouses. The youth, according to the proponents of this change, would then not be in a position to dishonour the family name. This demand follows on the heels of the well-publicised demand to amend the marriage law to ban same gotra marriages. It is tragic that our reactions in 2010 seem to be more illiberal and retrogressive than they were four-five decades earlier. Then, marriage law was amended to make it as accommodating and liberal as possible and the Special Marriage Act supported those couples who chose to marry outside of caste and religion or against the wishes of their families.

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