Rigid caste system means that some families choose to murder relatives who break its rules
Ratna Devi, who lives in a shanty home alongside the Yamuna River in New Delhi, remembers vividly how she and her husband were brutally assaulted by her family because she had married a socially poor Dalit man.
The 33-year-old woman fell in love with the Dalit man in her home state of Haryana and married him discreetly because she knew her family would prevent her from doing so.
“For high-caste families, it is not only a crime but also a sin to marry someone of lower caste in India. I committed that sin and faced my family’s wrath,” Devi told ucanews.com.
The family attacked Devi and her husband with wooden sticks to save their honor. Only the timely intervention of police saved the couple from death.
They later moved to New Delhi. “Life is good here. We have children and my husband has a decent job with a private firm,” Devi said.
However, not all who marry outside their caste are so lucky. Families continue to carry out honor killings of relatives in India.
In the last three years, more than 300 cases have been reported, according to government statistics. The practice has its roots in the caste system followed in Hinduism, the religion of 80 percent of Indian people.
The caste system considers those outside the four castes — priests, warriors, traders and farmers — to be outcasts. They are socially excluded because even their presence is considered polluting.
The socially and economically poor are considered untouchable because of their menial work such as clearing night soil (human excrement) and removing dead animals.
Although a law banned untouchability and caste discrimination in 1955, the practice continues in several forms such as non-acceptance of marriage.
As recently as May 1, a 19-year-old pregnant woman and her husband were set ablaze in Maharashtra by their relatives. The woman died three days later in a hospital while her husband is fighting for his life in hospital.
Media reported that Mangesh Ransingh, a construction worker, and Rukmini Ransingh had married in November last year against the wishes of the girl’s parents. The girl’s father is one of the accused in the case. Two of her uncles have been arrested.
Mangesh belongs to the Lohar community, classified as a nomadic tribe, while Rukmini belonged to a scheduled caste called Pashi.
A 21-year-old Dalit man was beaten to death by upper-caste men in Uttarakhand on April 26 for eating his dinner near them at a wedding.
In another suspected honor killing, a 24-year-old woman was allegedly killed by her parents on April 23 in Maharashtra for marrying against their wishes. Police arrested both her parents on the complaint of her husband.
In March 2018, India’s Supreme Court ruled that honor-based violence is not only a matter of criminal law but also contrary to adults’ fundamental right to exercise choice as guaranteed in the constitution.
Social researchers say the rigidity of the caste system is the main reason for honor killings.
Honor killings are “a frightened reaction to rapid social change in India. The inability of formal governance to reach rural areas also forms the root cause of this evil,” says a report by V. Jeyasanthi, S. Mayeleswari and R. Abirami from VHNSN College in Tamil Nadu.
People, especially women, are attacked for such basic freedoms as personal career choices, education, style of dress, choice of friends and even the number of children they wish to have, the report said.
Puneet Kaur Grewal, a senior research fellow at Punjab University, said India is a signatory to the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women and has also ratified the convention.
As a state party to the convention, India is obliged to make laws and punish individuals for ill-informed ideas of honor that essentially institutionalize discrimination, Grewal said.
Abid Simnani, a sociologist based in Kashmir, said the roots of the caste system are so deeply ingrained in India’s social psyche that education is needed to get rid of it.
“So deep are the roots of the caste system that not only are marriages disallowed and couples murdered, the upper castes consider eating with lower castes a sin,” he added.
Seied Beniamin Hosseini, a sociologist from Aligarh Muslim University, said the violence will only be reduced when this patriarchal mindset is challenged.
In a social change brought by awareness creation and stringent laws, women should become economically free and capable of taking their own decisions without the age-old evil of honor killings, he said.