The killings of Nirupama and Thilagavathi leave us in little doubt that caste, religion and a warped sense of honour still dominate Indian life.
Now, families help women to end their lives. Families murder their own daughters or sisters or nieces. And all in the name of family honour.
Thilagavathi was just 16, bubbling with the youth of life, with the exuberance of living, when her uncle snuffed that precious life out of her. She was found hanging in her Chennai home, and the police first thought she had committed suicide.
However, a post mortem found Thilagavathi’s hyoid bone broken, and since this does not happen when one hangs oneself, the police grew suspicious and zeroed in on murder. Her uncle, K. Hari (37), confessed to killing his niece, and has been arrested.
The motive was honour killing. Or, did Hari harbour a love interest in her? Thilagavathi had sex with an older boy in the same school, and this was videotaped and circulated by him and his friends.
Bollywood director Anurag Kashyap had touched on the video menace in his Dev D. Like the girl in the film (played by his wife Kalki Koechlin) who does not kill herself (it is her father who commits suicide), but is disowned by her family and becomes a prostitute, Thilagavathi may have lived and, who knows, may not have taken to the streets had her uncle left her alone.
Thilagavathi’s father denies honour killing. Hari murdered her because of long-standing enmity, the father averred.
Helmer Avantika Hari’s Land Gold Women looks at the cold bloodedness of honour killing in a small Pakistani Muslim family in England. Here too the girl’s uncle on an explicit sanction from her family murders her, barely 17, because she is in love with a white British boy. Again, to save family honour.
India that never ceases to tell the world that it is shinning bright, that never stops bragging about its space programmes, nuclear arms, fancy cars and elite educational institutions, is ridden by heinous, dark-age practices like killing to protect family honour.
What a shame that only women have to bear and safeguard this honour, while men go around violating bodies, videotaping physical intimacy and, finally, bloodying their hands by snuffing out lives.
What is disgracefully barbaric is that honour killing is brazenly sanctioned by social institutions and community elders. Neither the judiciary nor the executive has been able to stop this.
What is more, perfectly well-educated families commit such dastardly acts.
Last year, Nirupama Pathak, a young journalist working for a leading Indian English-language business daily, was found murdered in her house. She was, according to newspaper reports, smothered to death by her own mother, who has since been arrested.
The reason for this hatred was love. Nirupama was in a relationship with a man from a different caste. Her family disapproved, and violently. Even more shocking, the gory act was committed, not in some remote village but in India’s capital city, New Delhi.
Contrary to a widely held view, honour killings are not confined to Islam. It cuts across faiths, social strata and economic status.
A United Nations report says there are 5,000 honour killings every year across continents. The crime is rampant in West and Southeast Asia. Even in the United Kingdom, the police contend there is at least one such murder every month among Asian communities.
A study conducted by the New Delhi- based Indian Population Statistics Survey a few years ago revealed that there were about 700 such deaths every year in India. This figure could be far higher, women’s groups and social organizations say, because many such murders are hushed up.
Harping on caste preferences
The killings of Nirupama and Thilagavathi leave us in little doubt that caste, religion and a warped sense of honour still dominate Indian life. They translate as foremost identifications of an individual in a society — driven by insular considerations.
A glaring example of such small-mindedness is the hundreds of matrimonial advertisements in the media that harp on caste preferences.
Often, India’s civil society is torn between traditional beliefs, such as male dominance, and modern ideas, which among other things, empower women.
In a country where men wield power, both at home and outside, some find it hard to accept a freethinking woman. If she asserts herself by choosing her partner, conflict arises, leading to tragic consequences.
How do we stop this crime? There are no easy answers, not as yet.
Gautaman Bhaskaran is a Chennai-India based author, columnist and film critic, and can be contacted at[email protected]. He is an FMT columnist.