Saturday, July 10, 2010

India fights surge in honor killings

KODERMA, India — When Nirupama Pathak left this remote mining region for graduate school in New Delhi, she seemed to be leaving the old India for the new. Her parents paid her tuition and did not resist when she wanted to choose her own career. But choosing a husband was another matter.
Her family was Brahmin, the highest Hindu caste, and when Ms. Pathak, 22, announced she was secretly engaged to a young man from a caste lower than hers, her family began pressing her to change her mind. They warned of social ostracism and accused her of defiling their religion.
Days after Ms. Pathak returned home in late April, she was found dead in her bedroom. The police have arrested her mother, Sudha Pathak, on suspicion of murder, while the family contends that the death was a suicide.
The postmortem report revealed another unexpected element to the case: Ms. Pathak was pregnant.
“One thing is absolutely clear,” said Prashant Bhushan, a social activist and lawyer now advising Ms. Pathak’s fiancé. “Her family was trying their level best to prevent her from marrying that boy. The pressure was such that either she was driven to suicide or she was killed.”
In India, where the tension between traditional and modern mores reverberates throughout society, Ms. Pathak’s death comes amid an apparent resurgence of so-called honor killings against couples who breach Hindu marriage traditions.
This week, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh ordered a cabinet-level commission to consider tougher penalties in honor killings.
In June, India’s Supreme Court sent notices to seven Indian states, as well as to the national government, seeking responses about what was being done to address the problem.
The phenomenon of honor killings is most prevalent in some northern states, especially Haryana, where village caste councils, or khap panchayats, often operate as an extralegal morals police force, issuing edicts against couples who marry outside their caste or who marry within the same village — considered a religious violation since villages are often regarded as extended families.
Even as the court system has sought to curb these councils, politicians have hesitated, since the councils often control significant vote blocs in local elections.
New cases of killings or harassment appear in the Indian news media almost every week. Last month, the police arrested three men for the honor killings of a couple in New Delhi who had married outside their castes, as well as the murder of a woman who eloped with a man from another caste.
Two of the suspects are accused of murdering their sisters, and an uncle of the slain couple spoke of their murders as justifiable.
“What is wrong in it?” the uncle, Dharmaveer Nagar, told the Indian news media. “Murder is wrong, but this is socially the best thing that has been done.”
An ancient attitude
Intercaste marriages are protected under Indian law, yet social attitudes remain largely resistant. In a 2006 survey cited in a United Nations report, 76 percent of respondents deemed the practice unacceptable. An overwhelming majority of Hindu couples continue to marry within their castes, and newspapers are filled with marital advertisements in which parents, seeking to arrange a marriage for a son or daughter, specify caste among lists of desired attributes like profession and educational achievement.
“This is part and parcel of our culture, that you marry into your own caste,” said Dharmendra Pathak, the father of Ms. Pathak, during an interview in his home. “Every society has its own culture. Every society has its own traditions.”
Yet Indian society is also rapidly changing, with a new generation more likely to mix with people from different backgrounds as young people commingle on college campuses or in the workplace.
Ms. Pathak had studied journalism at the Indian Institute of Mass Communications in New Delhi before taking a job at a financial newspaper. At school, she had met Priyabhanshu Ranjan, a top student whose family was from a middle-upper caste, the Kayastha.
“The day I proposed, she said, ‘My family will not accept this. My family is very conservative,’ ” Mr. Ranjan recalled. “I used to try to convince her that once we got married, they would accept it.”
Ms. Pathak deliberated over the proposal for months before accepting in early 2009. Convinced her family would disapprove, she kept her engagement a secret for more than a year, until she learned that her father was interviewing prospective Brahmin grooms in New Delhi to arrange a marriage for her. Her parents were also renovating the family home for a wedding celebration.

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