IXONIA, Wisconsin — Today, there are more opportunities for people from various backgrounds to interact with one another in India. The wide use of social media and more women pursuing higher education has led to more interfaith or intercaste relationships. Although the caste system has been illegal for decades, traditional views persist. Traditionalists use the threat of honor killings in India to discourage the union of dissimilar peoples.
The Concept of Honor Killings
Honor violence is violence committed by an in-group to limit a woman’s romantic agency, motivated by a perceived affront to the in-group’s honor. Murdering in the name of honor is a subset of this known as honor killing. Other forms of violence, including physical and psychological abuse, kidnapping, and sometimes torture, usually precede the murder. The perceived affront often stems from a woman exercising her right to choice. This is a human right that guarantees that one can choose whom they love and marry. Dating someone from an out-group, consensual or nonconsensual premarital sex, refusing an arranged marriage, being raped and seeking a divorce are all actions that could prompt honor violence.
The Prevalence of Honor Killings in India
Societal divisions are the reason honor killings in India are so common. Traditionalists view interfaith or intercaste romantic relationships as dishonorable so they take violent actions to ensure that in-group members do not marry someone beneath their status. The case of Sankar and Kausalya is an example of this. Sankar was a Dalit, an untouchable lower cast, and Kausalya was a Thevar, an upper caste. In 2016, after they married against her parent’s will, Kausalya’s father ordered a violent attack on the couple, resulting in the murder of Sankar.
However, It is not just parents who enforce these divisions through honor killings. Khap panchayats, extrajudicial courts formed by village elders, often aid or even orchestrate honor killings.
What Barriers Exist?
The Indian government did not record honor killings until 2014. Due to a lack of specific honor violence laws, the killings were often reported as homicides or suicides. For example, India’s Supreme Court recorded 288 honor killings in India between 2014 and 2016. However, Evidence, a non-government organization, found that between 2012 and 2017 there were 187 cases in the state of Tamil Nadu alone. This misinformation leads the government to believe that honor killings are under control, making them reluctant to pass new laws to address the problem. Federal government initiatives meant to protect at-risk couples from honor killings are nonexistent or ineffective. In 2018, the Supreme Court moved to create call centers for at-risk couples. However, the government assigned no budget or personnel to these call centers.
In 2019, the state of Rajasthan passed the Rajasthan Prohibition of Interference with the Freedom of Matrimonial Alliances in the Name of Honour and Tradition Bill. The law dictates a life sentence for honor violence with no chance of bail or the death penalty and can accompany a fine of up to 500,000 rupees. Rajasthan is the first state to address honor killings in India with a specific law for honor violence.
Indian Government-operated shelters for at-risk couples are sparse and feature unlivable conditions. In response to this, the nonprofit organization, Love Commandos, runs more than 500 shelters across India. In addition to offering protection from honor violence, the Love Commandos help at-risk couples apply for restraining orders and marriage licenses. The latter is important because an unmarried woman’s parents can overrule decisions she has made. If a couple decides to elope, the parents can charge the male with kidnapping and the police will bring the woman back to her parents, regardless of her age.
NGOs Helping Couples in Danger
In February 2017, Kadhal Aran, a free smartphone app that helps couples at risk of honor killings, was launched in Tamil Nadu. After users describe their problems over the app, Kadhal Aran’s volunteers provide emotional support. Furthermore, volunteers work to connect them with the proper authorities for their problems. This includes legal aid, counseling or help finding a home. This last one is important since property owners discriminate against interfaith and intercaste couples. With volunteers in every district of Tamil Nadu and with most Indians owning a smartphone, Kadhal Aran can reach many couples.
Dhanak of Humanity is a nationwide support group that consists of intercaste and interfaith couples. Like Kadhal Aran, the group offers various services such as financial aid and helping couples reconcile with parents. Additionally, Dhanak of Humanity advocates for various amendments and provisions that promote the right to choice in India. Lastly, it operates a resource center that aggregates research and data about marriages across India. As of 2021, the organization has helped more than 1,300 couples.
Though the government has done little to combat honor killings in India, there is a growing awareness of the issue. With various organizations and groups taking the lead on this issue, there is hope that the outdated practice will finally be eradicated.
– Riley Behlke