A Question Of Honor

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Writing to a minister at the height of the contentious debate over the Hindu Code Bill debate in the 1950s, Jawaharlal Nehru characteristically pointed out, “We have to remember that in the acknowledged social code and practice in India, as it has existed, thus far, there was no lack of moral delinquency as well as extreme unhappiness. There were two codes, one for the man and the other for the woman. The woman got the worst of it always.”

Then as now, in the debate over honour killings and khap panchayats, those against the winds of change argued about the inviolable sanctity of tradition, about keeping up a way of life that has been inviolable for centuries and more cynically about the political costs of change.

Then as now, the appeal was made to people’s sentiments and those wanting reform were accused of bringing in Western ideas antithetical to ‘local sentiments’.The battle to pass reformist legislation in Hindu personal law, took 10 years of hard bargaining but at the core of its success was a strong political will, irrespective of the political cost.

It is important to hark back to that seminal struggle in Indian law to provide context to the recent debate about khap panchayats, caste and marriage. Some of the hypocritical noises and half-hearted ambivalence from the political class in Haryana is revealing. Very broadly speaking, the argument from Chief Minister Bhupendra Singh Hooda down to Navin Jindal is this: violence is wrong but khap panchayats are fine, the law should be followed but same-gotra marriage does not really cut it.

The back-ballast in the media about the honour killings means that the issue cannot be swept under the carpet – the ritual political condemnations of the honour killings have all followed the script – but it is equally clear that there is a clear political reluctance to take on the substratum of caste leaders and to question the edifice itself, for fear of vote banks going astray.

Let us be clear. Honour killings are only a symptom. The recent murders in Delhi and Haryana are only a manifestation of a deeper problem of hide-bound social structures that are increasingly at odds with the new India and indeed with the principle of equity and freedom of choice enshrined in the law. So long as caste and its structures retain social sanctity, these disputes will keep festering.

What we need is a renewed social and political movement that goes to the heart of the issue and doesn’t just treat the surface. And it needs political courage, of the kind exhibited by Nehru and Ambedkar in the 1950s when faced with similar opposition to change. The Supreme Court’s intervention and the move to bring in a law against honour killings are welcome but the solution must go beyond to the core issue and here political courage is crucial.

Instead, we are seeing a push by Haryana’s politicians to make same-gotra marriage illegal. They seem to have forgotten that in 1945 the Bombay High Court ruled that there was nothing wrong in such marriages. They were perfectly valid under Hindu custom itself.

Consulting eminent scholarly accounts of the dharmashastras, and after looking at the texts of Manu and Yajnavalkya, the Court ruled that requirements on gotra were not mandatory. It further argued presciently that societies in any case are not static. They constantly change and must keep up with the times.It would be misleading to see the recent murders and the voices in favour of the same-gotra idea of marriage as simply an atavistic blast from the past or as an urban-rural divide.

The recent violence is, in fact, reflective of a distorted urbanised modernity that is developing in India. In the popular discourse, it is perhaps too easy to blame it on the primordial village folk that exist in our imaginations but one look at the marriage columns in the English newspapers, patronised by the middle classes, should be enough to junk that notion.

Virtually every advertisement starts with the caste of the prospective groom or bride. It is precisely this kind of social attitude that is the core of the problem. The violence is only an extreme manifestation.The term ‘honour killings’, attained notoriety in the British press in the 1990s after a spate of violence among immigrant families from Mirpur in Pakistani-occupied Kashmir. Now, our Mirpur is staring us in the mirror. The question is will we have the courage to confront it?