Gender Violence in India Report 2014: Honour Crimes

Honor crimes and honor killings refer to ‘acts of violence, usually murder, committed by male family members against female family members who are perceived to have brought dishonor upon the family’.[1] Motives for honor crimes can include marrying outside prescribed social rules, premarital sex, refusing to enter an arranged marriage, or being the victim of rape or sexual assualt.[2]

The then United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, noted in 2010 that, in some parts of the world, honor crimes may be less likely than other crimes to incur punishment. Strong social norms, she said, place ‘family violence … outside the conceptual framework of international human rights’ or government responsibility.[3] A review by the UN Special Rapporteur for Violence Against Women highlighted ‘State inaction’ as a contributing factor in honor crimes and other forms of violence against women; governments do not always take steps to address the ‘structural subordination of women and dominant … norms of chastity and honor’ that are used to justify violence.[4]

In India, honor crimes tend to occur as retaliation against couples marrying or pursuing a relationship against their parents’ or communities’ wishes. Couples have been condemned for marrying ‘outside their caste or religion’ or ‘within a kinship group (gotra)’; the latter are deemed incestuous even when there is no biological relationship.[5] Khap panchayats, powerful but unelected village councils, play an important role in sanctioning honor crimes by publicly condemning couples, especially in the states of Haryana, Uttar Pradesh, and Punjab.[6] These panchayats have taken particular interest in intra-caste marriages, or marriages between couples from the same gotra, or sub-caste.[7] Honor crimes also occur in South India; the October 2012 marriage of a Dalit man and a Vanniyar woman caused caste violence in the Dharmapuri district of Tamil Nadu.[8]

Know the Law

Honor crimes have not been addressed by any specific act or ordinance, nor are they considered a distinct category of crime under the Indian Penal Code (IPC). Rather, when reported or prosecuted, they fall instead under existing categories such as assault or homicide. Perpetrators, if convicted, face the penalties attached to those existing categories; there are no separate sentencing rules for honor crimes. Additionally, because of the caste dimension to these crimes, reports can be filed under the SC/ST Act instead of being recognized as an ‘honor’ crime. Moreover, family members often pass these deaths off as suicides or death by natural causes.

In August 2012, the Law Commission of India submitted a report proposing a law to deal with honor crimes, entitled ‘Prevention of Interference with the Freedom of Matrimonial Alliances (in the Name of Honour and Tradition): A Suggested Legal Framework’. The proposed bill aims curb the power of panchayats by ‘prohibiting the … gathering of such members of panchayats for the purpose of condemning the marriage’.[9] The proposal argues that a separate law is necessary because a ‘number of cases go unreported for fear of reprisals’ and because ‘the penal law lacks direct application to the illegal acts of such caste assemblies’.[10]

The Law Commission report also notes that the effects of panchayat-sanctioned marriage condemnations include endangerment of the victims’ life and liberty, and their having to experience ‘insecurity and misery’.[11] The suggested law to address honor crimes, besides making a panchayat or other gathering for the purpose of condemning a marriage illegal, would also make punishable ‘acts endangering liberty’; moreover, it would also address ‘criminal intimidation by the members of unlawful assembly’, and would call for ‘higher punishment’ for such acts of intimidation that are already punishable under the IPC.[12]

The Law Commission’s proposed law has thus far not been made into law, either as suggested or in amended form.

Keeping Count

As honor crimes have not been specifically and explicitly addressed in law, the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) does not keep a separate count of them. The actual incidence of honor crimes and honor killings is difficult to estimate; many of them may go unreported. When they are reported, they are generally classified under the broader NCRB categories of battery, assault, or homicide.

In 2010, the United Nations Population Fund estimated that around 5000 women are murdered worldwide in the name of family and community honor each year.[13] The National Commission for Women has said that it investigates around 70-80 cases per month, culminating in around 1000 cases per year.[14] Many women’s rights groups, however, assert that these figures are likely to be an underestimate; some non-governmental organizations estimate that as many as 20,000 cases occur globally each year.[15] Additionally, media outlets may decide not to report such crimes, judging them to be family matters rather than issues of national importance.[16]

[1] ‘Crimes committed in the name of “honor”’, Human Rights Watch, cited by Stop Violence Against Women, 2008, http://www.stopvaw.org/honor_killings, accessed 23rd November 2014.

[2] See above note 1.

[3] ‘Impunity for domestic violence, “honor killings” cannot continue – UN official’, UN News Centre, 4th March 2010, http://www.un.org/apps/news/story.asp?NewsID=33971#.VHg-wfSUc5i, accessed 23rd November 2014.

[4] ’15 years of the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women, Its Causes and Consequences’, UN Special Rapporteur on VAW, 2009, p. 21, http://www.ohchr.org/documents/issues/women/15yearreviewofvawmandate.pdf, accessed 23rd November 2014.

[5] ‘India: Prosecute rampant “honor” killings’, Human Rights Watch, 18th July 2014, http://www.hrw.org/news/2010/07/16/india-prosecute-rampant-honor-killings, accessed 23rd November 2014.

[6] See above note 4.

[7] Dutta, S. & Stancati, M., ‘Why Honor Killings Happen’, Wall Street Journal, 16th January 2013, http://blogs.wsj.com/indiarealtime/2013/01/16/why-honor-killings-happen, accessed 22nd November 2014

[8] PTI, “HC questions TN govt over promulgatory orders in Dharmapuri”, The Hindu: BusinessLine, 23rd August 2013, http://www.thehindubusinessline.com/news/hc-questions-tn-govt-over-promulgatory-orders-in-dharmapuri/article5052317.ece, accessed 22nd November 2014

[9] ‘Prevention of interference with the freedom of matrimonial alliances (in the name of honour and tradition): A suggested legal framework’, Law Commission of India, August 2012, p. ii, http://lawcommissionofindia.nic.in/reports/report242.pdf, accessed 23rd November 2014.

[10] ‘Prevention of interference’, Law Commission, Sec. 2.2, p. 5. See above note 9.

[11] ‘Prevention of interference’, Law Commission, Sec. 3.1, p. 10. See above note 9

[12] ‘Prevention of interference’, Law Commission, Sec. 3.2, p. 11. See above note 9

[13] “Impunity for domestic violence, ‘honour killings’ cannot continue”, UN News Centre, 4th March 2010, http://www.un.org/apps/news/story.asp?NewsID=33971#.VAW_HMWSxVN , accessed 22nd November 2014

[14] Arjunpuri, C., ‘Honour killings’ bring dishonour to India’, 27th December 2012, http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/features/2012/12/2012121614107670788.html, accessed 22nd November 2014.

[15] Basu, N., ‘Honour killings: India’s crying shame’, Al Jazeera, 28 November 2013, http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/opinion/2013/11/honour-killings-india-crying-shame-20131127105910392176.html, accessed 24th November 2014.

[16] ‘Today: HBV in the contemporary world’, Honour Based Violence Awareness Network, http://hbv-awareness.com/today/, accessed 24th November 2014.

*****

This series of posts were researched, drafted and edited by Divya Bhat, Shakthi Manickavasagam, Titiksha Pandit and Mitha Nandagopalan.

December 2014

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