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Comprehending Honour Killings in India
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Aniruddha Mahajan

pramod mHonour killing is an ugly reality in India. In fact, the nation where the societal structure is based on caste system, such incidents will not astonish much but will surely hamper the esteem of the nation. In the 21st century, the prevalence of caste based violence and systematic cum indirect operation of discrimination is the biggest concern. There is a rule of law, but still the power structure is restricted to specific sections of the society. Honour killing is one of the outputs of the caste based hegemonic spirit in India. In the past few years, Manoj and Babli case from Haryana, Sonai honour killing of Nashik, Shankar and Kausalya, Nandish and Swathi cases from Tamil Nadu, Nitin Aage case from Ahmednagar, Pranay and Amrutha case from Nalgonda, very recent Viraj Jagtap honour killing from Pune have hit the national headlines and highlighted the harsh reality of Indian society.  

The caste based society in India categorises castes in the terms of superiority and inferiority. The social interactions with the so called inferior, backward castes is shown in the bad light, this has been the norm from the ages. If anyone breaks those norms it is regarded as an attack on their so-called honour. The caste panchayats like Khaps cement such caste spirit. On the other hand, there is a law which protects human rights. And it ensures the highest priority to human dignity, self-choice and self-esteem. But the increasing cases of honour killing expose the loopholes in the laws. And also consistently prove that the cultural norms overrule the rule of law. To understand the phenomenon of honour killing, one needs to throw light on the conceptualisation of ‘honour’, its historical perspective, theoretical perspective and the interrelations within.     

Conceptualising ‘Honour’  

Honour, the word itself means pride, esteem, respect. In general, the couples who get married by their own will, own choice going against their family and community, have to face severe consequences. The cause of the rejection from the family is generally difference in caste/s. Families do not even hesitate to kill their blood relations to maintain the superiority of their so-called status in the society which is termed as honour. In fact, in the past couple of decades it has become a recurring and so-called respectable social practice. 

There are different forms in which the males and the females possess honour. For the males the source of honour is to perform their dominance over the people weaker to them, vulnerable, and women. And there is the sense of losing honour in their incapability and failure to do so. For the women, the source is purity, endurance, virginity, obedience etc (Pal,2012). Over time, the orthodox concepts of purity and honour are changing, relected in constitutional norms. But over the years the perception of honour remains the same in the case of men.  

The stiff impact of the caste system does not allow for inter-caste marriages forcing the couples to run away from society and get married. The public sphere is dominated by two diametrically opposing authorities, i.e. formal and informal. The formal authority is the state which has its own rules and regulations in the legal form. And the informal authority is under the domination of the community often called as the caste panchayats, which possess no legality. There are the Khap Panchayats which publically advocate marriages within the same caste, in the name of the same ‘Biradari’. Panchayats are patriarchal and orthodox in nature. They have consistent conflict with modernity and their judgements reflect bias, discrimination and exploitation in the name of honour. On the other hand, to deal with inter-caste marriages, there is widespread protection by the formal authority. The right to marry is the part of right to life as ensured by the Indian Constitution. In a judgement, the Delhi High Court stated that, ‘choosing the spouse is the fundamental right’ (Chaudhary,2004). 

The ideas of honour are embedded in the orthodox, religious philosophies for the informal authority. And for formal authority, the idea of honour revolves around the fundamental, natural rights. In all such cases, the backward castes, the Dalits are always on the receiving end with regards to inhumanity in both rural and urban areas too. Dalit partners are not accepted in the families. In fact, having them in the family relations is regarded as an act of dishonour in the community and social standpoint.

Historical Context 

The root cause of notions like honour and superiority, caste based hegemony is embedded in the religious texts. It was the Purushasukta of the Rig Veda which put forward the idea of Chaturvarna System. The institution of caste has been in existence from earlier phases of Indian history. People were assigned to the varied occupational tasks, based on the concept of impurity and purity. Even the interrelations, marriage processes with another caste group were strictly prohibited; only ‘Anuloma’ marriage type was permitted. Nambissan (2009) pointed, “If we look to the marriage system in Hinduism, marriage between any two castes is termed as inter-caste marriage and hence restricted, they were encouraged only to endogamy marriages within the Varna system. There were two forms of inter-caste marriage, i.e. ‘Anuloma’ (Hypergamous) and ‘Pratiloma’ (Hypogamy). ‘Anuloma’ marriage is a form of inter-caste marriage where men of higher caste marry women of lower castes. In ‘Protiloma’ marriage form, men of lower caste marry women of superior castes. Manu and other ancient law-givers prescribed Anuloma. Pratiloma i.e., marriage of a woman to a man from a lower caste is not permitted.” Going beyond that, Manu Smriti while framing the penal codes stated that, “If the Shudra asked for the marriage with the girl from upper caste Brahmin, he should be penalised with death” (Manu Smriti, Chapter 8, Shlok 366). Thus the above phenomena clearly indicate the deep influence of religious theologies even in the 21st century.  

In the 19th century, there was the wave of social reformers who came very harsh on all the orthodox practices. The credit of bringing meaningful transformation in the caste system goes to Jotiba Phule, Dr.B.R.Ambedkar, E.V.Ramasamy Periyar and many more. With regards to inter-caste marriages, viewpoints of Dr.B.R.Ambedkar and E.V.Ramasamy Periyar are very significant and need to be considered. Dr.B.R.Ambedkar stated, “The only question that remains to be considered is, how to bring the reform in the Hindu social order? How to abolish caste? Apart from inter-caste dinners, I am convinced that the real remedy is inter-marriage. Fusion of blood can alone create the feeling of being kith and kin and unless this feeling of kinship, of being kindred, becomes paramount the separatist feeling-the feeling of being aliens-created by Caste will not vanish. Among the Hindus inter-marriage must necessarily be a factor of greater force in social life than it need be in the life of the non-Hindus. Where society is already well-knit by other ties, marriage is an ordinary incident of life. But where society cuts asunder, marriage as a binding force becomes a matter of urgent necessity. The real remedy for breaking Caste is inter-marriage. Nothing else will serve as the solvent of Caste.” Dr.B.R.Ambedkar termed inter-caste marriages as one of the steps to annihilate the caste. 

E.V.Ramasamy Periyar actively encouraged inter-caste marriages. He termed it the means to fight against the various elements of the caste system. He categorically favoured that. ‘marriage is a contract between a woman and a man. And it is not the function for the parents to get involved in it for any reason. The Self-Respect Movement started by him possessed the prime objective of making young people realise about marriage as their own concern and the interference from the parents is simply unreasonable. He further claimed that, involvement of elders in such arranged marriages solidifies the dowry system. (Gopalakrishnan, 1991) 

Theoretical Perspective  

On the notion of marriage, Rex Martin put forward Natural Right Theory. According to this theory each and every human being has some natural rights such as right to life, liberty, health, work, dignity, where even the administration and state can’t interfere. Individual is directed by his own will. Similarly, the right to marry with one’s own choice is also one of the basic notions. There is acceptance and respect for the mutual interests of the couple in the marriage processes, ultimately it is the natural performance of the natural rights. Liberty of behaviour and prohibition of external threats are not only the basic interests of an individual but also the two dimensions of natural rights. Thus the violation of these basic interests is a violation of natural and human rights. With regards to this theory and the phenomena, the couple are having all the natural rights to perform their own will by the freedom and liberty of choice. But the above incident like the honour killing is completely contradictory to the core idea and principles of the Natural Right Theory which assures right to liberty and dignity on the name of basic human rights.   

If we see John Austin’s “Theory of positive law”, which puts forward the concept of the right to marry due legal recognition by law. He further describes that, the couple who perform their natural right of marriage even if it’s the run-away marriage their rights are secured by the law.The recognition is provided under the shell of law to such cases and their rights are protected.But such acts are not accepted in the social regulations, it has the orientation with orthodox traditions and thus all these pave the way for honour killing (Duran,2005). Law and justice are always there for the protection of basic human rights. It advocates individual liberty and social justice. But there are traditional norms too which consistently hammers the right of choice in the adult couples.  

There are certain acquired truths in every society which are derived from cultural elements and it’s advocated severely. There are various regulations and actors in society which maintain the significance of that truth by all positive and negative means. The actors apply power for the perseverance of that truth.

Despite robust constitutional provisions, the cases of honour killings on caste grounds are still very much prevalent in recent times. Inter-caste marriage is the prime cause for honour killing. According to the studies and field investigations of NGO Evidence, “The cases of honour killing are deliberately underreported by the state. Even questions could be raised on NCRB as they haven’t reported even a single case of honour killing in Tamil Nadu in the years 2017 and 2018. In fact there were 195 known cases of honour killing in Tamil Nadu. They further added that, in the cases of honour killing, states provide data to the centre which helps to frame the NCRB report. This data has to go through the validation process a couple of times, first at the police station level and secondly during the consolidation of data at district level. So it is clear that either local authorities do not report the cases or don’t have the authentic ways to track down the cases of honour killing.” 

With regards to the above legal and technical glitches there has been consistent demand to have a separate law for honour killing. But with that it is also very important to consider the fundamental factors which are responsible to nourish such acts. No one could deny that the caste system derived from religious theologies has paved the way for such inhuman acts. Again the view of Dr.B.R.Ambedkar is pivotal here. He says, “Caste may be bad, but it must be recognized that the Hindus do not observe Caste because they are inhuman or wrong-headed, but they observe Caste because they are deeply religious. People are not wrong in observing Caste but what is wrong is their religion, which has inculcated this notion of Caste. If this is correct, then obviously the enemy you must grapple with is not the people who observe Caste, but the Shastras which teach them this religion of Caste.” With this viewpoint, examining a couple of contexts from theologies will provide a comprehensive picture to perceive.  

“If the Shudra asked for the marriage with the girl from upper caste brahmin, he should be penalised with death” (Manu Smriti, Chapter 8, Shlok 366) 

“The name of Brahmin should indicate delight. The name of Kshatriya should indicate responsibility. Name of Vaishya should indicate wealth. The name of Shudra should indicate indignity and humiliation” (Vishnu Smriti, Chapter 27, Sutra 6-9) 

These are some of the selected references from the Shastras, religious theologies. Thus, all these Shastras, theologies have created a solid plinth for flourishing the system of Caste. Gradually, the norms which are created by these Shastras, very deliberately constructed in the form of truth and which got termed into knowledge and it got sheltered through customs and traditions. It leads to discriminations and incidents like honour killings and it is also a stigma on the fundamental ethos of Indian Constitution.



*Ambedkar,BR (2013). Dr.Ambedkar writing and speeches. Vol-1. Part-2. Pp-37-124 

*Ambedkar,BR (2017). Shudra purvi kon hote?. Utkarsha publication. Pp-13-21,34-49  

*Chowdhry,P (2004). Private Lives, State Intervention: Cases of Runaway Marriage in Rural North India. Modern Asian Studies. Pp – 55,63,84  

*Duran,J (2005). Realism, Positivism and Reference. Journal for General Philosophy of Science. Vol 36, No2.  

*Gopalakrishnan (1991). Periyar: Father of the Tamil race  

*Martin,R (2013). Human Rights and the Social Recognition Thesis. Journal of Social Philosophy. Vol.-44.No1. 

*Nambissan,G (2009). Exclusion and discrimination in school:experiences of dalit children. Gyan publication house, New Delhi 

*al,A (2012). Honour Killing : Culture, Dilemma and Ritual. Arise Publishers and Distributors. New Delhi 

*Sundaravelu, A (2020). The Swaddle.





Aniruddha Mahajan is a PhD research scholar at Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai (INDIA). He co-founded ‘Jhep Multipurpose Foundation’ which works for quality education for the marginalised students. 

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