Saturday, July 10, 2010

In India, Castes, Honor and Killings Intertwine

The New York Times

July 9, 2010

In India, Castes, Honor and Killings Intertwine


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 fianc√©. “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.”

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.

Ms. Pathak called her oldest brother, Samarendra, who spent the next week trying to change her mind.

“What I told her was that the decision you have taken — there is nothing wrong with it,” he said. “But the society we live in will not accept it. You can’t transform society in a day. It takes time.”

When her father learned of the engagement, he wrote his daughter a letter and paid a surprise visit to New Delhi.

In the letter, the father acknowledged that such marriages were allowed under India’s Constitution, but argued that the Constitution had existed for only decades while Hindu religious beliefs dated back thousands of years.

At one point, Ms. Pathak’s mother called, crying, asking if they had wronged her in a past life.

The death of Ms. Pathak remains under investigation. Her body was discovered in her upstairs bedroom on the morning of April 29, while her mother was the only person at home. Initially, neighbors and family members said she had died from electrocution, but then later changed their story to say she had hanged herself. The police arrested the mother after the postmortem report concluded that Ms. Pathak had been suffocated.

But Ms. Pathak’s father and her two brothers have argued that the postmortem was flawed and claimed that her death had been a suicide. The family produced a suicide note and persuaded a local magistrate to order an investigation into Mr. Ranjan, the boyfriend — which his supporters have described as politically motivated.

Ms. Pathak’s pregnancy has also complicated the case. Mr. Ranjan said that he had been unaware of her condition, and her family told the police that they, too, had been unaware. But in an interview, the father and brothers changed their story, saying that Ms. Pathak confessed her pregnancy to her mother on the morning of her death.

For now, the case has polarized opinion. In Koderma, supporters of the Pathak family have rallied for the release of the mother from jail. In New Delhi, former classmates of Ms. Pathak and other supporters have held candlelight vigils, calling for the case to be prosecuted as an honor killing.

“This kind of the thing is increasing everywhere,” said Girija Vyas, a member of Parliament and the president of the National Commission of Women. “There should not be these things in the 21st century. These things must be stopped.”

Hari Kumar contributed reporting from Koderma, and Saimah Khwaja from New Delhi.

Copyright 2010 The New York Times Company

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"The master class has always declared the wars; the subject class has always fought the battles. The master class has had all to gain and nothing to lose, while the subject class has had nothing to gain and everything to lose--especially their lives." Eugene Victor Debs


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