Izzat ka mamla hai: the notion of ‘honour’ in India


March 13, 2008
by: Rajashri Dasgupta
InfoChange India

The indictment of the police by the CBI in the Rizwanur Rehman case in Kolkata reveals the complicity of State and society in maintaining and perpetuating regressive socio-cultural prejudices in the name of family honour and religious belief

The courtroom at the Kolkata High Court was packed with curious public, lawyers and journalists waiting to hear the Central Bureau of Investigation’s (CBI) report on the sensational death of Rizwanur Rehman that rocked the city last year. On September 21, 2007 Kolkata witnessed unprecedented protests and demonstrations when news of police interference and pressure on 30-year-old Rizwanur for marrying a wealthy Hindu girl was exposed. Five months later, on February 28, 2008 the CBI ruled that Rizwanur Rehman was not murdered, as is popularly believed, but was forced to commit suicide due to increasing pressure on him; it indicted top officials of the Kolkata police, Rizwanur’s in-laws and an associate of the Rehman family for abetting the drastic act.

When Rizwanur Rehman, a graphic designer, married his student, 23-year-old Priyanka Todi, on August 18, 2007, his in-laws left no stone unturned to break up the marriage. Their romance had defied all socially appropriate norms: he was a Muslim from the city’s slums and had struggled hard to become a professional, while his wife was a Hindu born to the wealthy Todi family that own the Rs 200 crore Lux Cozy innerwear hosiery ‘Aram ka mamla hai’ business. When emotional and family pressure did not work, the Todis used their social and business contacts to get the top brass of the police to break up the marriage. A month later, when Rizwanur’s body was found on the railway tracks in the heart of the city, people were convinced of foul play by the Todis in nexus with the police. Rizwanur’s death touched a chord in people’s minds about the daily struggle of lovers who defy tradition, resist family authority and religious beliefs to marry a person of their choice.

As public pressure mounted, the high-profile case was handed over to the CBI. The investigating agency’s report says that criminal proceedings should be initiated against Deputy Commissioner Ajoy Kumar, Assistant Commissioner Sukanti Chakrabarty and Sub-Inspector Krishnendu Das for abetting in the suicide, along with Rizwanur’s father-in-law Ashok Todi, uncles Pradip Todi and Anil Sarogi, and an associate of Rizwanur’s family, Pappu, under Sections 306 (abetment to committing suicide), 506 (criminal intimidation) and 120 B (conspiracy) of the Indian Penal Code. The maximum punishment for abetment to suicide is a life term.

The CBI report did not absolve Deputy Commissioner Gyanwant Singh and former Police Commissioner Prasun Mukerjee -- it recommended strong administrative proceedings against the former and a departmental inquiry against the latter. At a press conference two days after Rizwanur’s death, Mukerjee had justified the police’s interference in such marriages and questioned the desirability of relationships in which “financial and social status” do not match.

The complicity of the police in maintaining orthodox beliefs runs so deep that even senior officers do not think it amiss that it violates State law and human rights.

Rizwanur and Priyanka, two adults, had married under the Special Marriage Act and had even sought police protection in writing against Todi’s attempts to harass them. Instead, senior officers summoned the legally married couple to police headquarters three times, to harass and pressurise Priyanka into returning to her family under threat that Rizwanur would be arrested if she did not. Kishwar Jahan, Rizwanur’s mother, says: “Now that the CBI has indicted the police officers I hope the chief minister will remember his promise to me. He had said he would punish the guilty.”

The story of Priyanka-Rizwanur is not unusual in the context of the country’s socio-cultural and religious norms. The family, community and State agencies like the police treat love as a criminal activity and young lovers as criminals in order to control and even destroy them. Due to opposition to their relationship and marriage, many couples are forced to elope to escape disapproval, violence and even death. And some like Rizwanur, unable to bear the humiliation and the intense pressure, are driven to taking their own life. “For inter-caste and inter-religion love affairs to crystallise into marriage and then for the couple to survive, they require 3 Ms,” says Dinnath Bhaskar, Chairperson of the Schedule Caste/Schedule Tribe Commission, Uttar Pradesh: “Money, Muscle power and Manpower.”

In response to similar cases of violence in the country, on July 7, 2006, the Supreme Court directed the administration and the police to protect couples of inter-caste and inter-religious marriages; it ruled that anyone who harassed, threatened or subjected such couples to acts of violence would be prosecuted. The court delivered the landmark judgment in the case of Lata Singh who, though a major, had an inter-caste marriage and faced extreme harassment at the hands of her natal family and the criminal justice delivery system. The court observed: “This is a free and democratic country, and once a person becomes a major he or she can marry whomsoever he/she likes.” If the parents of the boy or girl did not approve, the apex court said, the maximum they could do is to cut off social relations. They could not harass, threaten, commit or instigate acts of violence against the couple.

At the core of family and community resistance to such relationships is the notion of izzat, linked fundamentally to control over female sexuality, says feminist historian Uma Chakravarti. In women, ‘honour’ is said to reside in their bodies as daughters before marriage and mothers after marriage. Since marriage is the only socially sanctioned sexual relationship, the family arranges it by strictly adhering to rules and norms. “This is because it is the institution of marriage that sustains the caste system, and caste linkages through marriage provide it greater social, political and economic recognition and leverage,” says Chakravarti.

For most, then, marriage is more about getting the right in-laws than picking the right partner to live with. “Marriage is a social act,” says scholar Prem Chowdhury. “The individual’s needs, desires and love are separated from the purely social institution of marriage, an alliance between two families involving a material transaction.” What is prohibited, therefore, are inter-class, inter-religion, inter-caste and within-gotra alliances. As a result, child marriage, early marriage, arranged marriage and forced marriage are widely practised to maintain the status quo of social power, family hierarchy, dominance and control over women. Any assertion of romantic desire by couples is considered to bring “shame” on the “family honour”. “Any breach in the marital links upsets the family and caste support structures. It changes and threatens the status of the family and the entire caste group,” says Chakravarti.

The violence against relationships of choice is not restricted to a particular caste, to north India, or to rural communities. Evidence of cases reveals that resistance cuts across religious communities -- whether Hindu, Muslim or Sikh – and pervades various social strata of society, and different regions. What differs significantly is the degree of resistance, violence and criminality with which families view self-arranged marriages and relationships.

A shocking case that involved the urban educated elite was the murder, on February 17, 2002, in Delhi, of young business executive Nitish Katara, who was in love with Bharati Yadav, daughter of controversial politician D P Yadav of Uttar Pradesh. In her court testimony in 2006, Bharati denied any relationship beyond friendship with Nitish, some say out of fear of her family. According to various media reports, it was the issue of class difference between the two families; the Yadavs had acquired wealth but remained ‘feudal’, while the Kataras were ‘bourgeois’ but middle-class. In his confession to the police, Vikas Yadav, Bharati’s brother, is alleged to have told the police that “the affair was damaging our family’s reputation”.

The Association for Advocacy of Legal Initiatives (AALI) has done pioneering work in Uttar Pradesh in highlighting this issue. In the last few years, the group has intervened, investigated and documented over 20 cases of violence against women who have exercised their right to choice in a relationship. One horrific case was of Sonu, a Jat, and Viki, a Brahmin, both 17 years old and from Alinagar village, Muzaffarnagar. On August 7, 2001, Sonu and Viki were hanged by their own families.

Traditional caste and community powers in rural north India have become increasingly dictatorial and ruthless when young couples challenge the burden of customary and family norms. The self-appointed, parallel judicial caste panchayats mete out punishments; decisions in Haryana to penalise ‘erring’ couples can range from killing them to publicly humiliating them by blackening their faces, shaving their heads or forcing the couple to drink or dip their noses in urine. One very common practice is to force the girl to tie a rakhi on her husband’s hand to mark him as her brother and put an end to her marital relationship, says Jagmati of the All-India Democratic Women’s Association (AIDWA), Haryana, that has been supporting couples and challenging the traditional panchayats.

The worst cases of community violence and policing are often faced by couples of mixed religion, especially if a Hindu girl marries a Muslim man. In Gujarat, following the burning of the train in Godhra in February 2002, Muslim men with Hindu wives were singled out for attack by groups of Hindu fanatics who killed, threatened and burnt down their houses. According to a report by the People’s Union of Civil Liberties, 30-year-old Geeta of Ahmedabad was stripped in public and stabbed to death on the streets as a warning of what could happen to women who dared breach community norms; her husband was hospitalised with knife wounds. There are media reports of Bajrang Dal activist Babu Bajrangi of Naroda who, in the name of ‘safeguarding’ the traditional Patel community, allegedly ‘rescues’ Patel girls who marry outside the community. He boasts of having ‘saved’ over 800 girls, says an NGO activist in Ahmedabad.

Social policing was also evident in Bhopal when, on April 7, 2007, Umar, a Muslim boy married Priyanka Wadhwani, a Sindhi girl. Political and religious organisations joined in the battle to retrieve the claimed ‘honour’ of the community. Members of the Bajrang Dal, Bhagva Brigade and other Hindu organisations called for a Bhopal bandh if Priyanka was not ‘returned’. Not to be outdone, the Majlis-e-Shura passed an ultimatum to the Muslim community to discipline their children and keep them under control.

The opening up of the Indian market to the world, the offer of a myriad economic opportunities, bank credit and loans make couples less dependent on their families for survival. “With less dependence on the family for economic sustenance there is a breakdown of the joint family. Young couples are unwilling to follow family diktats and eager to move away,” says Inderjeet, a social activist in Rohtak. With the upward economic and social mobility of social groups like dalits and Muslims, the social hegemony of the upper caste Hindu is being challenged. This social mobility has created an aspiration resulting also in inter-caste and inter-religious relationships that breach prescribed social codes.

Moreover, women’s increasing access to education has led to greater autonomy and emancipation. It’s not surprising that AALI found that a large number of girls from lower middle-class families in Uttar Pradesh, with exposure to education, were the ones who were posing a challenge to the system of arranged marriage. The Hindu Succession Act (Amendment 2005) 1954, a milestone in gender equality, has understandably created a stir by providing women with more rights to property, although some anomalies persist. In a son-preference society, ownership of property can go a long way in enhancing a woman’s security and social worth, argue women’s activists, and give her greater bargaining power both within the parental and marital family. “With girls today enjoying legal rights to inheritance and property, and the right to marry who they wish, families and communities feel endangered,” says Chakravarti.

With caste and religious exclusivity becoming fuzzy, it’s no coincidence that the most vicious opposition comes from members of the woman’s family, especially when she belongs to the dominant class, caste or religious group. What is at stake is not only the transfer of wealth but, more importantly, the much-vaunted family izzat.

(Rajashri Dasgupta is a freelance journalist working on gender, health and development issues)

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