Viva La Woman Power

It had to take the grit and determination of a woman (nay two women) to bring to books the culprits in an honour killing of a young married couple (Manoj and Babli), on the orders of a khap(caste) panchayat in Haryana. Their crime was to marry for love despite belonging to the same gotra (lineage), which so enraged their family members and local community that they were abducted and murdered. Read more

Chandrapati, the widowed mother of Manoj, has earned the distinction of being the first woman in Haryana to have taken on the dreaded khap panchayat and fought a legal battle against the perpetrators of the heinous crime. Chandrapati has done what even our so called leaders and administrators could not dare to do. She dared to challenge the credibility of these rural panchayats, which operate as a parallel judicial system, enforcing a brutal form of justice.

And coming to the aid of Chandrapati was another woman of substance – Vani Gopal Sharma – the additional district and sessions judge of Karnal. In a landmark judgement, she awarded death penalty to 5 members of Babli’s family and life sentence to the head of the khap panchayat for hatching a conspiracy to kill the couple.
In her 96 page long judgement the judge said, ‘the present case reflects a long standing tradition of oppression against women. It has to be curbed by legislation treating honour killings as a separate offence. I wonder how such a progressive society could allow such action in the name of community honour.’

The verdict sends a strong signal to these panchayats which have become a law unto themselves, with the silent consent of politicians and policemen, in some parts of India. According to one estimate, every year, more than 100 men and women are either killed or forced to commit suicide by khaps for not adhering to traditional norms. Even as I write this piece, there is yet another news (Hindu paper dated 1.4.2010) of an apparent honour killing of a young couple in Punjab. The victims, hailing from Firozpur, were provided police protection on orders of Punjab and Haryana High Court after marrying against their parents’ wishes. Yet, they were shot dead by 5 people in full public view near Amritsar.

The verdict in Chandrapati’s case came after a tireless three years long legal battle by her, when her life came to a standstill. Shunned by her own people and community, she fought single handedly against social orthodoxy. Her battle for justice, despite all odds and social ostracism by the community, is a source of inspiration to all of us.
She was happy at the verdict, but wanted punishment for those also who abetted and aided the crime. She wondered ‘How can people who kill our children be trusted to mete out justice?’

Despite her rustic and traditional upbringing, Chandrapati has the wisdom and courage to proclaim that children should have the freedom to choose their life partners.
Many of us elite city folks would do well to learn a lesson or two from her. It is not uncommon for highly educated urbanites to make life hell for their grown up sons and daughters if they dare to go against their parents’ dictat – be it choosing their life partner or even a profession of their choice. I am shocked to see the belligerent attitude of affluent families when it comes to marrying outside ones’ caste, or marrying without dowry, or even refusing to abort a female foetus. It seems that, as our horizons expand, our vision is becoming narrower.

It is hoped that the newly enforced ‘Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education’ Act will be another important step in developing progressive minds, free from social and religious bigotry and from prejudices of caste , creed and cultures. It is also hoped that the government amends the Indian Penal Code to make honour killings a separate offence with appropriate punishment.

But mere enactment of laws will not do. Enforcement of laws must be accompanied by a change in mindset. We need to educate ourselves and our children to live in peace and harmony with each other. We need many more Chandrapatis and Vanis.


Shobha Shukla
(The author is the Editor of Citizen News Service (CNS), has worked earlier with State Planning Institute, UP, and teaches Physics at India's prestigious Loreto Convent. Email: shobha@citizen-news.org, website: www.citizen-news.org)

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