More than 1,000 young people, mostly women, die in so-called honour killings in India every year in a horrific practice that must stop

(20 January 2012) — Jaswinder Kaur Sidhu, a 25-year-old Indian Sikh and naturalised Canadian, was brutally murdered in Punjab in 2000. After 11 years and seven convictions in India, the investigation continues. Earlier this year, her mother and uncle were arrested in a Vancouver suburb under Canada’s Extradition Act, suspected of ordering the murder by phone as hired killers held Jaswinder captive.

Indian police have alleged that her family ordered the killing after Jaswinder refused to divorce her husband, and instead flew from Canada to help him emigrate from India. The mother and uncle — 63-year-old Malkit Kaur Sidhu and 67-year-old Surjit Singh Badesha — made their first appearances on January 9 in a Vancouver court that would decide their extradition to India.

Indian authorities have long suspected that the mother and uncle orchestrated the alleged honour killing in disapproval of the wealthy beautician’s secret marriage to a poor Indian rickshaw driver of a lower caste.

But Jaswinder’s case is far from exceptional. Honour killings are a practice with ancient and deep roots in some parts of India, especially in the northern provinces. More than 1,000 young people in India die every year as a result, said legal experts Anil Malhotra and his brother Ranjit Malhotra.

“Forced marriages and honour killings are often intertwined. Marriage can be forced to save honour, and women can be murdered for rejecting a forced marriage and marrying a partner of their own choice who is not acceptable for the family of the girl,” they said in their joint paper Social-Legal Perspective of Forced Marriages, presented at a conference in 2010.

In June 2011, India’s ministry of law and justice drafted a bill to curb honour killings in the country. The proposed legislation aimed to better prosecute persons or groups — especially village councils — involved in issuing illegal orders to carry out honour killings to “restore the community’s honour”. The proposed legislation, which specifically prohibits the gathering of people with the intention of condemning a marriage, is still being discussed by the government. The supreme court has sent notices to seven states, as well as to the national government, to seek responses to measures being taken to address the problem.

Non-governmental groups across the country working to stop honour killings and lend support to inter-caste and love marriages believe there is an acute need to reform social attitudes, rather than simply passing more laws on the crime.

Inter-caste marriages are protected under Indian law, but in a joint 2006 survey by television channel CNN-IBN and the daily English-language newspaper Hindustan Times, 76% of respondents still deem the practice to be acceptable.

According to the survey, the majority of Indians continue to marry within their communities. Newspapers regularly carry marital advertisements in which parents, seeking to arrange a marriage for their son or daughter, specify caste or community group alongside desired attributes such as profession and education.

“This is part and parcel of our culture, that you marry into your own caste,” Dharmendra Pathak, the father of Nirupama Pathak (see box, right), told The New York Times a few days after his daughter’s death. “Every society has its own culture. Every society has its own traditions.”


The death of Nirupama Pathak

Honour killings made grim international headlines and sparked debate in April 2010 when Nirupama Pathak, a 22-year-old journalist at a financial newspaper in New Delhi, was found murdered in her bedroom after she had gone home to visit her parents.

Though her family and neighbours suggested suicide, the postmortem report concluded that she had been suffocated. The police later arrested her mother, Sudha Pathak, the only person home at the time of Nirupama’s death.

More details emerged in the days after the murder, and it was established that the suspected motive for the alleged murder was Nirupama’s decision to get secretly engaged to a man who belonged to a lower caste. Nirupama was also found to be pregnant, though it is unclear if her family had known about it.


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