· Bishops’ Conference Against the Wound of Honor Killings ·
There are hundreds of so called “honor killings” in India every year according to estimates. It is an ancient and tragic practice, used mostly in the less-developed areas of the country, when a member of the family wishes to marry against the intentions of the family, outside of the caste, or someone of a different religion. It is a practice sanctioned by a “council of elders” who establish social rules in the villages of Indian states such as Punjab, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan and in fact instigate Hindus to persecute those who infringe on the rigid system of the caste.
The Supreme Court of India, in a recent sentence, declared the practice illegal, indirectly condemning the existence of the “council of elders” long considered unauthorized judicial organisms. The decision of the Supreme Court was welcomed by the Bishops’ Conference. Father Babu Joseph Karakombil, Spokesman for the Bishops, underscored that “the decisions adopted by the members of the ‘council of elders’ heavily damage personal liberty, especially that of women.”
The rigid ancestral rules in use in the poorest villages of the most “traditionalist” Indian states, where Hindu fundamentalism finds its most favorable conditions, deny women the possibility to choose their future husbands outside of their caste. Often, they must also follow “criteria” established by local custom. The ancient leaders of the villages, in a case of violation, sanction various punishments that range from social ostracism of the family of the groom, if he is of an inferior caste, to a death sentence.
According to a study by the National Indian Commission for Women, around 72% of “honor killings” occur due to marriages of women in superior castes with men of inferior ones. The Supreme Court’s ruling says: “We are of the opinion that it is a wholly illegal practice and has to be ruthlessly stamped out.” The Supreme Court has also asked the governments of various states to suspend magistrates and police functionaries who do not react sufficiently against this practice.
Mahendra Singh Tikait, a leader of a “council of elders” in the state of Uttar Pradesh, observed, “The Government cannot protect immoral behavior. Our law is the only valid one, not the Constitution.” In the district of Muzzafarpur, Uttar Pradesh, ten cases of “honor killings” were registered in 2002, while another thirty-five couples have disappeared.
Various international human rights organizations, such as Human Rights Watch, launched an appeal to the civil authorities to stop a phenomenon which does not appear to be diminishing. “The Indian government,” according to the 2010 Human Rights Watch Report, “should urgently investigate and prosecute those responsible for the recent spurt in so-called ‘honor killings.’ The government should strengthen laws that protect citizens against kinship, religion-based and caste-based violence and take appropriate action against local leaders who endorse or tolerate such crimes.”
The Catholic Church in India, has for some time conducted a courageous campaign against every type of social discrimination, despite the aversion of fundamentalist Hindu groups. In particular, the Church seeks to promote the emancipation of the “dalit,” the so-called “untouchables.” In a note, the Bishops observed, “Putting into practice principles of equality and justice would bring down the caste system, with important political implications. The privileged members of the highest castes appreciate Christians so long as they are feeding the poor, but they are against them if they try to change society and the economy. But the Christian message is clear: globalization with solidarity for the development of all human beings.”
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