Honour and shame

Print edition : June 10, 2016

Jayaram's mother, Nagamma, at her home in Chandravadi village, Mysuru district. On April 11, Madhu Kumari was killed for wanting to get married to Jayaram. Photo: Vikhar Ahmed Sayeed

Monica, 19, who was killed allegedly by her father in Mandya on April 3 for eloping with a Dalit boy.

State Crime Records Bureau statistics show that Karnataka has had 13 “honour killings” since 2011, an indication of hardening social identities. There has yet to be a conviction in an honour killing case.

ON April 11, Madhu Kumari, a 21-year-old resident of Chandravadi village in Nanjangud taluk of Mysuru district, was given a mango drink laced with pesticide by her elder brother Guruprasad. The unsuspecting girl drank the juice and was soon writhing in agony. Within a short time, she was dead. Her parents, Manjula and Gurumallappa, were present through her excruciating ordeal and hastily cremated her the same evening. The fact that Madhu’s body was cremated and not buried, as is the tradition of her caste, aroused suspicion. News that the girl had met with an unnatural death filtered through, and the local police’s investigation led to the arrest of Madhu’s family members, who confessed to the crime. It was a case of “honour killing”, and the Lingayat young woman was killed because she had been in love with Jayaram T.C., a young man from a lower caste, for the past two years.

Chandravadi village is 30 kilometres from the town of Nanjangud. It has around 300 households that mainly depend on agriculture. The land is irrigated by water from the Kabini river, and paddy and sugarcane are the main crops. Chandravadi is largely inhabited by members of only one caste, the Lingayats. There are around 20 houses belonging to the “Oshtama Shetty” group, which is classified as a backward caste. In the caste hierarchy of the region, the Oshtama Shettys are perceived to be lower than the Lingayats. There is no caste-based spatial segregation in the village, and members of both communities eat at each other’s houses, but inter-caste marriages have not taken place in the village as they are tabooed.

Jayaram, 31, has been missing from the village since the day of Madhu’s death because he fears for his life. He is a motor mechanic, the only one in the village. On the day Frontline visited his house, his mother, Nagamma, was the only person at home. Her husband, Thimma Shetty, was away tilling his fields while her daughter, Jayaram’s sister, was at her in-laws’ home. Jayaram’s house seems like it belongs to a fairly prosperous farmer. There are separate bedrooms, a kitchen and a spacious drawing room. Thimma Shetty owns more than five acres (one acre is 0.4 hectare) of land, more than Madhu Kumari’s family, a point Nagamma made, perhaps to show that while they belonged to a lower caste, they were economically more prosperous than the girl’s family. Madhu’s house is just two minutes away on the main street of the village but bore a forlorn look with no one at home. Nagamma said that she was aware that her son and Madhu wanted to get married and that she and her husband did not have any problems with that decision. “Madhu never used to come home, but I used to see her in the village. Once the men agree, what problem will I have with the decision?” she said. “What they [Madhu’s parents] did was wrong. They killed their own daughter for their ‘honour’. Now what ‘honour’ do they have in jail?” she asked.

State Crime Records Bureau statistics show that Karnataka has had 13 honour killings since 2011. Apart from one case that took place in north Karnataka, all the other cases were reported from the region of Old Mysore in south Karnataka. Three incidents were reported from the adjoining district of Mandya alone while other cases were recorded from districts spread across the region. In all these cases, the young men usually belong to a lower caste (in most cases Dalits). The case in Nanjangud was the latest in this line of gruesome honour killings.

A few days before this, on April 3, Monica, 19, a girl belonging to a caste Hindu family, was killed allegedly by her father in Mandya for eloping with a Dalit boy. Her murder was made to look like a suicide, but when family members were questioned, the truth emerged and a case of murder was booked against her father and two of her uncles. On April 17, Mandya also saw protests and threats of disruption by Hindu right-wing organisations when a Muslim boy and a Hindu girl belonging to the Vokkaliga community tied the knot with their parents’ support. All these incidents are worrying as they point to parochialism and a hardening of social identities in recent years.

Mallige, who works with the Karnataka Jana Shakti, a human rights group that is active in the area, said that the honour killings in Old Mysore region were a manifestation of the changing social equations in the region. Dalits and other backward castes are challenging the dominance of the Vokkaligas, the dominant caste in the region, particularly in Mandya. It is intriguing that this area should be witness to a social churn as the Old Mysore region was part of the princely state of Mysore, which had reservation for backward castes almost a hundred years ago. Hostels were built for Dalits and other members of backward castes at the university, and education was encouraged.

V. Lakshminarayana, president of the People’s Union for Civil Liberties, is a long-time resident of Mysuru. He said that the honour killings were “a sign of the painful transition, both socially and economically, that these areas are undergoing. The feudal mindsets of the dominant castes in the region are still closed.” There are two main divisions among Dalits in Karnataka: the Madigas and the Holeyas. The Dalits in the Old Mysore region are mainly Holeyas. Their socio-economic condition is relatively better than that of the Madigas, and since the community is cohesive, it has a certain heft in its day-to-day dealings with the dominant castes. Also, it is significant to note that the Dalits here are not landless labourers like their counterparts in north Karnataka.

“The landholding pattern, relative education [levels] among Dalits and lower castes, social consciousness and migration to cities like Bengaluru and Mysuru are reasons why the lower castes in the area are far more confident and assertive,” said Lakshminarayana. Hulkere Mahadeva, an executive committee member of the Dalit Sangharsha Samithi (DSS), told Frontline that the increase in honour killings was not sudden. “Honour killings have been there, but it is only now that we have alert and sensitive media that are bringing these issues to light. It is not like these things were not happening before.” He went on to add that “casteism is also increasing”. His colleague, Guruprasad Keregodu, who is the State convener of the DSS, said that the increasing caste consciousness could be directly linked to the growth in the number of Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh shakhas in the region. “Every village in the Old Mysore region has an RSS shakha now. The number of these shakhas has increased from the time the National Democratic Alliance government led by [A.B.] Vajpayee came to power in 1999. This has led to the growth of communalism and casteism in the region, and it is very easy to provoke dominant caste members against Muslims and Dalits,” he said.

From the crime records, it is evident that only women are the targets of honour killings, which shows how patriarchy operates in this crime. “Women are soft targets. The men in these relationships are usually not targeted,” Mallige said. If the lower-caste men were targeted, it could lead to inter-caste violence as Dalit and progressive organisations are strong in the region.

At a recent interaction with the media, Manjula Manasa, the Chairperson of the Karnataka State Commission for Women, said that establishing fast-track courts or special courts was the need of the hour as cases of honour killing were on the rise. It is pertinent to note that there have been no convictions so far in honour killing cases.

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