Love under the shadow of honour

The honour killings of Manoj and Babli, perhaps the most-lived in public memory, had all the ingredients of a potboiler: a passionate love story, a morbid tale of revenge and a woman’s spirited fight for justice for her dead son.

At least 1,000 young people are killed every year in India in the name of honour. One out of five honour killings reported worldwide happens in India. Human rights workers think it is an underestimation. Love has never been as complicated and politicised as is being witnessed now. Ever since a Dalit youth Ilavarasan apparently killed himself after his marriage with a dominant caste girl, Divya, got mired in a political controversy, love stories of couples from different castes in rural Tamil Nadu continue to hit the headlines for all the wrong reasons. Years after sentences were awarded for those convicted in the gruesome Manoj and Babli honour killing case in Haryana, the State was again a mute witness to yet another horrid killing of Dharmendra Barak and Nidhi Barak, and for a similar reason — intra-gotra marriage. The sensational Aarushi Talwar case reported widely across all sections of media is perhaps an example that the medieval style killings are not just a rural phenomenon.

Honour killings in India face the real danger of being brushed aside as mere numbers in newspaper reports. Human rights defenders might be right in claiming that many cases of honour killings go unrecorded. They are not even numbers. Countless young men and women, who are killed for merely choosing their life partners, weigh down on the conscience of a nation that chooses to turn a blind eye. Except for a Supreme Court reaction that honour killings should be awarded death sentences and a proposed bill in cold storage for long now, honour killings have not ruffled any feather despite the fact they continue to happen and quite often.

An honour killing’s presence in public memory or the absence of it depends on the sensationalism it could generate. The honour killings of Manoj and Babli, perhaps the most-lived in public memory, had all the ingredients of a potboiler: a passionate love story, a morbid tale of revenge and a woman’s spirited fight for justice for her dead son. It caught the popular imagination in a way no other crime did — featuring in different forums, from newspaper reports to the television programme ‘Satyameva Jayate’.

Yet, it is to the credit of journalist Chander Suta Dogra to negotiate the thin line between sensationalism and truth, and still come up with a riveting account ever told on any honour killing anywhere in the country. While exercising caution and exhibiting sensitivity in language, Dogra also ensures that her account has the raciness of fiction combined with journalistic precision — a fact that makes her book,Manoj and Babli: A Hate Story unputdownable.

Manoj and Babli’s story could be told in three easy sentences. They fall in love, get married, hunted down and killed by Babli’s family..Manoj’s mother Chanderpati and sister Seema fight for justice. While justice has been half delivered, the larger fight against honour killing is yet to be won.

Yet Dogra’s presentation of the story has taken into account many factors that has hardly been touched upon by the mainstream media. In presenting the story of Manoj and Babli, Dogra also presents the social fabric of a State like Haryana where most honour killings take place. Besides writing on the notoriety of khap panchayats, Dogra also delves into history to enlighten the reader on the origin of khap panchayats and their roles since pre-independence days. Her painstaking research of events that preceded and followed the honour killings gives the reader a bird’s eye view of an issue that continues to haunt the country. By elaborating on the initial hesitation of lawyer Lal Bahadur in taking up the case and the trauma of judge Vani Sharma after delivering the death sentences, besides of course writing on the political immunity the killers continued to enjoy till women organisations built pressure, Dogra makes it clear that honour killing is more than a social issue. It takes political will to counter the menace.

The author exhibits rare sensitivity in also writing about the predicament of Ompati, Babli’s mother, who had to silently endure the trauma of seeing patriarchal authority decide her daughter’s fate.

By weaving into the rather simple story of Manoj and Babli, some historical perspectives on the patriarchal establishment that has its roots firmly entrenched in Indian society, Dogra offers the reader a better understanding of what really killed Manoj and Babli. Such factors make Manoj and Babli: A Hate Story more than a mere chilling account of a gruesome honour killing. The book fathoms the reason and struggles to find a solution.

The story of Manoj and Babli is a reprise of any story of honour killing anywhere in India – especially in Northern India where Khap Panchayats are proactive. Manoj and Babli happened in 2007. Cut to 2013 and you only have the names changed. Dharmendra Barak and Nidhi Barak are killed, by Nidhi’s father and relatives for almost a similar reason. Billu Pehalwan, Nidhi’s father, responsible for the killings, had no remorse. Ironically in honour killings associated with intra-gotra marriages, it is the family of the girls that almost always set out to take revenge, forcefully reiterating the patriarchal notion that honour — whether of the family or of society — lies in a woman’s vagina.

Besides being a powerful account of honour killing, the book is a grim reminder of the great distances that need to be crossed before India can call itself a civilised nation.

A link to the article can be found here.