Sunday, June 27, 2010

[ZESTCaste] Honour killings: Chickens of identity politics come home to roost (Comment)

Honour killings: Chickens of identity politics come home to roost (Comment)
Sunday, June 27, 2010 11:22:37 AM by IANS
By Amulya Ganguli
Even a decade ago, khap panchayats - the caste-based village councils
with their kangaroo courts functioning mainly in Haryana - were
virtually unknown, and sporadic "honour killings" were reported only
from northwest Pakistan. Now, these make headline news in India almost
every day.

To understand this regressive phenomenon, it may be necessary to go
back to 1990 when caste-based identity politics received a boost.
Although caste was always a feature of Indian politics, except in
areas like West Bengal, it was generally a muted affair before that
fateful year.

Even if the parties selected their candidates on the basis of the
caste composition of the constituencies, especially in the Hindi
heartland, they pretended that they were motivated more by merit and
organizational strength than by caste. It was the same where the
religious communities were concerned.

A seminal change took place with the V.P. Singh government's
implementation of the Mandal Commission report on reservations for
Other Backward Classes (OBCs) in government jobs in 1990. This was
followed by L.K. Advani's rath yatra to "remove" a mosque at the
supposed birthplace of Lord Ram in Ayodhya to prevent the Hindu vote
bank of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) being split by the upsurge of
casteist sentiments.

The BJP's rise at the time was accompanied by the rise of parties like
the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) and the Samajwadi Party, which
championed the cause of the OBCs, and the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP),
which was associated with the Dalits. The politics of identity, based
on religion and caste, had suddenly acquired more importance than ever

A key feature of the segmented politics was the aggressive flaunting
of one's religious and caste identity. Since aggression requires a
target, the minorities faced the BJP's provocative campaign while the
parties of the OBCs and Dalits targeted the upper castes. "Tilak,
tarazu aur talwar, inko maro jootey char" (beat the Brahmins, Banias
and Rajputs with shoes) was the BSP's belligerent advice to its

Indian politics had never before seen such vituperation in public
life. Inevitably, the strengthening of such divisive sentiments
infected the social scene as well.

Hence the appearance of khap panchayats, which are not strictly legal
entities like the three-tier panchayat system which operates in the
rural areas. Instead, they are an informal gathering of village elders
of one community, mainly the Jats.

Had these been a congregation of wise old men giving sage advice
against moral turpitude, there would have been no cause for alarm. But
the boost received by the caste system in 1990 has strengthened their
traditional prejudices, resulting in the issuance of directives
against inter-caste or even inter-village marriages. These panchayats
have also forbidden marriages between boys and girls of the same
gotra, a system of clans in Hindu society.

What is ominous is that these illegal bodies haven't stopped after
issuing their regressive diktats. The excessive importance which the
caste system has received has emboldened the khap panchayats to order
even the killings of defiant couples to save the "honour" of their
families. This repulsive practice has now spread from the villages to
the towns, including Delhi.

It will be a mistake to believe that such outrages are the result of a
generation gap or of a religious or class divide, the usual reasons of
disagreement between parents and grown-up children. Such divergence of
views can lead to estrangement, but not murder. The killings are the
result of the whipping up of an intense antipathy towards perceived

The belief at the time of independence was that the caste system would
gradually wither away with the spread of education and modern,
scientific ideas. There was wide agreement among the intelligentsia
about the reprehensible nature of the system with its concepts of
ritual purity which made the Dalits untouchables in the eyes of the
upper castes.

As a form of affirmative action, therefore, the founding fathers of
the constitution had called for reservations in jobs and education for
only the Dalits and Adivasis - the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled
Tribes - and that, too, for a period of 10 years.

Unfortunately, not only has this restriction been consistently
bypassed with extensions being provided every 10 years, but the scope
of reservations has been widened to include, first, the OBCs, and then
the women in panchayats, which will be extended to parliament and
state assemblies as well.

Quotas for the OBCs along with those for Dalits and Adivasis are also
being set aside in the higher educational institutions. Now, to give
further importance to the caste system, castes could form a part of
the census data.

Earlier, the fear was that the quotas will keep out the meritorious
from employment and education, thereby affecting the quality of
services and academic degrees. Now, as the "honour killings" show, the
emphasis on caste can have other horrendous consequences, which were
evidently anticipated by the politicians because of their eagerness to
exploit the divisive sentiments to build up their bases of support.

(27-06-2010 Amulya Ganguli is a writer on current affairs. He can be
reached at


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