NEW DELHI, Jan 12 (OneWorld) - Indian women activists have called for an urgent change in the country's laws to counter the uncontrolled rise of "honor killings" in India, saying they comprise ten percent of all killings in the northern Indian states of Haryana and Punjab.
Honor killings -- where men and women are killed by their kin or members of their caste (an ancient Hindu categorization originally based on occupation) -- are also rampant in the western part of the northern province of Uttar Pradesh.
"This violence is committed in the name of saving the "honor" of the community, caste or family," says a leading Indian women's group, the All India Democratic Women's Association (AIDWA) in a resolution passed in the Indian capital, New Delhi.
At a conference held by AIDWA, Sunday, victims of violence narrated tales of killings, rape and humiliation. Most of these honor killings were ordered by so-called caste panchayats, or informal courts comprising members of a particular caste, which decide all matters concerning them.
"A caste panchayat is a self-proclaimed body consisting of village elders or the elite," explains AIDWA general secretary Brinda Karat. "Women are excluded from the body," she says.
The caste panchayats sit in judgment on matters of marital or domestic discord or on issues relating to land. Often, villagers give precedence to the judgment of a caste panchayat rather than that delivered by the legal panchayat -- a constitutional body of men and women elected by villagers to decide local issues.
While most such crimes go unrecorded, AIDWA warns that honor killings are on the rise in India. In Muzaffarnagar, the worst affected district of Uttar Pradesh, 13 cases of honor killings were reported in the first nine months of 2003, up from ten in 2002.
Some 35 couples were also declared missing during this period.
Most honor killings revolve around run-away marriages or relationships between two people from different castes. There were several instances of a groom or bride being killed by irate family members for marrying someone from a so-called lower caste.
A prime example is that of Geeta Rani of Hoshiarpur of Punjab, whose husband, Jasveer, was killed by a group of people from his village last month. Rani and Jasveer both were from different castes, with Jasveer's killers belonging to Rani's caste.
"They cut off his hands and legs and then killed him for "daring" to marry one of "their" women," recounts Rani.
In another instance, a woman from Uttar Pradesh who belonged to a caste of barbers -- considered by traditional Hindu society as one of the lower castes --was repeatedly raped and finally killed by a group of higher caste Yadav men.
Her crime? Her son had married a girl from the socially and economically more prosperous Yadav caste.
AIDWA says forms of violence differ, ranging from public lynchings and murders to rape. In some cases, people's faces were blackened or heads shaved off. Some were forced to eat excreta or drink urine, while others faced social boycott.
In its resolution AIDWA says that, "Central to such violence is the subordinate position of women and girls in all castes and communities. Women are viewed as the property of the family, the caste and the community. A woman's chastity is the "honor" of the community."
AIDWA has called for strict measures to stem the rise of honor killings, including a ban on all decisions of caste panchayats that violate the Indian Constitution, which has abolished castes and regards men and women as equal.
It has also called for changing the law to allow courts to intervene in all crimes where violence is committed in the name of "honor."