Suddenly, the most dangerous thing to be in India seems to be a child. And the biggest threat is not from disease or poor medical facilities or bad government schemes, it’s from your parents. Girl children are being killed by millions in the womb by sex selection; well, we’re used to that by now. Yawn and turn the page. Who wants to pay all that dowry stuff anyway?
Some parents however go through the whole process of having and raising children. Then when the children do not follow some arcane community law, they pick up the kill option. The murder of a young couple in Gharnauthi village, in the Rohtak district of Haryana is the latest dishonour killing shocker. If we are still shocked that is. Nidhi and Dharmendra made the fatal mistake of falling in love. For this, they were dragged back to their village after eloping to Delhi to be stabbed several times by Nidhi’s family. Dharmendra was beheaded. Nidhi’s body was cut into six pieces.
The killers were not strangers, evil sociopathic serial killers or sadists out of American TV serials. They were Nidhi’s family. So far, her parents, brother and an uncle have been accused of the crime. To use the word “honour” together with such a gruesome double murder is to somehow give it legitimacy. There is no honour in killing your children no matter how much their being in love with the wrong person upsets you. The fact that these parents think they have done the right thing by beheading their daughter and her boyfriend and chopping them into pieces, stabbing them several times and breaking their limbs is terrifying.
Nidhi and Dharmendra are not stray cases, as we have discovered. They are the norm in some parts of India. In all the reasons provided for the need to uphold honour, the extreme dishonour in parents killing their offspring barely registers. The needs of the community are more important than the individual choices made by a man or a woman (whom to fall in love with) and the laws and the constitution of the land are secondary to all this.
It’s not just honour killing and selective female infanticide though. It is parents selling off children as labourers or to the sex trade. It is treating children like commodities rather than human beings. Poverty is often used as the excuse — even in the case of the juvenile rapist in the Delhi gangrape case but poverty as a justification for everything from criminal activity to lack of compassion wears thin in the face of reality.
Research shows that most cases of sexual assaults on women and children happen within the confines of the home, by a close relative or friend of the family or a known person. There are enough stories of mothers knowing that their children were being molested by someone and doing nothing, either out of fear or for reasons of “honour” and the family name. And what about the perpetrator of these assaults, emboldened by the knowledge that honour and the Indian sentimental attachment to family will keep him or her safe forever?
Rather than keep our heads stuck collectively stuck in the sand of disbelief and fear, we need to tackle the dangers of our social systems directly. This is not about arguments about whose culture is superior and how chow mein causes uncontrollable increases in sexual desire. It is about acknowledging the deepest flaws in human nature and trying to understand how they can be countered and contained. Depending on the family is clearly not the best model in some circumstances, or Nidhi and Dharmendra would not have been beheaded and dismembered.
When the child welfare services in Norway tried to save children of Indian parentage from being abused in their homes, we behaved as if Norway had launched a racist attack on India. But imagine if we had effective child welfare services in India, how many children we might be able to save from abuse, destruction and death?
Ranjona Banerji is a senior journalist. You can follow her on twitter @ranjona