On Saturday, 3rd June, a 21-year-old pregnant Muslim woman named Banu Begum from Bijapur, Karnataka was burnt alive by her family for marrying a Dalit man named Sayabanna Sharanappa Konnur.
The whole story is painfully horrible. When her parents found out that they were in a relationship in January, they tried to fail a case under the POCSO Act against Konnur, claiming that their daughter was a minor (which she wasn’t). Soon after, they eloped, and had their marriage registered. Upon discovering that Banu was pregnant, they decided to go back to their hometown to tell their parents the news. Banu’s family continued to insist that the couple split, and brutally attacked Konnur when they refused. Konnur escaped to the local police station, and returned to try and rescue Banu. By the time he returned, her family members had set her on fire, and she was dead. When Konnur begged for help, the neighbours allegedly shut their doors to him, because they too believed that Banu had done a terrible thing worthy of punishment.
This horrifying incident has prompted rights groups to demand a separate law to address “honour killings”. Activist Abha Singh told Outlook Magazine that “the Karnataka incident shows that the society of India is getting fractured on communal lines”, and decried the reluctance of the government to create a separate category for honour killings under the IPC.
In the past, I’ve found it frustrating that crimes in which families murder women to uphold patriarchal and communal beliefs were referred to as “honour killings” instead of murder, because I felt that it conveyed some measure of legitimacy to the crime.
But now, I’m not so sure if these crimes are the same as murder, because for many reasons, they are uniquely heinous. While the term for these kinds of killings shouldn’t have anything to do with the word “honour”, perhaps there is something to be said for understanding that this is a different kind of crime, considering how gendered its outcome is, the horror of family members murdering one of their own, and the deeply problematic patriarchal and casteist roots crimes like these have. Understanding them to be a separate kind of crime fuelled by patriarchal and casteist hatred could be a step in dismantling the awful structures they’re rooted in. Having a name for them also gives us the tools to deal with them, like having the term “dowry deaths” in our collective vocabulary.
The case of Banu Begum also reminds me of a similarly shocking story that was in the news last week, where a Jat Sikh man killed himself after discovering that his wife was a Dalit.