Visi Tilak is an award winning journalist, writer, talented musical and visual artist, and craftswoman. She is passionate about the arts, culture, and avidly tracks the news and current events. This blog is a reflection of her varied interests. and is meant to be a proverbial "watering hole" or "office fountain" for discussions, commentary and opinions on these various themes.
For three weeks now, a morbid murder story has been playing out in the Indian media. Nirupama Pathak, 22, a New Delhi–based journalist, was allegedly murdered by her own mother. Her crime? She had wanted to marry a fellow journalist who belongs to a lower caste — and she was pregnant. On a trip home to make a final effort to convince her family, Nirupama texted her boyfriend that she was being held captive, locked up in a bathroom. On April 29, she was found dead. The family claimed Nirupama had killed herself, and lodged a case against her boyfriend for rape and abetting suicide. But when the postmortem results revealed Nirupama had been asphyxiated, the police arrested her mother, Sudha Pathak.
The case is now headed to court, which will disentangle the web of allegations and counterallegations. Meanwhile, it has thrust the issue of honor killings to the center of public debate. Though Western readers associate the term more with Taliban-ruled Afghanistan than with 21st century India, honor killings are shockingly frequent in villages in the northern and northwestern parts of the country, where those daring to cross the barriers of caste are made to pay with their lives. Mostly, these cases are confined to the inside pages of newspapers, but the Nirupama case — in urban, educated, middle-class India — has hit the front pages. (See the tempestuous Nehru dynasty of India.)
Activists say dozens of people, both women and men, are killed for "honor" every year, falling victim to the deeply entrenched caste system, which dictates an individual's social standing based on the caste they are born into. The majority of these killings take place in the agrarian states of Punjab, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan, where land ownership and caste go hand in hand and an honor culture thrives by maintaining caste and gender hierarchies. "The upper castes fiercely guard their hold over land and power in the community," says Ranbir Singh, a Haryana-based sociologist currently a consultant with the Haryana Institute of Rural Development. "They are able to mobilize young, educated but unemployed, mostly unmarried men, who are all fired up to shore up their self-esteem." (From TIME's archives: India and the politics of prejudice.)