Life and death (and faith) in India

About a year ago, during a book tour to promote “Blind Spot: When Journalists Don’t Get Religion,” I had a chance to take part in a forum for young journalists at a media institute in Bangalore, India. As you would expect, the topic for the day was improving mainstream media coverage of religion.

Obviously, the media scene in India is different than in the United States. For one thing, growing literacy rates are increasing the power of print-on-paper news sources, in a culture in which televisions and newspapers are available in far more settings than high-speed Internet access.

However, I was struck by one consistent response from the audience, which I would estimate was about 50 percent Hindu, 25 percent Muslim and 25 percent Christian. When asked what was the greatest obstacle to accurate, mainstream coverage of events and trends in religion, the response of one young Muslim male was blunt. When our media cover religion news, he said, more people end up dead. Other students repeated this theme during our meetings.

In other words, when journalists cover religion stories, this only makes the conflicts worse. It is better to either ignore them or to downplay them, masking the nature of the conflicts behind phrases such as “community conflicts” or saying that the events are cased by disputes about “culture” or “Indian values.”

I flashed back to that forum a time or two while reading a Washington Post news feature that ran with the headline, “5 sentenced to death in honor killing of Indian couple from same clan.” Here is the opening of the story:

KARODA, INDIA – No one in this village visits Chanderpati Banwala’s home, which stands at the end of a lane full of sleeping buffaloes and overturned wooden carts. The boycott began three years ago when her son eloped with his sweetheart, a neighbor from his clan.

But the marriage was short-lived. Village elders declared the relationship incestuous, a violation of ancient Hindu rules of marriage because the two were descendants of a common ancestor who lived thousands of years ago. As the couple tried to flee town, the young woman’s family chased them down and dragged them out of a bus on a busy highway. The groom, Manoj, was strangled, and his bride, Babli, was forced to drink pesticide. Their bodies were dumped in a canal.

“My son did the honorable thing by marrying the girl he loved. But the village council said the boy and girl belong to the same clan and are siblings. They said the couple had brought dishonor,” said Banwala, sitting on her porch kneading dough. “It has been three years, nobody invites us to marriages or funerals, and no shop sells us groceries.”

The grieving mother did a rare and dangerous thing — she took the case to court. This meant that an event that ordinarily would have been ignored or downplayed went public, with mainstream coverage. As the headline noted, five defendants were eventually sentenced to death, which the Post notes is the “first time in India that capital punishment has been ordered in an honor killing.”

This is a major story about hellish events that are far from uncommon, even in modern, rapidly urbanizing India. In this story, we are shown a clash between traditional taboos and the rising tide of modernization and, to some degree, globalization. However, many in India are fighting back to defend the “complicated system of marriage restrictions” that remain in place. The power of the “clan councils” and the caste system keeps coming up.

Does religion have anything to do with this, even with the “Hindu rules of marriage”?

Apparently not. If you are looking for information about the roles that faith and religious tradition play in this complex and highly emotional story, you’ll need to look somewhere else. The team at the Post seems to have decided that it is too dangerous or too complicated to cover the religious content of this story — in one of America’s most important newspapers.

Is this story still relevant? Later in the story we read:

Last year, officials in Haryana recorded about 100 honor killings of young people caught in the war between clan, caste, culture and cupid. Banwala’s case is the first honor-killing trial to secure a verdict, although a similar trial is underway. In that case, four people are accused of beating and hacking a young man to death with sticks, sickles and scythes last year after he married a woman from a neighboring village, a relationship villagers also regarded as incest.

In 2008, a judge in Haryana and Punjab, Kanwaljit Singh Ahluwalia, said the number of “couples hiding themselves in the corridors of court” had risen in recent years. In response, the government set up hotlines and opened shelters for the runaway couples.

Mewa Singh Mor, the president of all clan councils in Haryana, said the councils do not order killings but often ostracize and boycott the defiant couples and their families.

“It is a shame that so many girls and boys are eloping nowadays, under the influence of TV and movies. Our constitution tells our youth what their rights are but says nothing about their social duties,” he said. “These couples are like an epidemic. They are destroying our social fabric.”

Once again, we have the safe phrases that I heard the young journalists using in Bangalore — phrases such as “social fabric” and “social duties.” I asked the students if this was code language for religion. Of course, they said. In India it is almost impossible to separate religion and culture. Religion is everywhere. It is a subject that is too big and too powerful for the mainstream media to cover.

That sounded familiar.

At the very end of the story, religious language did make a brief and haunting comeback.

… (The) court has posted two security guards outside Chanderpati Banwala’s home. She has a fresh battle ahead when a higher court hears the defendants’ appeal. “I will not give up. I want to teach them a lesson, so that innocent young couples are not killed again in the name of tradition,” she said. “Now I trust only the court and God.”

It might have been appropriate to ask about this conflict between “God” and “tradition” in the life of this Indian woman. However, I understand that doing so would have been dangerous.

Photo: Manoj and Babli Banwala on their wedding day.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Jerry

    I think the #1 lesson from this story for those of us in the US is to know that “honor” killings is not a Muslim problem but a problem in a wide-swath of the globe. So we need to consider what religion has to say as well as considering cultural and historical aspects.

  • Roberto

    Part of the problem is that what we call “religion,” i.e., a sphere of life that can be disambiguated from what we call “culture,” is literally nonsensical in a place like India.

    As many scholars, Indians and non-Indians alike, have written, “Hinduism” is not an Indian term or concept. It’s a farangi word that subsumes countless practices, rites, cultures, etc. under a general heading. The word “Hindu,” which is derived from “Sindhu,” a.k.a, “Indus” was simply what Persians called people living east of that river.

    Westerners can’t begin to fathom the complexity of “religion” and “culture” in India without first setting aside the dichotomies that shape our thinking.

  • Julia

    This sounds like a complicated mix of religion and culture.

    I have read that Muslim South Asians in North India and Pakistan have a preference for their children marrying 1st cousins. It’s one of the problems for countries such as England and Belgium where a resident Muslim alien can bring a foreigner over from the home country for marriage. Even a Muslim man born in Europe will likely send for a young cousin from the ancestral country – who typically is not educated and can’t speak English. So the children of that couple don’t assimilate, either.

    Interesting that the rules in the same part of the world are so different regarding marriage between 1st cousins being encouraged by Muslims and marriage between 50th cousins forbidden by Hindus.

    Mewa Singh Mor, the president of all clan councils in Haryana, said the councils do not order killings but often ostracize and boycott the defiant couples and their families.

    Roberto:

    The clan council president’s name “Singh” is usually Jain. As I understand it, the people we call Hindus are more or less native people as are the Jains. The Muslims came with the Mughul conquerors from Persia and thereabouts. So it’s not just where you live but where your ancestors are from and what you adopted from your neighbors or maybe did the opposite to set yourself apart from your neighbors.

    What you say about “Hindus” is probably somewhat similar to the situation with long-gone Christendom in the West.

  • Jerry

    FYI, “Singh” is a Sikh name not a Jain one. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Singh

  • Dave

    I think the lesson from the situation in India involves the self-image of journalism. Journalism isn’t supposed to be active within issues, but only to report on them. But reporting on something can’t help but have some effect on the transations journaled; the situation in India is a grossly extreme particular of the general rule.

  • Julia

    Jerry:

    You’re right.
    I spoke too soon without thinking it through.

    I recall a young man in the 50s on TV playing some kind of keyboard instrument. He had Singh as his family name. Then there was the biochemistry instructor in university who also had the name Singh.

    Semi-off topic: I loved the movie Monsoon Wedding.

  • http://www.mormoninmichigan.blogspot.com John Pack Lambert

    Is Banwala a Hindu at all? Her invocation of trust in God does not seem to be the line that would be said by a Hindu, since they worship 5000 Gods.

    I know rates of conversion from Hinduism to Christianity, Islam and Budhism are quite high in India. The Hindu establishment seeks to block such actions any way it can.

    I am wondering if these are really cases of “elopement” or if they are cases of conversion to Islam or Christianity and the Hindu establishment still trying to impose Hindu religious rules on those who have left the religion.

    This is the type of question that a good investigative journalist would ask. If the lady is invoking God, she is clearly not speaking the language of the Hindu.

    For that matter, if the local clan leaders are rejecting these marriages, who is performing them? Are they being done by officials of the state, or are they being done by Christian and Muslim religious leaders? I would not be surprised to learn that baptist and other Christian ministers perform many of these marriages, but maybe not.

    What is clear is that a couple can not get married without someone performing the wedding, unless marriage law in India is much different than in the US.

    At a minimum the media should ask if those who perform such marriages are in danger of violence. Is it because they are not in the clan and thus not part of its honor system? Is it because they live in city’s and not the out-of-the way villages where the clans have such power?

    Lastly, but hardly leastly, the article really only mentioned Haryana and Punjab, which are ajacent states. Is this expansive interpretation of clan along with death for braking its rules unique to that part of India or is it wide spead?

    Since Hinduism is a non-hierarchical religion that consists of thousands of non-mutual exclusive cults of worship, to some extent Hindu religion is expressed in different places differently. This also means that while a Christian convert may see themselves as no longer a Hindu, the idea that they are no longer Hindu is less clear to Hindu family members and neighbors. Since there are 5000 or more Gods, worshipping Jesus as well does not indicate you have left the faith. Since various Hindus worship different Gods the whole matter can be more complexed.

    I just remembered why the article seemed odd. What of the Sikhs? You mean to tell me there were sero Sikhs in the gathering? This seems suspect on its own. Since Haryana is the heart of Sikhdom, it also would seem that they might play into this whole equation. Jains and Parsis (Zoroastrians) also exist in India, although not really in numbers to matter for these issues. The Seven Sister states of the East (Assam, Manipur etc.) present some other religious groups, although many of those have nearly entirely vanished in the face of the spread of Christianity, but the whole dynamic of those states is as different from the rest of India as the dynamic of Hawaii is different from the mainland United States (with the possible exception of Assam).

  • http://www.mormoninmichigan.blogspot.com John Pack Lambert

    Julia,
    Actually Singh is generally a Sikh name. I am not sure how high a corelation there really is. I have known Singhs who were Sikhs, but that does not prove anything.

  • http://www.mormoninmichigan.blogspot.com John Pack Lambert

    There is another possible reason that Banwala invokes God. She may be a follower of Brahmoism. This is a religious movement that rouse within the context of Hinduism (and to a large extent the subjegation at the heart of the British Raj) that advocated worship of the invisible, formless, one God. It also rejects caste designation and the Vedas. Its main bastion of influence was in Bengal and Assam states, however over time it has spread.

    Like virtually every other religious movement it has also had schism. Adi Dharm, one of the sub-groups of Brahmoism, has 8 million adherents. These are not all limited to India, and with India’s population exceeding 1 billion, 8 million is less than one percent.

    Brahmoisms number of followers is hard to know accurately. Until 2004 the state of West Bengal had been seeking for years to get Brahmoists legally classified as Hindus. This attempt was overturned by the Indian Supreme Court in that year.

    While in India people may concieve of religion differently than in the West, the matter is very complexed. Legal marriage age and other such things in India depend on your religion. While in the US your religion is generally not a matter of public record, and you can change religion at will, in India your legal status is partly tied to your religion and there are various legal structures put in place to try to impede religious change.

    One of these structures is to allow religious bodies of the old religion to still have authority over a person after he or she changes religion. This angle of the story has not been addressed. It may not be a factor in all of these honor killings, but I suspect it is part of some.


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