Honor Killings: When Bloodline and Bloodshed Intersect

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Michael Ransom, Senior CorrespondentLast Modified: 00:49 a.m. DST, 2 April 2014

Santhal Tribal Lady, Photo by Ravi PratapANDHRA PRADESH, India - Pachala Deepthi tried her best to gain the blessing of her parents before marrying her sweetheart, Anantagiri Kiran Kumar. For over two years, Deepthi's appeals fell on deaf ears. The man she intended to marry was an unacceptable choice, and P. Hari Babu and Samrajyam refused to hear otherwise. Although Kiran Kumar worked at the same technology company as Deepthi, his position in the caste system spoke volumes to the concerned parents.

After years of failed lobbying, the longtime couple decided to marry without the approval of Hari Babu and Samrajyam. Even so, friends and coworkers celebrated the inter-caste wedding with a rite that took place in their Hyderabad office building. Deepthi told her parents of the plan prior to the February 21st ceremony, but Hari Babu and Samrajyam refused to attend. What followed was a family feud no less tragic than a Shakespeare classic.

Unlike the forlorn lovers in Romeo & Juliet, Deepthi would die at the hands of her own parents. While the initial anger of her kin was marked, Deepthi was contacted by her parents with the promise to make amends and sanctify the marriage in an official ritual. To say their request was disingenuous is a critical understatement. Hari Babu and Samrajyam used this opportunity to levy supposed justice against their daughter.

Their posturing proved effective. The middle-aged couple strangled their daughter, hanging her inside the family home in Andhra Pradesh. Police received a call from the bridegroom's friend, who had suspicions about the duo's real intentions. The man stayed near Deepthi's home, and witnessed her parents leaving the property without the young woman. Authorities can thank his reconnaissance efforts for the seizure of the two murderers, who had already made inroads in their escape from the southern state. The tip brought police to the scene quickly and sparked a manhunt for the couple, who were soon captured.

Not long ago, the couple could have avoided any prosecution, depending on their local court and the caste interests that it served. But the 2011 Supreme Court decision will keep perpetrators of so-called "honor killings" running from the law. Before that decisive ruling, those who participated in such killings faced a varying degree of punishment, depending on the local government. Historically, more conservative communities administered little punishment, if any at all. The result? A mild judicial response codified time-honored notions of caste and decorum. The recent verdict from India's highest court changes that. It establishes a zero-tolerance policy for these local agendas.

Now, Hari Babu and Samrajyam could face the death penalty, which before had been used only sparingly in the world's largest democracy. The expanded application of capital punishment is perhaps the biggest legacy of the Supreme Court's resolution. Although statistics show that the possibility of death does little to discourage lethal criminals, the new precedent sends a powerful message to the people who are willing to prop up tradition through vigilante violence. Similarly, it signals the limitations of the modern caste system.

The recent murder is only one of the high profile crimes against women in India. A few weeks ago, a Bollywood cosmetic designer attacked his girlfriend, lighting her on fire and killing her in Mumbai. In the beginning of 2014, a man beheaded an elderly woman who allegedly stole timber from him. And last year in New Delhi, the fatal gang rape of a young woman stirred international outrage.

The incident vaulted India's lenient rape penalties into the global conversation. Legislators responded to the atrocity with a law increasing victim rights and implementing harsher punishments for rapists. As a result, section 376A of the Indian Penal Code includes death penalty provisions where the victim is killed. Surely this action is a step in the right direction, but these baseline clauses are far from comprehensive.

There is never one single prescription to combat a social problem, but recent studies help illuminate the breadth of this issue. As a financially-independent woman with a budding career, Deepthi was already at a greater risk of domestic abuse and sexual assault, according to the research of Abigail Weitzman. Her study shows that successful women are targeted by predators at a significantly higher rate in India. Weitzman is a graduate student and researcher at New York University.

The progressive Supreme Court decision and new anti-rape laws are a multipronged plan to combat violence against women. That said, women in India must often follow a procession of apathy on their march to justice. Between the victims who are fearful to come forward, police under-reporting, and flaws in the current legal system, the true extent of abuses remain undisclosed. Sadly, in both India and the collective global community, the same is true: the number of actual assaults is exponentially higher than the statistics that reach the newsstand.

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