India’s caste system is one of the most rigid class structures in the world, and new violence against women demonstrates the extent to which transgressing its boundaries can mean social ostracism or even death. The NY Times reports the story of several young women who were murdered or died under suspicious circumstances, because of pressure from their families when they tried to marry outside their caste. The most disturbing part of the story is how little remorse the families seem to feel. “Murder is wrong, but this is socially the best thing that has been done,” the uncle of two suspects who were accused of murdering a couple who had married outside their caste.
This behavior is clearly illegal: intercaste marriages are protected under Indian law, but only nominally. There is strong resistance to the practice of intercaste marriage; 76 percent of respondents to a 2006 UN report deemed the practice unacceptable. But because the country is also quickly modernizing, the issue of intercaste marriage is prevalent, threatening to tear many families apart.
One young woman who was secretly engaged to a lower-caste man was found dead in her bedroom in late April. A postmortem revealed that the woman, Nirupama Pathak, had been suffocated, and her mother has been arrested on suspicion of her murder. The situation is rendered even more tragic by the fact that Pathak was pregnant; according to her father and brothers, she had confessed that fact to her mother on the morning that she died. Pathak’s family claims that she committed suicide.
The issue of caste is tied up with the broader tragedy of honor killings, which are especially common in India’s northern states. Here, village caste councils can act as a kind of extralegal force, making sure that caste boundaries remain firm. Marrying within villages is also considered an offense, because villages are seen as extended families. New cases of killings or harassment appear in the Indian media frequently. Ms. Pathak’s friends and allies have held a candlelight vigil in New Delhi, calling for the case to be prosecuted as an honor killing. But it seems that change could be very slow to come.
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