An honour killing in India

Published: June 7, 2012

The writer is currently a visiting fellow at INSEAD

In a courtroom in the town of Ghaziabad, near Delhi, a fascinating murder case has entered its final stages. A successful dentist couple, Rajesh and Nupur Talwar, stands trial for the murder of their daughter Aarushi and their Nepalese manservant, Hemraj.

The Talwars have pleaded not guilty and the case against them is largely circumstantial. And even that, admits the Central Bureau of Investigation, has serious gaps. However, what has propelled the case forward is the belief among the investigators and lower court judges that this is a straightforward case of “honour killing”. It just happens to be hidden under a heavy cloak of urban denial: such things are supposed to happen in the badlands of Haryana, Punjab and Uttar Pradesh, not in the middle and upper class neighbourhoods connected to the capital by toll-charging expressways.

The facts are as follows: 13-year-old Aarushi Talwar was murdered in her room in the Talwars’ flat in the Delhi suburb of Noida one night in May 2008. She had been clubbed and cut to death while her parents, according to their testimony, slept in an adjoining bedroom. Whirring air-conditioners prevented them from hearing anything and they only discovered the body early the following morning.

Hemraj, who lived in the same flat, was missing and became the prime suspect on the first day. On the second day, however, his battered, rotting body was found on the terrace of the Talwars’ flat. The wounds on his body indicated the use of the same weapons that killed Aarushi.

There were no signs of forced entry into the flat and nothing was missing. To the policemen, it looked like this: four people were in a flat, two had been murdered, so the other two must be responsible. A curiously worded motive was soon proposed: Dr Rajesh Talwar had walked in on his daughter and his servant, finding them in an “objectionable” though “not compromising” position. Enraged, he killed both of them with a golf club and a knife.

Hemraj was a 45-year-old from Nepal. Aarushi would have turned 14 in less than two weeks. Her post-mortem did not find any evidence of rape or the presence of semen.

But to the successive batches of investigators — most of them drawn from a milieu where it often takes less than rape or sexual relations for an honour killing to take place — there just could not be any other explanation. The Talwars must have done it. Under the circumstances, any father would have done the same: in a court of village elders, the killing might even have been justifiable.

‘Honour’ is a strange thing. The rural poor and rich often see the protection of family honour as a solemn duty even if it costs the lives of a few loved ones. Their allegiance is to the larger clan.

The middle classes of the city are driven by an urban pursuit: the pursuit of ‘respectability’. Its markers are decent earnings, children in good schools, clean homes and servants. Their allegiance is to the small family unit.

Here, the preferred way of dealing with a scandal is not a killing, but a cover-up with the general lack of connect in a large cosmopolitan colony working in its favour. In the village, everyone would know and the marriage of distant cousins would be compromised.

But the memory of ‘honour’ is hard to erase: mere relocation from farm to township doesn’t do it. It is a meme that refuses to die out from the cities of our subcontinent and that’s why honour killings still occur. The city-dweller’s default position on these murders is that of denial — a sense of ‘it cannot happen here’.

In her circle, Aarushi’s mother said in court last month, sex was not a big deal. You do not commit murder over it; you “sort it out”. Sack the servant, ground the daughter and keep it quiet. No, says the prosecution. You may be middle class but beneath that coat of respectability are the stains of memes you cannot run away from. You may live in the city but the village is in you.

Like the Talwars, the urban middle class now waits to hear from the court.

Published In The Express Tribune, June 8th, 2012.

Reader Comments (32)

  • Ali tanoli
    Jun 7, 2012 - 9:41PM

    Its happend in India too?? dont worry guys it happend some time in first world too.

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  • BlackJack
    Jun 7, 2012 - 10:41PM

    Really, ET? This is sub-standard fare.

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  • 1984
    Jun 7, 2012 - 10:42PM

    Still the motive is unclear and only the press is talking about a supposed honor killing.
    Its still not clear whether the murderers are parents or someone else(You might remember that 2 of her servants were suspected,sometime ago)..

    I think it will be best for the media to be tight lipped till the verdict for this case is out…

    I wish India has a media injunction …There are many honor killings happening in villages where the victims do not get justice as the perpetrators hush up the law and media turns a blind eye….

    Its better to give media attention to them than this never ending soap opera

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  • Muhammad Hassan
    Jun 7, 2012 - 10:58PM

    I don’t really understand the purpose of this article. Is the author trying to show that honor killings happen in India too? If that’s the case, then he should keep it in mind that honor killings in India do not justify honor killings in Pakistan.

    We’ve all heard the “it happens in India too” argument too many times and I still can’t get my head around the twisted logic of this particular phrase.

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  • Swagistani
    Jun 7, 2012 - 11:08PM

    @BlackJack:
    If this article was about an honor killing in Pakistan you would’ve written a really long rant about how Pakistan is a barbaric state.

    India and Pakistan both have problems, there are just as many girls getting killed in the name of honor in India as they are in Pakistan. there may even be more forced marriages India than in Pakistan and more infanticides and gender-selective abortions in India than in Pakistan.

    The difference between us and Indians is that we recognize the problems instead of denying them(at least ET and Dawn readers).

    No country is perfect, Indians need to step up to plate and recognize the problem just as we have.

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  • Jun 7, 2012 - 11:18PM

    @Swagistani, because Pakistan is our country, not India. We are worried about what happens in PAKISTAN and NOT about what happens in India.

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  • BlackJack
    Jun 7, 2012 - 11:24PM

    @Swagistani:
    No that is not true. Honor killing is an unfortunate fact of life in certain parts of India – I believe that Aamir Khan has recently covered it in an episode in his new program called Satyameva Jayate – why should I be interested in covering it up? The Aarushi case is a story that is being kept alive by the media, and most people in India are sick of it; ET was the last place that I expected to find it, yet again – hence the disappointment. Thanks for helping to point out the difference between Indians and Pakistanis – must be visible to all now.

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  • Sinclair
    Jun 7, 2012 - 11:52PM

    @Ali Tanoli and @Swagistani:

    There were several cases of Honor Killing that came to light in the past few years. Seeing that you do not read Indian newspapers – this may appear news to you. Haryana’s khap panchayat’s are notorious for these barbaric incidents. I dont want to name names, but you can actually look through the Lok Sabha proceedings on the matter to see which members spoke in what tone (some of it was shocking). This is the reality and far be it from us running away from any of it. In fact, parliament had asked for such incidents to be called “Dishonor Killings” to remove the benign connotation. The media followed it for some time, and now we seem to be back to quoting Honor.
    .
    What I dont like about this article is the broad brush with which it colors all middle-class. None of these opinion writers do it when one politician turns out to be a crook. So, it should be done with some care.

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  • John B
    Jun 8, 2012 - 12:57AM

    If I understand this case correctly, that parents are suspected of killing the teenage daughter and the old servant , and the police is presenting a circumstantial case, with no forensic proof.

    If a murder happens in a close quarters as in apartment, there must be too many forensic evidences to convict the perpetrators. There is no evidence of sexual molestation presented here and what is presented by the police is a theory.

    Extraordinary claims require extraordinary proofs.

    That said, all individuals who commit murder on family members do it with some sense of twisted honor -revenge, jealousy. Husband killing wife who caught her in bed with another man is also this twisted honor.

    It is abominable when such practices are condoned by law and society. The question is does Indian society endorses family members killing their sons and daughters because they have unapproved sex and does law protect the perpetrators of these murders?

    The answer is no. PAK law also does not approve these crimes.

    However, when a society joins force and defends such events as in Jirga decision it is a typical honor issue-ether it is for blasphemy, desecration of book, dance, exhuming a child from Muslim cemetery eloping ,worshipping in a “illicit” mosque or demolishing a mosque.

    The rest are cases of family feud gone wild. Suicides are also an issue of honor, in most part.

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  • gp65
    Jun 8, 2012 - 1:17AM

    @Swagistrani: Actually I think the Indian media now calls it Dishonor killings after Chidambaram (oir home minister) term in vogue. I agree with Blackjack, I am disappointed at finding this article in ET – not because these should not be discussed because when they occur they should be discussed and made a big deal of. The people concerned should be punished and made examples of. A national debate is desirable, not something to be avoided. But this particular story really has nothing left. Unlike in Jessica Lal murder case where it seemed like a Notguilty verdict was a miscarriage of justice and we all protested, here it seems like a Guilty verdict is likely to be a miscarriage of justice and a reflection of the biases of prosecution.

    One way or another, the difference between India and Pakistan is no one in India condones it saying that this ‘also happens in Pakistan’. If Indians die it is an Indian problem. Also things are considered as blots to a liberal society which needs to be worked on and corrected.

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  • gp65
    Jun 8, 2012 - 1:22AM

    @BlackJack: This author writes things that should appear on Page 3 of Times of India not an OpEd. His earlier OpEd was about Shah Rukh Khan’s mid-life crisis and a possible affair he may be having.

    If he was discussing honour killings, root causes and what has been done and can be done to improve things, I would consider that as suitable material for an OpEd. But clarly he dresses up gossip and tries to pass it off as intellectual stuff.

    Again his style is his styel, I am just surprised ET publishes this in Opinion section of the newspaper. at most this author’s pieces belong on the LifeStyle section of ET.

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  • Sinclair
    Jun 8, 2012 - 1:58AM

    The proceedings of the “Calling Attention” notice on honor killings can be found here:

    http://indiankanoon.org/doc/566355/
    .
    I hope posting this link is alright with ET, since these are matters of public record and freely available for all to go through. The parts in Hindi (Devanagari) are also some of the most troubling parts. It discusses how caste affects community-wide culture with regards to marriage – and by extension honor/dishonor. These are the debates which are important. Can parliament overrule culture through laws? Is something wrong if it is not a crime according to law, and in line with popular culture? We give a lot of sh*t to our parliament, but sometimes they do discuss issues very well. This is one such example.

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  • asif
    Jun 8, 2012 - 2:28AM

    Indians, you need to go and croak on some chinese web site. See how you are met with ridicule and derision – the same ridicule and derision that you use to poison this web site. You really have a inordinate sense of self which is absolutely insufferable. No wonder the white sahibs were allergic of you in the colonial times.

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  • ....
    Jun 8, 2012 - 2:45AM

    @Muhammad Hassan:
    Exactly! I couldn’t care less.

    @BlackJack – You really do write long rants about us. Stop it! Its annoying. you come across as an incredibly mean spirited individual.

    @Avirook Sen – Informative article but it is only relevant for an Indian newspaper.
    On a side note I would like to read about good practices on your side that us Pakistanis can learn from.

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  • Arindom
    Jun 8, 2012 - 4:17AM

    In these same suburbs outside Delhi that the author talks about there are thousands of young live-in couples living together happily. SO whats the issue?

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  • Babloo
    Jun 8, 2012 - 4:30AM

    The difference as always is the same, in india ( as in all civilized states ) , crimes are prosecuted and punished. In Pakistan the state and the laws condone and do not prosecute such crimes from honor killings to terrorism.

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  • C. Nandkishore
    Jun 8, 2012 - 6:36AM

    The servant was 45, the girl was 13. It is a case of child abuse, not honour killing. Recommend

  • Its (still) Econonmy Stupid
    Jun 8, 2012 - 6:41AM

    Crime occurs in all countries.Difference between Pakistan and other countries is the rate of conviction and length of sentences.

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  • 1984
    Jun 8, 2012 - 6:46AM

    @asif:
    No wonder the white sahibs were allergic of you in the colonial times.

    Where were you at that time???

    ….Oh yeah,now I remember,you Pakistanis were in Arabia and magically relocated after 14 Aug 1947…..Thats why you do not associate yourselves with Indians and follow Arabic customs

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  • Shyam
    Jun 8, 2012 - 8:28AM

    @asif
    Indians, you need to go and croak on some chinese web site. See how you are met with ridicule and derision

    and vice versa towards the Chinese, why do you have this inferiority complex? you are not China

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  • ayesha_khan
    Jun 8, 2012 - 9:03AM

    @….: “On a side note I would like to read about good practices on your side that us Pakistanis can learn from.”

    I think one good practice that you could perhaps learn is that when alleged ‘honour crimes’ occur, there is a media uproar, things are discussed in the Indian Parliament and the people concerned are prosecuted in the due course of law obviating the need for suo moto notice to be taken by Supreme court. In a crime like rape (which also is linked with honor), there is a much greater likelihood that a woman would complain in India compared to Pakistan because the prosecution success rate is 30% in India vs. 1% in reported rape cases. This has been accomplished by widespread gender sensitivity training of police who register FIR, training of people who register FIR etc. I say this even as I acknowledge that there is a LOOOONG way to go in India to reach Western standards of sensitivity with respect to such crimes.

    Also if you want to check out http://www.satyamevjayate.in, every week Amir Khan has been identifying one social issue, looking at root causes, and brainstorming on solutions. This program has been widely appreciated in India for starting a debate and in fact many heartwarming steps have been taken by both individuals and state functionaries in response to the issues pointed out. The social issues are probably similar to Pakistan and maybe you can consider implementing similar solutions. What should also be noted is that no-one accused Amir of being anti-India for shining a light on these issues like Tribune was accused by many Pakistani readers for bringing up the Kohistan issue.

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  • ayesha_khan
    Jun 8, 2012 - 10:03AM

    @Sinclair: Thank you for that very enlightening link. It is heartening to see the quality of debate on this sensitive issue. Also the firm manner in which the speaker was conducting the proceedings.

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  • AA
    Jun 8, 2012 - 10:53AM

    For the benefir of my Pakistani Friends:

    1) Honor killings do take place in India as well. But there have been few positive developments which give us hope: (a) Supreme Court has punished few members of a powerful Khap Panchayat (b) There has been huge awareness about the issue an such cases no longer go unreportd etc.

    2) As far as this case is concerned, thare has been a unanimous opinion that this case was botched up fright from the beginning by (a) local police (b) CBI (c) Activists and above all (d) Media. Media has pronounced the parents guilty even before their trial started. Let them be punished severely if they are found guilty but no one has any right to pass judgement even before the case is closed in courts.

    Thanks and Regards,
    AA from India.Recommend

  • ayesha_khan
    Jun 8, 2012 - 11:21AM

    @C. Nandkishore: “The servant was 45, the girl was 13. It is a case of child abuse, not honour killing.”

    Forensic evidence has not proved any sexual activity. This whole thing is just a surmise of the prosecutors.

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  • Sinclair
    Jun 8, 2012 - 11:24AM

    @ayesha_khan

    You are welcome. The speaker, Meira Kumar, tries her best – although the members dont make it easy for her. The live proceedings can take out all your trust in Indian democracy within 5 minutes, but then somehow they settle down and things move again.

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  • ayesha_khan
    Jun 8, 2012 - 1:36PM

    @Sinclair: “The speaker, Meira Kumar, tries her best – although the members dont make it easy for her”

    For my Pakistani neighbours. Pakistan too has a female speaker, so in this regards it is nothing unique if India has a female speaker. But many of you have been fed this story about shudras and how they are treated in India. No doubt this was the case in the past but o longer. Meira Kumar is a scheduled caste woman (the term Shudra can no longer be used) and she has reached the post of speaker of national assembly. We have even had a scheduled caste President.

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  • vasan
    Jun 8, 2012 - 3:35PM

    Ayesha Khan: The thing I like about “Satyameva Jayate” program by Amir Khan is all sections of Indian population cutting across religion participate. Unlike Pakistan , no religious flavour is given to any crime/social issue.
    This program is so popular that it is telecast in Tamilnadu with a Tamil translation as well.

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  • ayesha_khan
    Jun 8, 2012 - 7:45PM

    @vasan: “Ayesha Khan: The thing I like about “Satyameva Jayate” program by Amir Khan is all sections of Indian population cutting across religion participate. Unlike Pakistan , no religious flavour is given to any crime/social issue.
    This program is so popular that it is telecast in Tamilnadu with a Tamil translation as well.”

    Well Vasan, it is in the mindset of the people whether to give it a religious flavour when they watch it. I am happy Indians do not view things from religious prism unless it specifically is about a religious issue. Otherwise people could have looked at the fact that Amir is a Muslim and these programs criticize India and said he is an anti-Indian Pakistani. Such a thought would not cross the mind of the most rabid VHP person. In the episode related to love marriage, there was one instance of a Muslim girl married to a Hindu boy and another of a Hindu girl married to a Muslim boy. This was evident from the names of the people. But there was no discussion or uproar about that issue. If there had been a Muslim girl married to a Hindu boy shown on TVin Pakistan, there would have been an uproar in Pakistan. In India that is the situation with so many celebrities. Opposition to interfaith/intercaste marriages may come from the individual families but society as a whole does not interfere or get involved.

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  • Away
    Jun 8, 2012 - 9:30PM

    I think the purpose of this article is to show the nonsense pakistanis that honor killings happen across the globe including the places which have been portrayed as role models for pakistan to look up to.

    It is just that all the criticism and bashing comes when something quite similar happens in pakistan and the whole world comes cries for reforms, not that the reforms are not needed in pakistan but just that the reforms are not needed only in pakistan. Such horror news never hit the international news channels since it does not spice up the “anti-pakistan or anti-mulim” sentiments.

    Nevertheless an honor killing is a grieve crime and any law, INCLUDING THE SHARIAH LAW, has punishment for it. It is our irony that we can not implement any form of law beyond paper at all, be it the islamic law, common law or any other panel code.Recommend

  • Amjad
    Jun 9, 2012 - 3:35AM

    @BlackJack: But you Indians just love it when their is an honour killing of Muslims like the Afghani man in Canada killing his three daughters and wife or the Arab in Europe who killed his daughter.Why are you so quiet when Indians kill their daughters – crime is crime no matter who does it.

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  • Shyam
    Jun 9, 2012 - 4:03PM

    @Amjad

    Why are you so quiet when Indians kill their daughters

    We are not quiet, we shout our lungs out, its national news, its discussed in the parliament and the perpetrators are punished, Its not the honor killings in Pakistan that disturb us. Its the silence and acceptance in Pakistani society that is disturbing.

    A crime is a crime no matter who does it but when a society condones it and tries to defend the crime then its not acceptable.

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  • ayesha_khan
    Jun 9, 2012 - 9:24PM

    @Amjad: “Why are you so quiet when Indians kill their daughters – crime is crime no matter who does it.”

    I agree when you say “Crime is a crime no matter who does it”

    I do not agree when you say ” Why are you so quiet when Indian kill their daughters”.
    You probably did not see the link provided by Sinclair. But the issue of honour killing was discussed in our parliament and the home minister said that they are trying to bringing specific legislation for honour killings instead of just considering it as a murder. Apart from this there is media debate on the issue also. A simple google search should be able to prove that beyond doubt. One of the issues that impacted Indian women i.e. dowry deaths is now well under control after the dowry related harassment cases are aggressively being prosecuted.

    In India no-one will point to Pakistan and say there are honour killings in Pakistan so honour killings in India are justified.

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