India has registered an almost 800 percent rise in the number of killings in the name of “honour” reported last year, according to figures presented in parliament.
Indian police registered 251 cases of honour killings in 2015, compared with 28 cases reported in 2014 when the government began counting them separately from murder, according to a statement this week by Junior Home Minister Hansraj G Ahir to India’s parliament.
The surge could partly reflect more willingness by people to report such crimes, which many still consider just punishment for women and men who defy communal customs by marrying outside of their religion, clan, or caste.
Often the perpetrators are relatives seeking to punish young couples for bringing “shame” to the family.
Women’s rights activists say the government must pass legislation to recognise the crime as unique in order to target perpetrators for prosecution.
“These figures show that the government has to take this as a priority,” said Sudha Sundararaman, head of the All India Democratic Women’s Association.
Though police are now asked to count these killings separately, the lack of a separate law defining such crimes means some police officers still record them in the larger murder category and do not investigate the cases further, she said.
Killings in the name of honour are still common enough among Hindus and Muslims to regularly make newspaper headlines in a country where most marriages are arranged by families.
“Only because of sustained campaign by women’s groups, a separate category was created for compiling cases of honour killing to get a real picture of the heinous crime. But there are still many cases that go unreported,” Kirti Singh, a Supreme Court lawyer, was quoted as saying by the Hindustan Times.
Most cases are reported in northern states such as Uttar Pradesh and Haryana, where caste councils wield enormous power in village life.
The highest number of such killings recorded last year was in Uttar Pradesh, where police counted 131 killings compared with just two cases in 2014, Ahir said, citing data from the National Crime Records Bureau.
Such a jump “is astronomical” and needs to be looked into, Deputy Inspector General D K Chaudhary said.
Women’s activists say the number still vastly underestimates actual figures. One 2011 study suggested about 900 people were murdered in the name of honour ever year in India.
“There is severe under-reporting of such crimes. Families are often ashamed to report such crimes,” said Annie Raja of the National Federation of Indian Women.
Raja said the situation had worsened in the past few years, noting an increasing trend in village councils run by unelected elders promoting conservative, anti-women values in the name of preserving Indian culture and tradition.
“Indian society is unwilling to accept the choices made by young women when it comes to their marriage,” said Ranjana Kumari of the Centre for Social Research, a New Delhi-based think-tank.
“People also have to learn to respect women.”