March 10, 2010

Wrong but genuine

On a day when the country's lawmakers of the Rajya Sabha passed a bill reserving a third of Lok Sabha seats for women, here's something to ponder.

In 2004, Sushma Tiwari married a man named Prabhu Nochil. Seven months later, her brother Dilip Tiwari and a few colleagues murdered Prabhu, Prabhu's father and two children of Prabhu's family. Sushma, pregnant at the time, escaped the massacre only because she was out visiting somebody.

Why did Dilip Tiwari do this? Because the Tiwaris are a Brahmin family, and Prabhu is an Ezhava from Kerala, apparently a lower caste. (I say "apparently" because this is what I read in the news reports. One of the few things in my life I'm proud of is that I know nothing about what such caste names mean.)

The Bombay High Court awarded the death sentence to Dilip Tiwari and his colleagues. Last December, the Supreme Court of India -- the highest court in the land -- reduced this sentence to 25 years in jail. This was the reasoning of the honourable judges who reduced the sentence:

"It is a common experience that when the younger sister commits something unusual, and in this case it was an intercaste, intercommunity marriage out of a secret love affair, then in society it is the elder brother who justifiably or otherwise is held responsible for not stopping such an affair. ... If he became the victim of his wrong but genuine caste consideration, it would not justify the death sentence."

Sushma has challenged this, saying among much else that "Mass killings based on the concept of 'honour' must be viewed by this Honourable Court as murders which must be given the highest deterrent sentence."

(A good overview here.)


And some of our neighbours in Pakistan also appear to find honour in murder.


What I want to know is, when will we stop referring to this kind of murder as "honour killing"? There is no honour attached to it and that's it.


??! said...

It's not 'honourable' killing, but instead murders in the defence of the attacker's own (perceived) honour. Hence the moniker still stands, to distinguish it (legally?) from accidental murder, premeditated murder, and so on.

Language pretty much breaks down here. It's still heinous whichever way you dress it up.

Sapathan said...

The judge may have used a wrong phrase/ choice of words but his legal reasoning to commute the death sentence seems based on legal precedent. In that death penalty should be reserved only for the rarest of rare cases. Here, right or wrongly, there is a perceived sense of social insult -- which makes it that much less calculated. And we reserve rarest of rare for calculated/ cold killings and not for crimes of passion/ revenge etc.

You may disagree with that line legal precedent -- but your post does not do that. Instead appeals to emotion which I take issue with.

Blueshift said...

I am sad that highest court of the land holds such disgusting thing as honour.

I can understand if some fanatic in USA kills his daughter for honour but the highest court in India holding such a view is sick.

Anonymous said...

5 people killed in 2004 and SC gives a verdict...

3000 people killed in 1984 and yet there is no justice...

You should have started this post like this... just saying, or may be you didnt coz the impact would have been lost??

Ketan said...


I do not think that the SC judges have attempted to give legitimacy to caste considerations.

What probably could be safely concluded from such cases is the amount of subjectivity involved in judiciary's functioning. While High Court judge(s) found death penalty justified, Supreme Court judge(s) didn't. Is there any reason to believe any one set of judges to be less learned or wise (this question is not to you, but just kind of wondering aloud)? It must also be remembered that if one is to believe the paper entirely, it was a bench of Supreme Court judges, so at least two judges (majority in the bench) felt that death penalty was too harsh.

And to present to you an alternative perspective, though death sentence is considered the most severe form of punishment, just think for a moment, a person who could wait for seven months after the marriage must have deliberated a lot before executing his plans. He must have also been anticipating a death sentence. Criminals who take it upon themselves to go on a killing spree are ready or sometimes even want to die, otherwise we would not have events like suicide bombings. In fact, death of such people brings them glory and "honor", because they would have "sacrificed" their lives in the process (preservation of purity of their caste). Rather, 25x365 days, with each of them filling these people with remorse is a much worse punishment. Maybe they might tell their relatives and family members how what they did was a mistake and that caste and such issues are not worthy of taking seriously. So, I am not really sure which of the two is a bigger deterrent - the death sentence or 25 years of (rigorous?) imprisonment.

Of course, in case of "professional" terrorists it's prudent to award them death sentence as quickly as possible because otherwise kidnappings and hijackings will occur in attempt to get them released [another difference between the professional terrorists and rioters/other kind of murderers].

And again I see no relation of the entire news with passage of women's reservation bill in the RS. Because, I do not think Dilip's (the convict's) course of action would have been significantly different even if it were his younger brother to have married outside of his caste and community, but at least this once the paperwallahs also made logically fallacious connection between the two events. And in fact except the minors (whose genders are not known), it was males who were killed. So, which gender was wronged more? This was an out-and-out issue related to regionalism and caste-ism and gender bias had nothing to do with it.

I do not know why it has come in vogue to try to relate disconnected events.

Ugich Konitari said...

Regardless of how and when they plan to make the Womens Reservation thing into law , the thinking of the learned folks at the Supreme Court needs looking into.

In Sushama Tiwari's brothers case, the Supreme court bends over backwards to be nice to the killer, citing elder brother responsibilities . (Most courts are blind when sisters are cajoled by some brothers into signing away inheritance rights...).

Recently the CJ of the Supreme Court "urged" courts to take a "humanitarian" view in rape cases where the rapist agrees to marry his victim, or vice versa. No one says anything about the lure of money, power, and the possibility of a bonded life. Who cares about the woman's mind , her mental trauma ? Whatever happens later, the law will, of course, take its own course.

Are the courts changing, are we regressing, or is the concept of honor undergoing a drastic change ?

Who knows ? and possibly, who cares ?

Blueshift said...

"I am not really sure which of the two is a bigger deterrent - the death sentence or 25 years of (rigorous?) "

what about the price of 3 lives that rakshas took?
who is going to pay for that?

do you think they are cheap? Doctor?

"Rather, 25x365 days, with each of them filling these people with remorse is a much worse punishment."

what about the honour...? he gets it from Supreme Court of India.

Ketan said...


I am not sure if you understood what I tried to say.

Simple thing: many people might prefer dying in an instant to being tortured for 25 long years and after that returning to a world they cannot recognize and the one that does not recognize them.

The convict must be around 30 years right now. What would be bigger punishment for him - dying a relatively painless death in matter of minutes or rotting in the jail for 25 years being beaten up, sexually abused, not being given proper food, living in unhygienic condition and then being released at the age of 55 years, when he would have no pension and no means to live his life, ahead?

"do you think they are cheap? Doctor?"

If I would have thought their lives to be cheap, would I have mulled so much over which form of punishment could be more cruel?

"what about the honour...? he gets it from Supreme Court of India."

I really have no idea what honor are you talking of! I did not find anywhere in this post or in the newspiece that the SC judges had honored him!

"Honor killing" could be a misnomer, but I do not expect the judges to come up with their own terminology in delivering orders. What term do you propose for the phenomenon that made the convict kill his sister's family members?

Dilip D'Souza said...

A quick reply while I am still travelling: This has little to do with whether the prisoner might feel the death penalty to be more severe a punishment than 25 years, and I wish folks would not go off on that tangent.

The point is that the SC clearly views this as a crime lesser in degree than other murders of 4 people -- witness their mention of "it would not justify the death sentence".

Why this? Because DT was "motivated by wrong but genuine caste consideration."

To put this in perspective, suppose DT had been motivated by revenge for some insult his brother-in-law had flung at him. Would the SC reduce the sentence saying that "If he became the victim of his wrong but genuine feelings of revenge, it would not justify the death sentence.

Caste does not reduce the severity of the crime.

Sapathan, I really have nothing to say to you.

Sapathan said...

You seem to misunderstand the SC's reasoning Dilip.

The judge was converting the death sentence into a 25 year imprisonment. This in no way reflects the "lesser" crime as much as it means that to hand a death sentence the precedent includes a calculating aspect that is beyond actions that are caused by sense of revenge/ social upsets etc. Why that sense of revenge happens may be owing to despicable reasons such as caste considerations and treating women as property -- but that still means it does have some minute aspect to it which does not satisfy that rarest of rare test.

That is all the legal precedent says. I don't understand why you make this an issue about what the judge's personal bias is -- which is appalling I agree -- and not about what are the conditions, if any, under which a death penalty can be handed.

Anonymous said...

Sounds like mass murder to me. But then again, in India we punish smaller crimes and let mass murderers off all the time. It is not justified. Just another form of religious violence. Anon2020

Ketan said...

Thanks Dilip for the reply!

Of course I was only talking from perspective of deterrence because both your post and the link you provided have talked about it. So at least when I posted the first comment I did not think it to be offtopic. But of course, since the blog post is by you reserve the authority to set the agenda.

I do not take SC's judges judgment as condoning of caste considerations at all (otherwise Tiwari would have been a free man!). All that the judges have said is that because caste and community considerations are common in Indian society, elder brothers feel the peer pressure, which makes it less extraordinary (in terms of motive behind the crime) than other cases where death sentence had been awarded in the past. Again I must say I am only guessing at what they might have meant. Material available to you and me to draw inferences from is the same.

I have no idea how do they calibrate the criminality and what threshold is applied to adjudicate certain crime as deserving of death sentence. And this subjectivity is something I was trying to draw your attention to. Since, only a small portion of his entire judgment that must have run into at least a dozen pages is available (with citation of precedents set by benches in the past), I cannot comment on why "wrong" and "genuine" were juxtaposed, which sound mutually contradictory. Possibly, he might have given the explanation in subsequent lines, reproduction of which would have made the news piece less interesting to read.

And another conjecture is that this judgment could be a reflection of global trend towards avoiding awarding of death penalty. Some countries have even outlawed it. Again, I am not saying what I want the judges to do/not do, but only trying to point out that the material we have is insufficient to conclusively state that judges approve of or consider caste considerations as genuine.

Anonymous said...


Do review what you are talking abt here. You seem to be asking judges to be conditioned by social biases and use that in their sentencing.

Lynching blacks was not uncommon in parts of the US sometime last century- and the driver was the same social stigma - it obviously was not extraordinary. Would judges in the Ketan universe then go softer on these criminals?

More relevant, rioting is way too common in India and no extraordinary event at all.
There is a 'social pressure' to 'get even' with people who unfortunately share the same Xic identity, X= religion /language/ etc as somebody who has done something nasty to 'your' identity grouping- and the definition of nasty currently extends to taking away jobs that you feel are your birthright!

Should we not extend the kind consideration of these pressures and extenuating circumstances to these misled rioter souls too?


Pankaj said...

The entire judgment is available at the following link:

The actual judgment and its rationale is explained starting Para 42 onwards.

The judge has referred to precedents of both types - those where the judgment has used the gravity of the crime alone as the factor determining the sentence, and those where the judgment says that not only the circumstances of the crime are to be considered, but also those of the criminal too. The judgment further calls the first approach "narrow" (Para 43), and opts for the second approach.

This is as far as facts go.

As far as opinion is concerned, I agree with Jai's observations above that the "broad" logic used by the judgment can conceivably be used to justify almost any crime. Unless there is proof that the person was insane what is the justification for his committing such a crime? Rather, the judgment's assertion that the accused planned and executed the crime driven by social reasons - in fact implies that the accused acted rationally, and so were therefore responsible for their actions - in fact they were therefore anything but insane.

There does seem to be a need to draw a line, beyond which the strictest punishment should apply.

Having said that, my own opinion is that the death penalty itself deserves to be taken off the statute books - but that is another debate.

gaddeswarup said...

There was a statement by Veerappa Moily a couple of days ago about changing the law on honour killing. I am not able to find it but this seems to suggest that some change is in the offing:

Anonymous said...

I am amazed by the reasoning of some people here- the statement of the judges clearly show that they almost approved the idea of "honor" that lies behind honor killings- the idea that the woman's brother's "honor" depended on her actions - and this is not an issue? The comments on this blog and the general social attituides explain why hundreds of honor killings go unpunished in India every year.

Unni said...

"Because the Tiwaris are a Brahmin family, and Prabhu is an Ezhava from Kerala, apparently a lower caste. (I say "apparently" because this is what I read in the news reports."

If this is what Tiwari's do, though I do not want to generalize all Tiwaris, then they are definitely lower than Ezhavas.

This fiend slaughtered a family including innocent women. What does he deserve?

I would understand if SC commuted the sentence, but by giving this type of reasoning, what messages are they leaving to the society?

Wrong but genuine? How can wrong be genuine?