By Sandeep Gopalan
Kevin Joseph, 24, was a Christian from a traditionally oppressed community, while Neenu Chacko, 20, is a Syrian Christian from a socially and economically privileged community. (Supplied)
A boy meets a girl and they fall in love; eventually, they wish to marry. Meanwhile, the girl’s family has contempt for the boy and his family. The girl’s father and brother are vehemently opposed to the relationship and are prepared to shed blood to separate the two.
Sounds like Shakespeare? Romeo and Juliet?
Kevin Joseph paid with his life for exercising that most basic of human rights — the right to choose one’s life partner. (Supplied: The News Minute)
If you thought that this scenario is out of Elizabethan times, or remote Afghanistan, think again. This is a story from Kerala, probably India’s most progressive and educated state. Kevin Joseph, a 24-year-old Christian from a traditionally oppressed community, fell in love with Neenu Chacko — a 20-year-old Syrian Christian (a socially and economically privileged community).
They applied to marry against the wishes of Neenu’s family. On May 26, Kevin was abducted and his body was found with torture marks near a dam site. Autopsy reports suggested that he had been forcibly drowned. The girl’s brother, father and other family members have been arrested for orchestrating the murder.
The Indian media has been in a froth since the murder labelling it an “honour killing”. To be clear, this is not an honour killing — that reprehensible label, properly used, refers to a killing of a person (typically a woman) by her own family for bringing dishonour or disrepute on the family. The family typically kills the woman for committing a transgression such as adultery, elopement, etc.
But Kevin Joseph’s murder is not an “honour killing”. He was killed not by members of his family, but allegedly by the close relatives of his new wife.
Kerala’s police force has been extremely politicised under the current communist government. (ABC News: Murali Krishnan)
Regressive views of women persist
Kevin’s killing should serve as a wake-up call for Kerala. It highlights the persistence of extremely regressive views about women and their right to autonomy. It affects men as well as women.
Despite claims to the contrary, Kerala’s society is as patriarchal as the rest of India.
In Kerala, considered one of India’s more progressive states, the average age of marriage for men is the highest in country, while women’s average marrying age is dropping. (Reuters: Sivaram V.)
Women are still denied the right to make basic life choices such as selecting the person they marry. Women typically have that choice made for them by their male relatives — often at a young age. There may be a false veneer of choice (selecting from a screened list of grooms) but when and whom to marry is largely determined by the family.
Indeed, evidence shows the average age of marriage for women in Kerala has been falling — it ought to have trended upward due to economic progress and social development. The average age of marriage for women in Kerala was 22.9 years in 2005. Surprisingly, it fell to 21.4 years in 2014; other southern states have seen the opposite trend.
In contrast, the average age of marriage for men in Kerala is 27.3 years — the highest in India. The national average is 23.2 — showing a variation of more than four years for men. Meanwhile, the variation from the national average for women is 1.4 years — showing that the plight of Kerala’s women is not much different to those of their sisters in poorer and more backward states.
It is no accident that women are being married off at younger ages in Kerala — it represents a tactical decision to coerce women when they are most vulnerable. On average, at 21, women do not possess financial independence and hence the ability to resist parental pressure. They are barely out of college (if at all) and almost invariably living with their parents.
It is easier to coerce them into marriage before they can develop careers and gain empowerment to exercise autonomy and volition. Even single women who make it past the average age and are in further education or employment experience family pressures over their marital choices.
In such a milieu, Neenu Chacko and Kevin Joseph are anomalies — they challenge hierarchy and tradition.
Complicating the narrative, the police were informed about Kevin’s disappearance by Neenu but did nothing because they were allegedly busy working on plans for a visit by the Chief Minister. The police force has been extremely politicised under the current communist government.
The Indian government is making some improvements to enhance women’s safety — both voluntarily and due to prompting by external actors such as the IMF. (Flickr: Evgeni Zotov)
Talk to parents about their daughters
So, where do we go from here? While there are no silver bullets to the problem, it is important to call it what it is — the alleged murder of an innocent man because his wife chose him over her family — and demand better governance.
It is easier to coerce women into marriage before they can develop careers and gain empowerment to exercise autonomy. (Supplied)
Alongside a campaign to educate parents that their daughters are not property, and to empower women, the marriage registration process must specifically ask women whether they consented to the union of their own free will. The registrar should be mandated to certify the bride’s statement to this effect — without the parents being present. If the registrar has any doubts about the bride’s consent, he should refuse to register the marriage. This will reduce opportunities for coercion and empower women.
Significant policing reforms are also necessary. People should be able to report crimes from their mobile phones to promote accountability. Body cameras should be mandated for all police officers — this is not expensive and will check corruption, inefficiency, under-reporting of crime and evidence destruction.
Statutory changes should include an independent annual audit of police performance, higher minimum eligibility qualifications for entry level police, security of tenure for officers and structural protections to ensure independence from political involvement.
Kerala’s swaying palms and peaceful backwaters are a major drawcard for international travellers in India. (Murali Krishnan)
How to enhance women’s safety
These changes will not bring Kevin back to life but will at least honour an innocent man who allegedly paid with his life for exercising that most basic of human rights — the right to choose one’s life partner.
The Indian government is making some improvements to enhance women’s safety — both voluntarily and due to prompting by external actors such as the IMF. For instance, death penalty for rapists, a major toilet-drive to promote sanitation and health and subsidised LPG connections are signature initiatives of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
But these steps do not go far enough to empower women and enable India to benefit from their vast talents. Modi’s reformist agenda would have a higher chance of success if it included women’s contributions.
The question is whether he can elevate his game and become a truly transformational leader.
Dr Sandeep Gopalan is the pro vice-chancellor for academic innovation and a professor of law at Deakin University. He studied at the National Law School of India, before going to Oxford University.