India is clearly burning and the issue that is silently becoming a grave concern is “honour killing”. It is such a concern not only because it kills 100 people every year, but because it shows the primitive mindsets we still carry. Honour is the most precious moral attribute of mankind. Defence of honour even at the cost of life has been prevalent in human beings since ages, defilement of which is taken as the most atrocious social crime and tradition-bound rural societies invariably react violently for the redemption of their honour, one of its most brutal and barbaric forms being “honour killing”. An honour killing is the killing of a member of a family or social group by their kin or other members of their caste, due to the belief of the perpetrators (and potentially the wider community) that the victim has brought dishonour upon the family or community. Honour killings are directed mostly against women and girls. However, men are equally the victims of this practice where son-in-law is killed as well.
The perceived dishonour is a result of:
(a) dressing in a manner unacceptable to the family or community, (b) wanting to terminate or prevent an arranged marriage or desiring to marry by own choice (love marriages), (c) engaging in heterosexual sexual acts outside marriage, (d) engaging in homosexual acts (e) marrying within the same gotra or outside one’s caste or marrying a cousin from a different caste. In Hinduism, one cannot marry into one’s own Gotra or descent as the people of same Gotra are considered to be brothers and sisters. Honour killing is very rampant in many northern parts of India, particularly in Haryana, western Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Rajasthan that are still governed by the rules of Gotra system of marriage. But the question is: why this heinous crime is committed?
The most obvious reason for this practice to continue in India, albeit, at a much faster and almost daily basis, is because of the fact that the caste system continues to be at its rigid best and also because people refuse to change their attitude, mentality to marriage. It is very unfortunate that the caste system in India has turned into a social evil for many. Many young people have lost their lives in the name of honour. And there are many more who are at the gunpoint of this rigid belief system. Accordingly, if any daughter dares to disobey her parents on the issue of marriage and decides to marry a man of her wishes but from another gotra or outside her caste, it would bring disrepute to the family honour and hence they decide to give the ultimate sentence, i.e. death, to the unfortunate girl. In many cases the groom or the bride has been killed for marrying someone from a lower caste.
Second, increased visibility of such crimes is the trend of more and more of youngsters joining educational institutions, meeting others from different backgrounds and castes and establishing relationships beyond the confines of caste and community, creating a conflict between traditional beliefs and modern aspirations in the young minds. Surprisingly, honour killings have increased in educated and rich families indicating that it is not a result of poverty and illiteracy. The increase in the income and migration to metro cities is leading young people to find their partners by themselves rather than going by their parents’ choice, threatening the social trend that the parents have inherited since years and giving impression to the elders that youth is going unruly and they are out to destroy the very basic norms of the society. Due to non acceptance of the said change, both boys and girls are being targeted so that none dares to breach the barriers of castes and communities.
Thirdly, honour killings are rooted not in religion, but in feudal social structures and violently patriarchal, tribal culture where representation of women at local level and her engagement in socio-economic development is negligible. Caste panchayats have come to play an increasingly important role in Haryana and elsewhere, especially in situations where political patronage also exists. Moreover, the formal governance has not been able to reach the rural areas where there is a strong presence of a panchayat that decides all matters relating to their community, functioning as parallel courts.
Khap panchayats are one such self styled setup, prevalent in Haryana, western Uttar Pradesh and parts of Rajasthan that govern social norms and pronounce verdicts such as, social boycotts and fines and in most cases either killing or forcing the victims to commit suicide for a simple reason that they chose to marry by choice. Strong community sense of Jat, Gujjar and other communities and insecurity of keeping their race pure and separated is another that they vehemently oppose inter-caste and inter-gotra marriages. The khap panchayats take over the authority to act as prosecutors and judges without having the legal authority to do so. The reason why khaps are so powerful is because:
(a) Many village people defend these caste panchayats as they deliver the verdict in one sitting whereas court cases drag for years. According to them, in many cases innocent people get harassed in the court and by police. Here as everyone is known so they cross check everything to ensure neutrality. People have unquestionable faith in the justice of khap.
(b) Their barbaric acts are also driven by the lack of political will to move against “honour killings” as our political leaders fear that they might lose the vote of dominant castes. That’s why none of the major political parties ever condemned these honour killings. Such kind of support by political parties is making these khap panchayats more powerful.
In complete contrast to the main political parties, the women’s movements have played an exemplary role against such killings. In June 2009, a khap panchayat forced Manoj and his wife Babli to drink pesticide. When it came to legal action, a Karnal Sessions Court passed a landmark judgment, condemning five people to death for killing Manoj and Babli, who married within the same gotra and village, at the behest of the khap panchayat. This was the first time that such a serious punishment was meted out and the leader of Banawala khap was awarded life sentence for hatching the conspiracy.
The Supreme Court on 9th May, 2011 affirmed a life sentence imposed for a man, Bhagwan Das, convicted of killing his daughter in 2006 because she had left her husband and was living in an incestuous relationship with her uncle but added a warning: “People planning to perpetrate honor killings should know that the gallows await them.” Describing honour killings as “rarest of rare” cases, the Supreme Court said those behind the crime should get the death sentence. Justice Katju, who wrote the judgment for the bench, said it was necessary as a deterrent to stamp out these feudal practices which are a slur on the nation. “There is nothing honourable in honour killings and they are nothing but barbaric and brutal murders by bigoted persons with feudal minds,” he said.
In a bid to stop such gross violence and harassment, young couples and their family members face in the name of tradition and honour, especially under the instruction of Khap panchayats, the Union Home Ministry has circulated the draft of ‘Indian Penal Code and Certain Other Laws (Amendment) Bill, 2010’, making all Khap members, ordering the killing, accomplice in the crime, besides bringing all such cases under the purview of murder (section 300 of the Indian Penal Code).
During the trial, the burden of proof will be on the accused instead of the victims. For this, a new section — 105A — will be inserted in the Indian Evidence Act.
Thus, not forgetting that honour killing is a home-grown crime, reform by way of change in mindset of society in general should be the foremost priority and infliction of punishment should be secondary. In view of the facts that the controversy in question is a clash of thought between the two generations, suitable remedial steps may be taken on the social front to bridge the generation gap. Society must be prevailed upon to be more gender-sensitive and shed prejudices of caste and class. More of media coverage to carry the transformative political message against such feudal order is must. But equally, it should be made clear that there is no escape for those who take justice into their own hands. Active policing and serious penal sanctions to do away with the most dishonourable practice is the need of the hour. While fighting for justice through the legal system, we should put in place education policies, health strategies and community level programmes that promote equality between men and women and teach non violent methods of resolving conflict. These couples marrying outside their caste or religion should be given proper protection by police so that there are no more killings in the name of “honour”.
2nd year Student,BSL.LLB
ILS Law College, Pune
[Submitted as an entry for the MightyLaws.in Blog Post Writing Competition, 2011]