Khap panchayats must be declared illegal

Print edition : August 28, 2009

We have a system that encourages crass identity politics sans any social justice, says Brinda Karat.-RAJEEV BHATT

ONE of the few parliamentarians with a record of raising womens issues both in and outside Parliament, Brinda Karat feels that honour killings and honour-related harassment do not get the attention they deserve from the executive or the legislature. She says that it was time political parties came together on this issue. In an interview to Frontline, she explained the importance of recognising these crimes as a separate category and the need for special laws to deal with them as had been done in the case of sati. Excerpts:

In your view, how serious are honour killings and crimes related to honour? You raised this issue in the Rajya Sabha and it evoked a response from the Home Minister and several other members cutting across party lines

I had asked a question in Parliament on the number of killings relating to honour that had taken place so far and the reply I received from the government was that they do not recognise such a category and, therefore, there was no separate collection of such data.

According to a 2008 judgment of the Punjab and Haryana High Court, it was stated that there were thousands of cases of young couples who had been victimised because they crossed the lakshman rekha determined by their communities, castes or families.

It is a shame that even today there is no legal definition of the term honour killing or honour crime. As a result, the perpetrators of such crimes more often than not get away with murder, torture, assault, and violation of laws regarding atrocities committed on the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes. And they continue to commit them with impunity.

The extent of the crime is underestimated, it is made invisible and young men and women just disappear without a trace as though they had never lived. Hence, it is essential for the government to not only define the crime but also start collecting separate data, for unless the existence of the crime itself is recognised, it is difficult to deal with it in any form.

Is it an issue to do with tradition and violation of community norms? Is it also confined to certain norms or is it prevalent all over the country and therefore requires State-specific responses?

Different States have different contexts, but we have had reports coming in from eastern Uttar Pradesh, Tamil Nadu and other States as well. It is unfortunate that identity politics has developed to such an extent in our country that issues of social justice have got relegated to the background. We have a system that encourages crass identity politics sans any social justice, and when it becomes the dominant politics in an area, retrograde organisations and elite sections within communities tend to manipulate those identities to establish their own power. The most vulnerable targets are young couples in self-choice, intimate relationships.

Another aspect is the refusal of the major political parties to take on such self-styled leaders as, in their perception, these leaders and the sections they represent constitute important vote banks. One of the major sources of support for these crimes comes from the continuing caste system where, in a large number of cases, if a girl belonging to an upper caste is in a relationship with someone outside her caste, the so-called honour of a community gets affected and the couple is punished in a most brutal way. This also has to do with the view that a woman is the property of a community or a family who must do as she is told subservient, obedient and subordinate.

Should these kinds of crimes be dealt with differently, with a stronger response from the state?

There was a demand across political parties for a separate law on honour killings, but I felt it was extremely unfortunate that the Union Home Minister, although he admitted that it was a national shame, was completely insensitive to the need for a special law. At the same time, he left some space for a legal definition of honour killings. We welcome the fact that he deplored it and called it a national shame. He said the government was deeply concerned about violence against women. The Union Home Minister said caste panchayats were informal bodies and had no legal status as such.

I asked in Parliament whether action had been taken in any one case by the concerned State governments. We have one Chief Minister who says that this is a social tradition, while the Union Home Minister says we should hang our heads in shame. In the name of upholding social tradition, people are being murdered, publicly lynched and humiliated. Is this all part of our social tradition?

We need to have laws to deal with the illegal diktats of these caste panchayats. We also need to have special protection mechanisms for couples who marry out of choice. The situation today is that the Nari Niketans are full of young married women who have attained the legal age of marriage while their husbands are languishing in jail. In a recent order of the Punjab and Haryana High Court, the honourable judge observed that in the last four to five years, the court had been flooded with petitions where young married couples came and sought protection.

This is a horrendous crime and has to be recognised as such. Just as there are social crimes, which have different dimensions such as witchcraft or forcing someone to commit sati, there is a special background in which honour killings take place. There is no complainant, the perpetrators are concealed and there are no witnesses who come forward to testify. There have been six such incidents in the last one week alone. On the one hand India has a proud record as far its elected panchayats are concerned. On the other hand, these self-declared, no-women, all-men community panchayats, which claim to play a social role in the affairs of the community, often turn out to be the worst authoritarian, dictatorial, diktat-issuing bodies. Some of these organisations may have a role in managing the affairs of the community, but in the name of managing the affairs they start issuing diktats. They should be declared illegal and debarred from doing so. In fact, some of their leaders need to be jailed as well.

There is definitely a kind of mainstream politics that feeds into it, so it is not just a question of fringe groups issuing such fiats. There are elected representatives who say that we have to be sensitive to these social issues. It is highly unfortunate that rather than view caste from the point of view of social justice, the political system uses it for political mobilisation.

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