Judiciary & honour killings

Proactive verdicts by the judiciary

Print edition : March 14, 2020

Neelam Katara, mother of Nitish Katara, outside the Supreme Court on October 3, 2010, after it sentenced her son’s killers to 25 years in prison. Nitish Katara was killed in February 2002 by Vikas Yadav and Vishal Yadav, the son and nephew of the politician D.P. Yadav, for having fallen in love with Vikas’ sister. Photo: V. Sudershan

Manoj Banwala, 23, and Babli, 19, after their marriage in April 2007. They were kidnapped and killed at the behest of a khap panchayat.

Members of various political parties and organisations staging a protest at K. Pudur in Madurai, Tamil Nadu, on November 3, 2016, urging the government to enact a separate law to deal with honour killings. Photo: R. Ashok

A look at how the judiciary is tackling the social malaise of honour killing head-on through emphatic judgments, which are also building up a body of case law on the issue.

In the absence in Indian law of the term “honour killing”, it has become imperative for the judiciary to interpret existing laws to categorise such crimes and intervene effectively on the side of victims.

Intervention of the Supreme Court and High Courts on several occasions has given a fillip to voices against such extrajudicial executions. Today, even the lower judiciary is proactive on the issue. The judiciary has given verdicts that punished extra-constitutional bodies and individuals perpetrating feudalistic violence against young couples, passed severe strictures against State governments for indolence, stipulated guidelines for the prevention of such crimes, and made a strong recommendation to the legislature to enact a separate law to deal with these crimes.

A two-member bench comprising Justices Ashok Bhan and Markandey Katju, in its landmark verdict in Lata Singh vs State of U.P. and Another (2006), made it clear: “This is a free and democratic country, and once a person becomes a major he or she can marry whosoever he/she likes.” The bench observed that the maximum that parents who did not approve of their wards’ inter-caste or inter-religious marriages could do was to “cut off social relations” with them. They could not threaten or commit or instigate any acts of violence against inter-caste couples, it noted.

Observing that there was no bar on inter-caste marriages under the Hindu Marriage Act, the bench said that the “caste system is a curse on the nation and the sooner it is destroyed, the better”. It further opined that inter-caste marriages were in fact in the national interest as they would result in destroying the caste system. “However, disturbing news is coming from several parts of the country that young men and women who undergo inter-caste marriage are threatened with violence, or violence is actually committed on them. In our opinion, such acts of violence or threats or harassment are wholly illegal and those who commit them must be severely punished,” it said.

The bench stated: “We sometimes hear of ‘honour’ killings of such persons who undergo inter-caste or inter-religious marriage of their own free will. There is nothing honourable in such killings, and in fact they are nothing but barbaric and shameful acts of murder committed by brutal, feudal-minded persons who deserve harsh punishment. Only in this way can we stamp out such acts of barbarism.”

In Arumugam Servai vs State of Tamil Nadu (April 2011), Justices Gyan Sudha Misra and Katju quoted extensively from the verdict in the Lata Singh case while condemning the discriminatory practices in the caste system. The judges said the court had “in recent years heard of ‘Khap Panchayats’ (known as katta panchayats in Tamil Nadu), which often decree or encourage honour killings or other atrocities in an institutionalised way on boys and girls of different castes and religions who wish to get married or have been married, or interfere with the personal lives of people. We are of the opinion that this is wholly illegal and has to be ruthlessly stamped out.”

The court directed administrative and police officials of various States to take strong measures to prevent such atrocious acts. It warned that if such acts continued, apart from initiating criminal proceedings against the perpetrators of the crime, State governments would be directed to immediately suspend District Collectors and other officials concerned and even charge-sheet them.

In Bhagwan Dass vs State (NCT) of Delhi (2011), Justice Katju, writing the verdict for the bench with Justice Gyan Sudha Misra, said that honour killing came under “the category of rarest of rare cases deserving death” penalty. (In this case, a father killed his married daughter for bringing “dishonour” to the family.) The judge, while confirming the death sentence awarded to the accused in both the trial court and the High Court, said: “This is necessary as a deterrent for such outrageous, uncivilised behaviour. All persons who are planning to perpetrate ‘honour’ killings should know that the gallows await them. Let the copy of the judgment be sent to the Registrar Generals/Registrars of all the High Courts who shall circulate the same to all the judges of the courts.”

The bench said: “It is time to stamp out these barbaric, feudal practices, which are a slur on our nation.” There was “nothing ‘honourable’ in ‘honour’ killings”, it reiterated. It issued directions to all trial courts and High Courts that they should treat such killings as “rarest of rare” cases and even suggested that the death sentence be awarded.

The state, the bench added, was duty-bound to protect the fundamental rights of citizens. It said: “… a larger societal change is required via educational awareness.… The government will have to formulate and implement policies in order to uplift the socio-economic condition of women, sensitise the police and other parties concerned towards the need for gender equality.”

The Nitish Katara killing

On February 17, 2002, Nitish Katara (24), an MBA graduate, was abducted and murdered by Vikas Yadav and his cousin Vishal for having fallen in love with Vikas’ sister, Bharati, daughter of Uttar Pradesh’s powerful politician D.P. Yadav.

Braving a powerful political lobby and amid threats and intimidation, Neelam Katara, the victim’s mother, fought tenaciously for 14 years to get the murderers punished. Nitish’s murder was the most shocking honour killing India had witnessed then by the forces of casteism, feudalism and patriarchy. The murder decimated the carefully built political fiefdom of D.P. Yadav. Unfortunately, Bharati turned hostile during the trial, which was not unexpected. But the Supreme Court sentenced the brother and cousin to 25 years’ imprisonment. Today, Neelam Katara is an activist working to get a separate law for honour killings.

While deciding the quantum of the sentence in Vikas Yadav vs State of Uttar Pradesh and Others (2016), Justices Dipak Misra and C. Nagappan observed that sustaining one’s honour should not harm another. The court said: “Her individual choice is her self-respect and creating a dent in it is akin to destroying her honour.” The judges said that “to impose so-called brotherly or fatherly honour or class honour by eliminating her choice is a crime of extreme brutality”.

They noted: “Freedom, independence, constitutional identity, individual choice and thought of a woman, be a wife or sister or daughter or mother cannot be allowed to be curtailed definitely not by application of physical force or threat or mental cruelty in the name of his self-assumed honour.” Neither the family nor the members of the social collective, the judges observed, had any right to assault a man chosen by a woman.

In Asha Rajan vs State of Bihar and Others (2017), Justices Dipak Misra and Amitava Roy, in a context unrelated to honour killing, pointed out that it was a woman’s legitimate constitutional right to choose her partner in life. “[A]nd such a right is not expected to succumb to the concept of ‘class honour’ or ‘group thinking’,” the judges observed. In State of U.P. vs Krishna Master and Others (2010), the two-member bench of Justices Harjit Singh Bedi and J.M. Panchal said that wiping out an entire family on the flimsy ground of family honour fell within the definition of a “rarest of rare” case. The case related to six murders that took place in 1991.

The Shakti Vahini case

In its verdict in a case involving the non-governmental organisation (NGO) Shakti Vahini and the Union of India (March 2018), the three-member Supreme Court bench of the then Chief Justice of India, Dipak Misra, and Justices A.M. Khanwilkar and D.Y. Chandrachud decided to go to the root of the issue and suggested remedial measures to eradicate it. It was a pragmatic prescription for a malady that is eating into the vitals of society and stands out to this day as an outstanding verdict against the crime of honour killing.

The court issued a series of instructions to the Union and State governments asking them to initiate preventive and punitive measures against honour killing. The NGO’s writ petition, preferred under Article 32 of the Constitution, sought directions to State governments and the Central government to take preventive steps to combat honour crimes. The organisation, which had been entrusted by the National Commission for Women to carry out a study on “Honour Killings in Haryana and Western Uttar Pradesh”, claimed that the violation of human rights and the destruction of fundamental rights were taking place in the name of class honour or group rights or a perverse individual perception of honour. It complained that Punjab, Uttar Pradesh and parts of West Bengal and Haryana were not taking steps to curb the menace of honour killing owing to “vote-bank politics”.

The NGO approached the Supreme Court seeking directions to the Central and State governments to submit a National Plan for Action and State Plans for Action respectively to combat the crime and to constitute special cells in every district of all States for the safety and well-being of such couples. In fact, the Centre submitted a note on the issue, in which it pointed out that the court should direct the police to ascertain whether the woman had voluntarily decided on her marriage with a person of her choice before foisting a case of kidnap and abduction (Sections 361, 362 and 366 of the Indian Penal Code (IPC)) on the man on complaints from her parents.

(The police often use these sections of the IPC to intimidate and separate couples of inter-caste marriages. In fact, Dravidar Viduthalai Kazhagam (DVK) leader Kolathur Mani in Tamil Nadu said that local people and parents, especially those of women who had eloped or married against their families’ wishes, filed false complaints in police stations saying that their daughters were “minors”. The police colluded with them and registered complaints of abduction against the men without seeking any documentary evidence. “The DVK had intervened in a case in which an Arunthathiyar boy eloped with a Vellala Gounder girl at Kaveripattinam in Dharmapuri district a few years back,” he said.)

The bench stated that “the words ‘honour killings’ and ‘honour crimes’ are being used loosely as convenient expressions to describe incidents of violence and harassment caused to the young couple intending to marry or having married against the wishes of the community of family members”. It, however, observed that the “so-called” honour killings were not peculiar to India. “It is an evil which haunts many other societies also.” It reasoned that the changing cultural and economic status of women and women going against their male-dominated culture were among the causes of honour crimes.

The judges called those who kill their wards “patriarchal monarchs”. They said the “human rights of a daughter, brother, sister or son are not mortgaged to the so-called or so-understood honour of the family or clan or the collective”. Women, the court said, were treated as servile persons and their families were either silent spectators or active participants in their torture. “No one, either individual or collective, or group, has the right to interfere with the marriage,” they observed.

Having noted the viciousness of honour crimes and considering the catastrophic effect of such crimes on society, the judges said that their directives should be followed by law enforcement agencies and the various administrative authorities. “It is the obligation of the state to have an atmosphere where the citizens are in a position to enjoy their fundamental rights.” The court divided its instructions into three broad categories: preventive, remedial and punitive.

The measures included under prevention were the identification of “honour-crime” prone districts, blocks and villages; awareness campaigns to spread the message among people; and sensitisation of the police. The remedial section urged the police to register first information reports without delay by invoking Sections 141, 143, 503 and 506 of the IPC whenever a crime took place. It wanted the state to provide young couples with security and safe houses. The couple’s threat perception should be treated with utmost sensitivity, and they should be given logistical support to get their marriages solemnised, it said.

Other measures the court recommended included taking severe action against officials guilty of deliberate negligence or misconduct or who did not prevent the crimes despite having prior knowledge of the intention to commit them; formation of special cells in districts to receive petitions and complaints from couples; and establishing a 24-hour helpline for couples who face threats. It wanted the constitution of a fast-track court for speedy delivery of judgments. These measures and suggestions were in line with the recommendations of a two-member committee the Supreme Court appointed in 2012 to look into honour killings.

In district and sessions courts

In March 2010, a district court in Haryana delivered perhaps the first and strongest verdict against an honour crime. Five men were sentenced to death, while the head of a khap panchayat was sentenced to life imprisonment, for the murder of a couple, Manoj and Babli, who married against the wishes of their elders. In 2007, a khap panchayat pronounced the death warrant on the young couple for getting married even though they were from the same gotra (patrilineal clan). They were kidnapped and killed. The killers included the girl’s brother, uncles and cousins. It was the first time in the country that a court treated a murder as an “honour killing” and not as homicide. And it was also the first time that a court awarded capital punishment to the perpetrators of such a crime.

On December 12, 2017, the sessions court in Tiruppur town in Tiruppur district of Tamil Nadu delivered a landmark verdict in the case relating to the brutal murder of a Dalit youth, V. Shankar, who married Kausalya in Udumalpet on March 13, 2016. She belongs to the Agamudayar caste, a backward class (B.C.). Judge Alamelu Natarajan found eight of the 11 accused in the case guilty and sentenced six of them, including Kausalya’s father, B. Chinnasamy, to death. The others who got the death sentence were hired killers.

Surveillance camera footage that showed the murder and Kausalya’s unwavering courage against the killers ensured that the accused were punished for the brutal killing of her husband. The Tamil Nadu government, for the first time in its legal history of such murders, formed a prosecutor team with senior lawyers under the provisions of the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Amendment (S.C./S.T.) Act, 2015, to ensure a speedy trial and justice. The veteran lawyer U. Sankaranarayanan, a retired Deputy Director of Prosecution, was its Special Prosecutor. The police filed a charge sheet running into more than 1,000 pages after registering cases against the 11 accused under stringent sections of the IPC and the S.C./S.T. Act.

The judge said that the court “has analysed the evidence adduced on the side of the prosecution carefully and meticulously”. Taking note of the gravity of the crime and “balancing and keeping in mind the rights and liberties of the persons accused as offenders”, she came to the conclusion that the facts and circumstances of this case “are very clear and are well corroborated by ocular, oral evidence, medical evidence, CCTV footage evidence, and other documents” and that the killers executed the crime brutally.

“If the punishment for a lower-caste boy marrying an upper-caste girl has to be only a death sentence by murder, then what should be the punishment for such persons...?” she asked and pointed out that the anxiety with which courts in the country voiced their dismay against such killings and their strong condemnation of “honour killings” showed how serious the judiciary was about the issue. The judge said that the “hired killers deserve no mercy” and that it was because of the availability of such hired killers that parents were driven to commit such violent killings.

In a similar incident in Tirunelveli, a sessions court sentenced a couple from the Marava caste, a B.C. caste group, to death for murdering Kalpana, a Dalit woman, whose brother, Viswanathan, had eloped with the couple’s daughter Kaveri. As Kaveri’s parents could not find her or Viswanathan, they murdered his sister. The judge said: “If the punishment for marrying an upper-caste girl by a lower-caste boy would be only a death sentence by murder, then what should be the punishment for such persons, is the question raised in the mind of the court.” The police filed a charge sheet, also running into more than 1,000 pages, and the prosecution here too argued the case as an “honour killing”.

After the murder of a Dalit couple in Thoothukudi in July 2019, the Madras High Court suo motu took up the issue of honour killing in Tamil Nadu and sought detailed reports from the State government on the number of honour killings and the measures that were being taken to prevent them. The bench of Justices S. Manikumar and Subramonium Prasad wanted to know whether the State government had followed the directions on remedial and punitive measures issued by the Supreme Court in the Shakti Vahini case. It sought district-wise statistics on honour killings and pointed out that the High Courts were to ensure compliance of the Supreme Court’s orders.

In April 2016, in another honour killing case, Justice V. Ramasubramanian also issued a series of orders to the State of Tamil Nadu on the issue, including the setting up of a special cell in each district to receive complaints of threats to young couples, providing security to couples who were in danger, and giving wide publicity in the media on the measures being taken to curb the evil practice. The Tiruppur district police issued pamphlets to the public warning against the social evil.

The strong intervention of civil society can have a deterrent effect. What young couples who love to live beyond caste and religion aspire to is integration into and spontaneous acceptance by society and liberation from the feudal, casteist and patriarchal ideology of tiny groups with a medieval outlook.