For a comprehensive Central law

Print edition : March 13, 2020
Various court judgments have condemned killings in the name of family honour and given directions to curb such crimes, but a legal framework for a special law on the issue is not in place yet.

IN its landmark judgment in Lata Singh vs State of U.P. and Another (2006) in 2018, the Supreme Court made it clear that a woman had the “right to choose her life partner” and that marrying outside the caste was not a crime. “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,” the court said.

In Bhagwan Dass vs State (NCT) of Delhi (2011), the Supreme Court observed: “This is yet another case of gruesome honour killing, this time by the accused-appellant of his own daughter”. It said: “Many people feel that they are dishonoured by the behaviour of the young man/woman, who is related to them or belonging to their caste because he/she is marrying against their wish or having an affair with someone, and hence they take the law into their own hands and kill or physically assault such person or commit some other atrocities on them…. If someone is not happy with the behaviour of his daughter or other person, who is his relation or of his caste, the maximum he can do is to cut off social relations with her/him, but he cannot take the law into his own hands by committing violence or giving threats of violence.” In Tamil Nadu, a Dalit youth, Shankar, was murdered at Udumalpet in Tiruppur district in March 2016 by the kith and kin of his caste Hindu wife, Kausalya, to avenge his marriage with her. The media highlighted the incident and social activists took up the matter. Kausalya fought against the perpetrators of the violence and the murder accused, who were none other than her father, mother (acquitted by the trial court) and other kith and kin. Both Shankar and Kausalya were major and educated and were living on their own without parental support.

Unfortunately, the feudal mindset, egged on by casteist understanding, made Kausalya’s parents prowl on the couple for several months and finally brutally attack them in a public place. While Shankar died, Kausalya suffered serious injuries. Although social activism helped bring the offenders to book and some of them were punished, the larger question of how the state should deal with “honour killing” remains unanswered.

The issue was raised in the Tamil Nadu Assembly by members of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), but it received a lukewarm response from the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) government. Distressed by the killing of young couples in the name of family honour, Justice V. Ramasubramanian of the Madras High Court directed the State government to implement measures to protect inter-caste couples. The court’s nine directives, issued in 2016, included establishing a special cell in each district to receive complaints of threats from couples who marry across the caste divide. The cells, the court said, should be set up in three months and comprise the Superintendent of Police, the District Social Welfare Officer and the District Adi Dravidar Welfare Officer.

The Punjab and Haryana High Court passed a similar order to curb honour killings in 2018. It followed the directions given by Justice K. Kannan of the Punjab and Haryana High Court in Manmeet Singh vs State of Haryana and Ors (2015) that “there shall be separate cell in every police district for receiving complaints from couples expressing fear of physical annihilation from parents, relatives and khaps”.

The only action that the Tamil Nadu government took with regard to killings in the name of honour was to constitute a special police cell in Madurai district. Earlier, courts used to deal with such issues with kid gloves. In a case from Maharashtra, the Supreme Court highlighted a brother sentiment in the killing of his sister for marrying outside caste and reduced his punishment. The observation made by the Supreme Court (Dilip Tiwari vs State of Maharashtra, 2010) is a shocking reality.

Justifying the reduction of sentence, the Supreme Court observed: “The murders were the outcome of social issue like a marriage with a person of so-called lower caste. However, a time has come when we have to consider these social issues as relevant, while considering the death sentence in the circumstances as these. The caste is a concept which grips a person before his birth and does not leave him even after his death. The vicious grip of the caste, community, religion, though totally unjustified, is a stark reality. The psyche of the offender in the background of a social issue like an inter-caste-community marriage, though wholly unjustified would, have to be considered in the peculiar circumstances of this case.”

But, later the Supreme Court, hearing a public interest petition filed by the non-governmental organisation Shakthi Vahini against khap panchayats involved in honour killings, appointed an amicus curiae to help the court. Raju Ramachandran, the amicus, submitted a report calling for harsh action, including the arrest of members of the khap panchayat. The Law Commission recommended making the offences under this category of crime non-bailable. It also suggested the possibility of exploring enactment of a new law to prohibit unlawful caste assemblies that condemn marriages that are not prohibited by the law.

The Planning Commission’s 12th Five Year Plan (2012-17) Steering Committee report on “Women’s Agency and Child Rights” stated that “the current provisions in the Indian Penal Code are inadequate in dealing with” honour killings, “which seriously distort societal norms, undermining the rights of girls and women”.

“The Steering Committee is of the view that there is need for a comprehensive stand-alone law to deal with such killings and crimes, reportedly in the name of ‘honour’ which not only punishes the guilty but also provides the couple protection from being charged with false cases of kidnapping and abduction…. Further, publicly glorifying any harassment and killing reportedly in the name of honour should be made a punishable offence.”

In its 2001 report, the Law Commission, then headed by Justice P.V. Reddi, recommended bringing a Bill “to provide for, in the interests of protecting individual liberty and preventing victimisation, prohibition of unlawful assemblies and other conduct interfering with the freedom of matrimonial alliances in the name of honour and tradition and for the matters connected therewith or incidental thereto.”

The Law Commission, in its 242nd report, recommended a draft piece of legislation, titled Prevention of Interference with the Freedom of Matrimonial Alliances (in the Name of Honour and Tradition) Bill, 2010. However, the government changed the name of the legislation and introduced it in Parliament as “The Prevention of Crimes in the Name of Honour & Tradition Bill, 2010”. However, the next government at the Centre refused to fix any time limit to put in place a legal framework for a new law on the issue.

As the problem is not unique to Tamil Nadu, there is the need for a comprehensive Central law on the subject. Pressure should be mounted on the Central government in order to have the law enacted at an early date.

More than the law, efforts of a growing number of caste-based political parties emphasising caste pride and grouping members of their respective communities on narrow communal lines must be thwarted by a larger social campaign by all progressive-minded forces of the country.

Justice K. Chandru is a former judge of the Madras High Court.

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