Print edition : June 17, 2011

"ALL PERSONS WHO are planning to perpetrate honour killings should know that the gallows await them," the Supreme Court observed. - SUSHIL KUMAR VERMA

The Supreme Court prescribes the death penalty for honour killings, describing them as the rarest of rare cases.

ON May 9, in a significant ruling, a two-judge Bench of the Supreme Court comprising Justices Markandey Katju and Gyan Sudha Mishra held that honour killings came within the rarest of rare cases deserving the death penalty. The Bench delivered the ruling while upholding the life sentence of a man for killing his daughter as she had dishonoured the family. It is time to stamp out these barbaric, feudal practices which are a slur on our nation. 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, the court observed.

Honour killings, the Bench held, had become commonplace in many parts of the country, particularly in Haryana, western Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan. Often young couples who fall in love have to seek shelter in the police lines or protection homes to avoid the wrath of kangaroo courts, noted the Bench. It quoted a previous court order ( Lata Singh vs State of UP and Anr, 2006) that honour killings were nothing but barbaric and brutal murders by bigoted persons with feudal minds.

There have been many judgments on honour killings, with a few even justifying the anger of those committing the crimes, but the May 9 order was one of its kind in that it took a strong position against honour killings, not only categorising them as barbaric but also prescribing the severest punishment for such killings. While the death penalty as such may be a debatable issue, what is important here is the significance accorded by the Supreme Court to the problem of killings that are done in the name of honour.

The May 9 order came close on the heels of another order on April 19 by the same Bench, which held that district-level civil and police officers be held responsible for the failure to curb the twin menaces of honour killings and caste atrocities. The Bench, while dismissing the appeals in a caste atrocity case in Madurai district, Tamil Nadu, observed that district officers should be suspended and criminal cases registered against them if they failed to take prompt action against those involved in honour killings and caste atrocities.

A protest against honour killings, in New Delhi on June 25, 2010.-V SUDERSHAN

The Bench also emphasised the need to stamp out the evil of honour killing, which, it said, was often decreed or encouraged by khap panchayats (caste councils). It further directed that boys and girls marrying into different castes and religions must be protected. We have 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 religion 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. As already stated in Lata Singh's case (supra), there is nothing honourable in honour killing or other atrocities and, in fact, it is nothing but barbaric and shameful murder. Other atrocities in respect of personal lives of people committed by brutal, feudal minded persons deserve harsh punishment. Only in this way can we stamp out such acts of barbarism and feudal mentality. Moreover, these acts take the law into their own hands, and amount to kangaroo courts, which are wholly illegal, ruled the Bench.

Strong measures

It also directed administrative and police officials to take strong measures to prevent such atrocious acts. If any such incidents happen, apart from instituting criminal proceedings against those responsible for such atrocities, the State government is directed to immediately suspend the District Magistrate/Collector and SSP/SPs [senior superintendents of police/superintendents of police] of the district as well as other officials concerned and charge-sheet them and proceed against them departmentally if they do not (1) prevent the incident if it has not already occurred but they have knowledge of it in advance, or (2) if it has occurred, they do not promptly apprehend the culprits and others involved and institute criminal proceedings against them, as in our opinion they will be deemed to be directly or indirectly accountable in this connection, ruled Justices Katju and Mishra.

Unfortunately, despite the pronouncements of the Supreme Court, on May 14 there were news reports of two mothers in Baghpat district, western Uttar Pradesh, strangling their daughters who had dared to elope and marry men belonging to a different religion. Ironically, the daughters had approached the police for protection. Instead of upholding the legality of their marriage, both the girls who were of marriageable age, were turned over to their families by the police. The girls were to give their statements in front of the Sub Divisional Magistrate, but they were done to death in order to preserve the honour of their families. The mothers later confessed to the crime. Earlier in the month, a couple was beaten to death in Jahanganj village, Farukkhabad district, for having eloped and married.

Women's organisations at the forefront of fighting honour killings have been demanding a separate law to deal with all aspects of honour crimes.

Khap reaction

A day after the May 9 order, khap leaders in Haryana reacted strongly to the recommendation of the death penalty for those involved in honour killings, stating that it was beyond reason to single out murder cases as honour killings. Stating that honour issues were important for people, khap representatives said that a separate law was not required for such crimes and that the Indian judicial system had prescribed punishment for almost every kind of crime. Interestingly, the editorial in a leading English newspaper also echoed similar sentiments, suggesting that there is no need for a separate law to prevent honour killings.

The incident which prompted the two-judge Bench to give a call for the death penalty involved the murder of a girl, Seema, in 2006, who had left her husband and was living with an uncle. According to the prosecution, the father, Bhagwan Dass, was annoyed with his daughter for having, in his opinion, an incestuous relationship. He strangulated her with an electric wire. The trial court convicted the father, an order which was upheld by the High Court and, now finally, by the Supreme Court.

In the absence of any direct witness and direct evidence, the prosecution used the argument of circumstantial evidence, in which the links in the chain of circumstances connected the accused with the crime beyond reasonable doubt. The motive too was established, and the Supreme Court, referring to its judgment of April 19 ( Arumugam Servai vs State of Tamil Nadu), observed that honour killing had become commonplace. The Bench observed: Many people feel that they are dishonoured by the behaviour of the [sic] 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.

The ruling in Lata Singh vs State of UP and Anr (2006) has been a sort of a beacon for rulings on honour killings. It says if someone is unhappy 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 or giving threats of violence.

The All India Democratic Women's Association (AIDWA), which has consistently taken up the cause of victims of honour crimes, welcomed the Supreme Court judgment. While AIDWA has rightly desisted from supporting the call for the death penalty, it has praised the judgment for exposing the failure of the government to take appropriate action and bring the perpetrators of such crimes to justice.

The organisation has reiterated its demand for comprehensive stand-alone legislation. A draft piece of legislation prepared by the AIDWA has been lying with the government for over a year now. Any law should involve punishment for crimes such as harassment and economic and social boycott of the couple and the boy's family as much as for the killings, it said. The legislation, it said, should also provide protection to couples wishing to enter into a marriage of their choice, and facilitate such marriages.

On April 18, a Sunday, as nearly 200 villagers watched, two young widows were beaten to death with sharp weapons by two people in Ranila village, Bhiwani district, Haryana. One of the two killers was the nephew of one of the widows. No witness apparently came forward and the police finally had to rely on the statement of the eight-year-old son of one of the women who witnessed his mother's killing. The nephew', who was arrested, had been out on bail after being convicted for rape. He reportedly told the media that the women were killed to protect the family's honour. The women were reportedly having an affair with each other.

Significantly, crimes against women such as in the Ranila incident enjoy a certain social sanction. That none came forward to prevent the lynching of the women is shocking to say the least. Even more worrying is the reaction of Haryana Chief Minister Bhupinder Singh Hooda, who dismissed the case as an aberration and apparently wrote to the Group of Ministers constituted to draft a law on honour killings that there was no need for a separate law.

A year ago, in July 2010, in Nimriwala village, Bhiwani district, a teenaged couple was beaten and then hanged to death for having dared to marry. When this correspondent was doing a story on declining child sex ratios and conducting interviews with women recently, it was seen that there was not an iota of sympathy for the victims of Ranila village. The women deserved it. They were in the wrong. If youngsters decide to marry on their own, they'll also get similar treatment, was the refrain, including among women who had organised themselves in self-help groups.

The fear is not perhaps so much of rising crimes against women in the name of honour, but the deep internalisation that has taken place in the minds and hearts of people, and women themselves, that the lives of the poor and of women are definitely worthless.

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