Print edition : August 27, 2010

The Meham mahapanchayat, held on August 1. The khaps mobilised some women too for the meeting to counter the criticism that they are patriarchal.-MANOJ DHAKA

A draft prepared by AIDWA for the proposed Bill to deal with honour crimes includes a comprehensive definition of honour killing.

SHILPA and Ravinder, Manoj and Babli, Ved Pal Maun and Sonia. These are not random names, but young couples who were hounded, and some of them even done to death, by the self-styled guardians of honour for daring to break community norms of love and marriage. A seminar on Killings and crimes in the name of honour, held in New Delhi on July 20, heard some of those who were lucky enough to have escaped the clutches of death speak out. Most of the participants, who included lawyers and academics as well, said the existing legal provisions did not offer protection to the victims of such crimes. Organised by the All India Democratic Women's Association (AIDWA), the seminar demanded that a new and comprehensive law be enacted to deal with all aspects of honour crimes. Rajya Sabha member Brinda Karat of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) had raised this demand in Parliament last year.

Justice K.G. Balakrishnan, Chairperson of the National Human Rights Commission and former Chief Justice of India, condemned honour crimes but did not advocate a separate law. This was in contrast to the overall sentiment at the seminar and the views espoused by National Commission for Women (NCW) Chairperson Girija Vyas.

Kirti Singh, former member of the Law Commission of India and Supreme Court lawyer, presented a draft of the proposed legislation at the seminar. It was later submitted to Union Minister of Law M. Veerappa Moily.

The case for a stringent law found support in the monsoon session of the Rajya Sabha as well, for the second time in the past one year. The response of the government so far has been that the primary responsibility for prevention, detection, registration, investigation and prosecution of crimes was with the State governments. Predictably, the reply of Ajay Maken, Minister of State for Home, on the floor of the House to questions raised by Brinda Karat, Shobhana Bhartia and others was at best evasive.

Among other things, they asked him what specific steps the government was taking to rein in caste councils. At least a couple of honour crimes were committed at the behest of such councils, called khap panchayats. He replied that apart from issuing a detailed advisory to all States and Union Territories to take a comprehensive view of the effectiveness of the government machinery in tackling violence against women and to take appropriate measures to curb the violation of women's rights by means of honour killings and prevent forced marriages in some States, the government was thinking of amending the existing law or otherwise enacting a separate law to tackle honour killings.

Another poser was about the number of people arrested in connection with honour killings. The Minister replied that as honour killings were not classified as a separate crime, and as they were treated as murders, data were not collected separately by the National Crime Records Bureau and, therefore, no separate figures of arrests were available. Significantly, there was also no time frame given for the enactment of a separate law or the amendment of the existing law.

AIDWA's draft law

AIDWA's draft of the proposed law has some remarkable features. Apart from containing a comprehensive definition of what constitutes honour killing, it describes the right to choose one's own partner as a fundamental right. The idea of defining it as a fundamental right is that the act of anyone opposing it would be construed as an offence, said Kirti Singh.

The draft law defines various kinds of acts that either precede or follow honour killing. These include all kinds of harassment: public endorsement of violence, threats, and social and economic sanctions against families of the victims by either individuals or collective bodies such as panchayats. It has provisions specifying certain duties of the district administration as well. It says, for instance, that prohibitory orders need to be issued as soon as the district administration gets information about meetings that have to do with the violation of the fundamental right defined by the law.

It cannot be dealt with by invoking Section 302 [in the Indian Penal Code, punishment for murder] alone. We have, for the first time, classified different types of harassment and broadened the ambit of intimidation that can include physical, psychological, verbal [harassment], said Kirti Singh.

The range of punishment, too, extends from one to 10 years depending on the nature of the offence. For instance, the draft law provides for imprisonment up to two years for anyone glorifying or supporting the crime publicly. The burden of proof has been placed on the accused and credence given to the oral statements of the couple, especially if they have consented to marry or stay with each other.

The police should not register a case of kidnapping in such a situation, she said.

Describing the situation in Haryana, one of the States most affected by honour crimes, Jagmati Sangwan, president of the AIDWA State unit, said it was ironical that there was no public shame in purchasing women from outside for marriage, on the one hand, and in harassing, or even killing, young people when they asserted their constitutional rights, on the other.

It is not about honour at all; it is the hegemony of some groups, she said. Same- gotra marriages, which the caste councils want banned, were being used as an issue for political and caste consolidation, she said.

The most disappointing response, she said, came from mainstream political parties. In particular, she referred to Congress Member of Parliament Naveen Jindal's support to the demand by caste councils to amend the Hindu Marriage Act and to ban same- gotra marriages. Jagmati Sangwan, who heads the Women's Studies Centre in Maharshi Dayanand University, Rohtak, said that from her interactions with schoolteachers she had learnt that it was common to see a high degree of absenteeism among girl students. Some of them never returned and their whereabouts were unknown.

Conspiracy of silence

Girls are eliminated for even talking to their male colleagues. Our girl students just go missing and there is a conspiracy of silence. Such is the repression of young people in Haryana society. It is extremely painful for us to come to terms with such incidents, she said. The common expression for the mysterious death of young girls, said Inderjit Singh, State secretary of the CPI(M), was Mar gi ji, meaning she died. The standard response would be that the girl had stomach pain which resulted in her death, he said. Cremations would be hurriedly conducted, mostly at the homes of the victims' maternal uncles. There was also no question of a post-mortem. He said the hitherto unaddressed problem of missing adolescent girls, probably killed in the name of honour, was as important a matter of concern as that of the murder of eloping couples.

There should be a system of reporting deaths, all deaths from villages, just as births are registered. In the case of an unnatural death, a post-mortem before cremation should be made legally mandatory, said Inderjit Singh, who has rescued many girls from such dangerous situations.

The draft of the Bill proposed by the Ministry of Law and Justice (Indian Penal Code and Certain Other Laws (Amendment) Bill, 2010) envisages changes in the IPC (Section 300, which specifies various conditions that constitute the crime of murder); the Indian Evidence Act, 1872; and the Special Marriage Act, 1954.

The draft, which is being looked into by a Group of Ministers (GoM), has incorporated a new definition of honour killing, though it does not say it in so many words: a murder done by any person or persons acting in concert with, or, at the behest of, a member of the family or a member of a body or group of the caste or clan or community or caste panchayat (by whatever name called) in the belief that the victim has brought dishonour or perceived to have brought dishonour upon the family or caste or clan or community or caste panchayat. Here the definition of dishonour is also very limited, and the definition does not cover all perceptible forms of violence, including cases in which young people, not necessarily in a sexual relationship, are humiliated and even killed for talking to a member of the opposite sex.

The draft law purports to make entire communities culpable by virtue of mere association with a caste panchayat or body or group of the caste or clan or community. It is commonly known that in all such cases involving harassment or murder, there were self-styled leaders who enjoyed political, social and economic clout and whose decisions compelled others to toe their line. In such a situation, booking entire communities by virtue of mere association, without making a distinction between the perpetrators, abettors and vocal supporters, has been seen as a ploy to frustrate the exercise of a good law to deal with such crimes. One of the positive aspects of the draft Bill, however, involves placing the burden of proof on those accused of such murder. Another is doing away with the 30-day waiting period in the Special Marriage Act, 1954.

The draft, predictably, has invoked the wrath of the sections concerned. The government seems to have rendered its own draft ineffective by making culpable entire communities rather than pinpointing the main agents provocateurs after investigation and making them accountable.

Lal Bahadur Gopal, the lawyer who took up the murder case of Manoj and Babli, said that any law in connection with honour crimes should also provide for quick disposal of the cases. He recalled how the moral support of AIDWA had helped him overcome his reluctance to take up the case. There was a lot of pressure on us and many material witnesses had turned hostile. We were even afraid of going to the hearings as we received lots of threats, he said.

Gopal narrated how at the end of a hearing, despite heavy security, Babli's brother, Suresh, one of those convicted for her murder, slapped Seema, Manoj's sister, in full public view. This was their way of intimidating us, he said, adding that it was very important to give police protection to the witnesses.

According to him, the state needed to give a minimum compensation to the victims and entrust special cells with trained officers, not the standard station house officers, with the investigation of such cases.

But the question is whether a law in itself is enough to ensure that justice will be done. The couples present at the seminar explained how they still felt threatened, especially with honour crimes continuing unabated. Present at the seminar were two couples, from Kapurthala in Punjab and Hansi in Haryana, who had eloped fearing violent reprisals from their families. Interestingly, in both cases, the girls were from upper-caste and upper-class backgrounds.

Shilpa Kadyan and her husband, Ravinder, who were banished from their Dharana village in Jhajjar district, said they lived in constant fear. It is a big struggle for those who are forced to leave their village and made to sever ties with family members, said Shilpa, referring to the lack of social support in cities. To this day, the couple have not been able to enter their village and meet Ravinder's parents without police protection.

Joginder Maun spoke of his brother Ved Pal, who was killed in the presence of a warrant officer on April 22, 2009, when he went to bring his wife from her village in Jind district. They target the poor. In our case, even the gotras were different, the couple belonged to two different villages located in two different districts, he said.

Seven-point charter

On August 1, at a meeting held at the Meham Chaubisi Chabootra (famous for public and panchayat meetings in Meham town), a seven-point charter was released demanding the amendment of the Hindu Marriage Act banning same- gotra marriages, gay marriages and surrogate motherhood, giving lok adalat status to khaps, and according legal status to customs and traditional practices. Though there was a large congregation, with some women too present, observers felt that not all khaps had supported the move. The main organiser of the event was a businessman from Gurgaon who lost the Meham Assembly seat last time and was hoping to rejuvenate his political fortunes with such measures.

It is becoming increasingly clear that dealing with honour crimes has to be comprehensive so that every aspect relating to them is covered under the law. And it is all the more necessary as the demands of caste councils are becoming more strident. Accused of being patriarchal and undemocratic in their constitution, they are now trying to remove the tag by taking in women and a few members from other caste groups.

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