Rajasthan, March 2021: A father murders his 19-year-old daughter for eloping with her Dalit paramour in Dausa district.
Bihar, July 2021: In Muzaffarpur, a Dalit boy, 17, is beaten to death and his genitals cut off by the family of a Brahmin girl he was having an affair with.
Punjab, October 2021: A newly-wed inter-caste couple is murdered by the woman’s relatives in Fazilka district.
Madhya Pradesh, November 2021: In Bhopal, a 55-year-old man allegedly rapes his daughter and then kills her along with her six-month-old baby, to avenge the “disgrace” she brought to the family by marrying a man from another caste.
Maharashtra, December 2021: In Aurangabad, a 17-year-old boy beheads his 19-year-old sister for marrying a man of her choice in Vaijapur’s Ladgaon village.
These headlines scream a rather gruesome reality about Indian society. The scary pictures of the crimes, committed in the name of honour, talk about barbarity that social conservatism generates in reaction to the assertion of sexual rights and freedom of choice regarding love relationships. The propensity for this kind of violence, as the media reports suggest, tends to be higher when one of the two consenting adults belongs to socially and economically backward communities.
The National Crimes Record Bureau’s report for 2020 revealed that 25 cases of “honour killing” were reported in the preceding year. In the previous years, the reports stated that only one incident each took place in 2018 and 2017. But Evidence, an NGO, revealed in November 2019 that as many as 195 known cases of honour killings were reported from Tamil Nadu alone in the past five years. Clearly, several cases go unreported. “These episodes of caste-motivated violence demonstrate that casteism has not been annihilated even after 75 years of Independence,” observed a bench of Supreme Court justices in November 2021 as it upheld the conviction of 23 persons more than 30 years after three persons, including a young woman, were killed for violating caste-ridden societal norms in Uttar Pradesh’s Barsana.
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Stressing on the implementation of the Witness Protection Scheme 2018, the top court invoked the Shakti Vahini case, directing strong measures to prevent honour killings. “The ‘panchayatdars’ or caste elders have no right to interfere with the life and liberty of young couples whose marriages are permitted by law,” it noted. Referring to the Law Commission of India’s 242nd report, the court recommended the Prevention of Interference with the Freedom of Matrimonial Alliances (in the Name of Honour and Tradition) Bill, 2010. Sadly, a legal framework for the proposed law is yet to see the light of the day. Many activists argue that the Indian Penal Code and Code of Criminal Procedure sections are insufficient to deal with these murders. They demand a comprehensive stand-alone law—which not only punishes the guilty but also provides the couple protection from false cases of kidnapping and abduction.
Even though khap panchayats—community councils that act as de-facto courts—have started showing signs of restraint, some lower courts have dangerously deviated from the Supreme Court rulings in recent years. The petitioners in some cases that became significant for landmark judgments feel the apex court’s rulings have remained largely unsuccessful in changing the patriarchal mindset of the lower judiciary, police and the civil administration so far.
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Photograph by Shutterstock
A sobering effect on khaps
In 2010, Shakti Vahini, an NGO, moved the Supreme Court, seeking the protection of couples. Eight years later, the apex court declared it illegal for khap panchayats to scuttle marriages between two consenting adults. Authored by the then Chief Justice of India, Dipak Misra, the ruling held that “Honour killing guillotines individual liberty, freedom of choice and one’s own perception of choice”. Mincing no words, it stated that the leaders of these bodies can’t become “self-appointed” conscience-keepers of the society.
Ravi Kant, a lawyer and president of Shakti Vahini, says there has been a sharp decline in violence since the March 2018 judgment. “We also reached out to several khap panchayats. They agreed that it wasn’t desirable to commit such crimes. If you compare data from 2005 to 2012 and then 2012 to 2016 and 2016 to 2021, the killings have gone down. Now couples are being provided security. That is the big change,” Kant tells Outlook.
Jagmati Sangwan, national general secretary of All India Democratic Women’s Association, also believes that a few Supreme Court judgments in recent years had the desired impact on khaps. “Earlier, these bodies enjoyed a free run. But the law enforcing agencies now don’t oblige them,” the social reformer, who is well known for her battles against khap panchayats in Haryana’s badlands, says. Appreciating the role of the khap panchayats in the year-long farmers’ agitation, she said, “Their members cooked food at the community kitchens and mopped floors at the protest sites. The women gave speeches and led the rallies from the front. This is a remarkable step towards the formation of civil society.”
Historically, these bodies worked for people from poor and marginalised sections. But over the years, as politics started to become anti-people, the character of the khaps also started changing. Those who want to make a quick political career started using these platforms for political mileage by targeting vulnerable boys and girls, who assert their democratic rights.”
Significantly, she says, “In the last state assembly elections in Haryana, most of these head honchos lost their security deposits.” However, she adds, incidents of honour killings continue with families carrying out such murders on their own.
Against SC rulings
In the past few years, Jagmati Sangwan says, the High Court of Punjab and Haryana has made several statements that contradict the spirit of the Constitution. In May 2021, Justice Anil Kshetarpal dismissed the plea of a live-in couple, who had sought protection from relatives of the woman. The women’s parents were reportedly forcing her to marry a man of their choice. While rejecting the plea, the court noted, “If such protection, as claimed, is granted, the entire social fabric of the society would get disturbed.”
Incidentally, in an important judgment dated April 19, 2011, in the case of Arumugam Servai, the Supreme Court had strongly recommended criminal proceedings against anyone who threatens or harasses or commits acts of violence either himself or at someone’s instigation in such cases. In 2017, the Kerala High Court gave custody of 24-year-old Hadiya, to her father, arguing that she was incapable of taking decisions on her marriage. In March 2018, the then Chief Justice of India, Dipak Misra, upheld the marriage of Hadiya and Shafin Jahan.
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Love, Always (Left) Mamta with her husband Amit Nair; and Lata Singh and Brahma Nand Gupta.
On February 8, 2021, the Supreme Court in the Laxmibai Chandaragi B. case, gave another important judgment. It directed police to formulate guidelines and train the force on how to deal with inter-caste marriages within eight weeks by March 31, 2021. Baglekar Akash Kumar, an advocate practising at the Telangana High Court, filed an RTI application on July 24, 2021, in the office of the Director-General of Police of Telangana State, requesting information on whether the required steps had been taken. Sixty days later, on September 27, 2021, he received the reply in negative.
Chinks in proposed laws
The Rajasthan Prohibition of Interference with the Freedom of Matrimonial Alliances in the Name of Honour and Tradition Bill in August 2019 is still awaiting Presidential assent. Kavita Srivastava, national secretary of People’s Union for Civil Liberties, says the law which is largely based on the draft law proposed by the Law Commission, is flawed at so many levels. “Police accountability and the aspect of neglect of duty by public servants has been left out,” she tells Outlook, criticising the death sentence mandated by the law and the lack of provision for couple shelter homes, legal and financial support or rehabilitation for the victims. Srivastava says that the flaws and inadequacies have been communicated to Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot along with recommendations from civil society members.
Srivastava shared a detailed letter and quoted senior lawyer Indira Jaising’s observations, saying “In the proposed law, the emphasis is only on interference in matrimonial alliances and not the right to choose.” On its nomenclature, she maintained, “The term ‘tradition’ is restrictive. It should consider any attempt at preventing, intimidating or disrupting the alliance of any nature between two persons, including marriage, as a crime.” On what she termed “the most serious problem”, Jaising said, “It keeps the parents, siblings and the family out. It only talks of an assembly. The first obstructers to such an alliance are always the parents. Mostly police work as the private agency of the parents and register false FIRs or indulge in illegal detention of the male partner or forcibly separate the couple. Then follow the panchayat, the community and other vigilante groups.” She added there should be a provision for signing a declaration of marriage and getting an injunction from a civil court if there is any interference. Jaising said that the law was silent on the grievance redressal mechanism.
Kirti Singh, another Supreme Court lawyer and activist, recommends that the scope of the proposed law should be enlarged to cover all those who commit crimes in the name of honour. The list of acts of “endangerment of liberty” is inadequate, she says. “For instance, they do not include repeatedly harassing the couple or either of them, not to meet or live with each other by using force or forcibly marrying either the boy or the girl to someone else or declaring them as brother and a sister.” She adds that section 5 of the Special Marriage Act should be amended to delete the waiting period of 30 days before a marriage can be solemnised. “This is necessary as it is during this mandatory 30 days waiting period that the couple is intimidated and harassed.”
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In the Lata Singh case in 2006, the Supreme Court stated that “the caste system is a curse on the nation and the sooner it is destroyed the better”. Commenting on frequent news reports regarding violence over inter-caste marriage, it opined, “such acts of violence or threats or harassment are wholly illegal and those who commit them must be severely punished”. Maintaining that “there is nothing honourable in such killings”, it held forth, “they are nothing but barbaric and shameful acts of murder committed by brutal, feudal-minded persons.” It held that once a person became a major, they could marry any consenting person of their choice.
“Things haven’t changed much since 2006 except for the fact that in 200-250 cases, police protection has been given (to the young couples in distress) with reference to the judgment in my case,” Lata Singh, 41, tells Outlook. Deploring lack of awareness on part of the police, administration and even lower courts, she points out, “They don’t know that they can’t take legal action against the (consenting) boys or the girls.” At the societal level as well, she says, “I don’t see any change. Every 10-15 days, one gets to hear about an incident of honour killing taking place in India.”
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She currently lives in Jaipur with her husband, Brahma Nand Gupta. Though she is a child rights activist, she has become a point person for persecuted couples. “I advise them to take printouts of the judgment and read it. When they approach the district magistrate or the court, seeking police protection on the basis of this judgment, it works,” she adds. Occasionally, whenever the couple goes to their village in Uttar Pradesh’s Farrukabad, she says, “we first go to the SSP Lucknow’s office for security and then we proceed to our village. Since we can’t visit our village quite often, a part of our land has been usurped.”
Mamta Nair, 31, was six months pregnant when her husband, Amit Nair, was shot in broad daylight at their Jaipur home in 2017. According to her, the plot to kill him was hatched by her maternal family. Amit, a Keralite and a civil engineer, had married Mamta against their wishes in 2015. “My parents still think I am wrong and must not fight a court case against them,” she tells Outlook. In August last year, she had filed a plea in the Supreme Court, seeking cancellation of the bail granted to her parents and brother. While the trial is underway, her parents were granted bail after four years of imprisonment because of old age, last year. But the Chief Justice N.V. Ramana cancelled the bail granted to her brother and the only son of their parents, Mukesh Chaudhary, by the High Court of Rajasthan. Besides Choudhary, another co-conspirator, a local leader, and the two hired killers remain in jail.
“After becoming a mother, I too have realised that parents do have expectations,” says Mamta, who is a lawyer and a mother of a four-year-old son. “But if the parents do not approve of such marriage due to societal pressure, they should at the most cut off social relations with their sons or daughters. They must not go to the extent of killing someone.”
(This appeared in the print edition as "Love In The Crosshairs")