“The Indian government should urgently investigate and prosecute those responsible for the recent spurt in reported ‘honour' killings,” Human Rights Watch said in a statement on Monday.

It should also strengthen laws against kinship-based, religion-based, and caste-based violence, and take appropriate action against local leaders who endorsed or tolerated such crimes.

Murders to protect family or community ‘honour' had increased in recent months in Haryana, Punjab and Uttar Pradesh, where unofficial village councils — khap panchayats — issued edicts condemning couples for marrying outside their caste or religion and condemned marriages within a kinship group (gotra), considered incestuous even though there was no biological link. Some local politicians and officials were sympathetic to the councils' edicts, implicitly supporting the violence.

“Officials who fail to condemn village council edicts that end in murder are effectively endorsing murder,” said Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director for the global body. “Politicians and police need to send these councils a strong message to stop issuing edicts on marriages.”

There were no official figures for such killings as they often went unreported or were passed off as suicide or natural deaths by the family members involved. However, a recent independent study found that at least 900 such murders occurred every year in Haryana, Punjab, and Uttar Pradesh alone. There were no estimates of other injuries, unlawful confinement, or forced marriages suffered by women and girls, or by couples, in the name of “honour.”

The vigilant media had recently been reporting such cases, sometimes resulting in even more extreme responses by community leaders, the Human Rights Watch said.

“The authorities in these cases give little or no regard to the wishes and concerns of the women at risk,” Ms. Ganguly said. “So the women are seldom able to pursue complaints or seek protection from those actually threatening their life and security.”

The government should press ahead with strengthening its laws and make community leaders liable for punishment “if their edicts incite the so-called honour killings,” Ms. Ganguly said.

However, legislative changes were only part of the solution, the Human Rights Watch said. The government should ensure that the police impartially investigated “honour” killings without bowing to political or other pressure from powerful local leaders.

The government should, through public campaigns and the media, promote the right of individuals of legally marriageable age to make their own choice without fear of violence or other abuse, the Human Rights Watch said. It should instruct the police to protect those in consensual relationships who feared family or community reprisals.

More In: National | News