Three weeks after District and Sessions Judge Vani Gopal Sharma sentenced in Karnal, Haryana, five persons to death and awarded life imprisonment to one person in a 2007 case of ‘honour killing,' three incidents of a similar nature have been reported in the State. A young man was beheaded, a young woman murdered, and a newly wed couple told to annul their recent marriage, all by khap panchayat leaders for the simple reason that they married or wanted to marry for love. In the Haryana-Rajasthan-New Delhi region, an estimated 100 young men and women are killed every year on the orders of khap panchayats.

Neither the judgment nor the resounding impact it created among the media, progressive sections of the people, political parties, particularly the Left parties, human rights activists and women's organisations across the country has deterred the khaps and their backward-looking promoters in Haryana from continuing with their barbaric attacks on the rights and aspirations of simple, law-abiding folk.

The writing is on the wall but the khaps are clearly not prepared to give up. Incensed by the role of the news media, which took the implications of the trial court's landmark judgment to places far and wide and created awareness among the people, the upholders of a reactionary, anti-human tradition gathered in large numbers at Kurukshetra on April 13 to redraw their strategy.

Objection to judgment

The khaps made no secret of their real objection to the Sessions Court judgment: it would send “wrong signals” to various social groups under their control and encourage same-gotra marriages. They demanded that the government should amend the Hindu Marriage Act 1955 to facilitate a ban on marrying from the ‘same gotra.' This is tantamount to a confession to society that all these years the khaps have been punishing people for marrying in the same gotra, which is not illegal under the Hindu Marriage Act. Gross injustice has been done to hundreds of young men and women who have married or have aspired to marry across social barriers for love.

But that is not all. At Kurukshetra, the khap panchayats also demanded that the Hindu Marriages Act should be amended to ban ‘same village' marriages and disallow the recognition given by the Arya Samaj to the weddings of “eloping couples” conducted in temples. True to form, they charged the media with “conspiring to destroy the social fabric in rural areas.”

The press and news television have certainly played their democratic role effectively – by educating people in town and country on the issues involved in the khaps' thrusting on the people backward-looking and anti-human ideas in the name of upholding tradition. Analytical pieces viewing ‘honour killing' from different angles, sociological, historical, anthropological and psychological, have appeared in India's newspapers and magazines in different languages. There has also been substantial international media coverage of what is at stake here.

It is notable that readers of The Hindu have responded in force and spiritedly to the issue.

Some 25 letters, published in print and online, projected their outrage and forward-looking social perspectives. Readers cutting across differences in political views and religious beliefs have been united in the democratic demand that stern, uncompromising measures be taken to end the outrage. Many of the letters have expressed appreciation for the Sessions Judge's bold judgment against the khaps and also for her suggestion that a separate law should be enacted to deal with ‘honour killing' cases.

‘Nothing honourable'

Significantly, four years before the Karnal District and Sessions Court pronounced its judgment, the highest court of the land recorded in the strongest terms its horror against ‘honour killings.' In July 2006, the Supreme Court of India termed the practice an act of barbarism. It ordered the police across the country to take stern action against those resorting to violence against young men and women of marriageable age who opted for inter-caste and inter-religions marriages.

On a writ petition filed by Lata Singh from Lucknow, a two-judge bench comprising Justice Ashok Bhan and Justice Markandey Katju observed: “We sometimes hear of ‘honour' killings of such persons who undergo inter-caste or inter-religious marriages of their own free will. There is nothing honourable in such killings, as in fact, they are nothing but barbaric and shameful acts of murder committed by brutal, feudal-minded persons, who deserve harsh punishment.” The judges added: “Only this way can we stamp out such acts of barbarism''.

The Supreme Court quashed all criminal proceedings initiated against family members of Lata's husband, Brahma Nand Gupta, who were also being subjected to threat, harassment, and violence by Lata's brothers. It held that such acts of violence or threats or harassment were “wholly illegal” and those who committed them must be severely punished. “This is a free and democratic country,” the court observed, “and once a person becomes a major, he or she can marry whomsoever he/she likes … If the parents of the boy or girl do not approve of such inter-caste or inter-religious marriage, the maximum they can do is that they can cut off social relations with the son or the daughter, but they cannot harass the person, who undergoes such inter-caste or inter-religious marriages.”

Killing for ‘caste honour' in Tamil Nadu

‘Honour killing' is not confined to the northern States such as Punjab, Haryana, and Uttar Pradesh. In the south, Tamil Nadu has seen similar incidents in the recent past. Here, however, the objection to marriage was based on caste prejudice. In 2003, a young couple, S. Murugesan and D. Kannagi, was harassed and killed by the young woman's relatives because the former was a Dalit and the latter a Vanniyar. This happened at Puthukkooraippettai village in Cuddalore District. Both were graduates and their marriage had been duly registered under the Hindu Marriage Registration Rules, without the knowledge of their parents. Kannagi's father, who was the president of the local panchyat, saw it as an affront to his “family honour” as well as “caste honour.” The couple ran for life, but were caught and allegedly poisoned to death. One major difference between the North Indian incidents and the Cuddalore village tragedy is that the informal oor panchayat (which exists in almost every village in Tamil Nadu) did not seem to have played any role in the Puthukkooraipettai atrocity. If this is the state of ‘love marriage' across caste divides in a progressive State like Tamil Nadu where the government patronises it, what can one say about the happenings in States like Haryana?

Five years earlier, in November 1998, at Thirunallur village in Pudukottai District in the State, three Dalit young men were tonsured, stripped, and beaten up by the majority caste Hindus of the village for marrying non-Dalit girls.

The humiliation came as a punishment to the Dalits as ordered by a 12-member oor panchayat of the village. The reason the oor panchayat gave for finding all three guilty was that their marriages would encourage the other Dalit boys to emulate them. The Dalit youth were made to roll around the village through the night in the presence of a large number of people who included their relatives. The next morning they were ordered to leave the village.

Only a month later, after some political parties staged a demonstration against the atrocities and demanded action against those involved in humiliating Dalits, did the police arrest some persons under the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act and initiate legal action.

At that time, I covered the Puthukkooraippettai as well as the Thirunallur atrocities for Frontline. When I asked a Dalit of Thirunallur how they could be so insensitive when the young men were humiliated, I only expected the usual response such as, “What can we do, sir? They are big people. We are dependent on them for everything. But for their help, we can't even survive.” His response was revealing: “Any displeasure caused to the upper caste people may lead to the cancellation of the annual temple festival. And that in turn will invite the wrath of Mari Amman [the presiding deity of the local temple]. That we cannot ignore, sir.”

There is clearly a long way to go before the rule of law can be enforced across India in the teeth of deep-rooted social oppression and prejudice and ideas that have come down generations.

There is a long way to go before constitutional and legal equality and democracy can translate into genuine social democracy on the ground. Against this background, we can take heart that influential sections of the news media have done well. They can do even better by taking up — consciously and on a more extensive scale — a progressive agenda-building role on social issues.

readerseditor@thehindu.co.in

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