Sardar Patel, the architect of States' unification, was worried that Indian democracy would prove transient: “Almost overnight we have introduced …the superstructure of a modern system of government… unless the transplanted growth takes a healthy root in the soil, there will be a danger of collapse and chaos.” In the six decades since then, India's home-grown democracy has held together beautifully — or so India is fond of telling the world. Yet every so often this smug self-belief is shattered by incidents so gruesome, so medieval that they serve to recall the Sardar's worst fears. How can a nation cast in a modern, liberal democratic framework, with a Constitution held up as a model to emulate and laws that match the best in the world, tolerate the ugly phenomenon of khap (caste) panchayats with their kangaroo court-style instant justice? For years, the panchayats, prevalent mainly in the North Indian States of Haryana, Rajasthan, and Uttar Pradesh, have practised violence as if it was a credo, brutally and summarily punishing those overstepping the redlines. This form of ‘retributive justice' has particularly targeted young men and women seeking to marry within the same gotra. In village after village, khap panchayats have hounded out, forcibly separated, and all failing, murdered newly married couples — justifying the horrendous edicts as necessary to uphold local culture and honour.
In the first-ever conviction in a case of ‘honour killing,' a Haryana court recently sentenced five persons to death. The verdict has turned the spotlight on the recurring crime, triggering widespread debate followed by the promise of official action. Nonetheless, two concerns arise. Given the frequency of this barbaric practice — in the last year alone several couples have been strung up and the baby of a young mother put up for sale — why do so few cases come up for trial? The continued use of the term ‘honour killing' is itself deeply disturbing: it implies sanction for a system of patriarchy that stigmatises women, tying them to outdated notions of purity and chastity. Several remedial measures have been suggested to rein in the khap panchyats, including a separate section in the Indian Penal Code. However, any enhancement of the legal architecture must be complemented by social enlightenment for results to prove enduring. The khaps have become a law unto themselves because of social and political support. At a recent khap maha panchayat, members had the temerity to demand a new law to prevent same-gotra marriages. Without a change in this reactionary attitude, India will remain a country that ritually holds elections but falls way short of a truly modern, liberal democracy.