Concerned about the spate of recent ‘honour killings,' the Supreme Court of India has asked the Centre and eight State governments to submit reports on the steps taken to prevent this barbaric practice. The Court's decision, which has come in the wake of a petition filed by an NGO that seeks a broad and comprehensive strategy to combat honour crimes, could be just what is required to make those in power come down hard against those responsible for them. Already, the central government has indicated it would bring in a new law that will make the punishment for honour killings, which are carried out mainly against young couples who marry outside their caste or within their gotra or agnate, extremely stringent. While those responsible for the crimes are relatives or members of the same caste as the victims, such killings often have the sanction of the khap panchayats, which exercise power over families belonging to the same gotra in neighbouring villages. The new law is likely to target khap panchayats, irrespective of whether they actually approved of the killing. Further, the government has suggested that unlike ordinary criminal law, which requires the prosecution to establish guilt, the new law will reverse the onus of proof, leaving those accused to prove their innocence.

Although Haryana has made the most news recently for honour killings, the practice is prevalent in parts of other north Indian States such as Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, Punjab, Bihar, and Jharkhand. The absence of a strong political will to crack down on the illegal diktats of khap panchayats — which, apart from licensing murder, levy fines on and order social boycotts of those who bring alleged ‘dishonour' to the community — is directly related to the fear among politicians of alienating their caste constituencies. To make matters worse, instead of protecting the legal right of adult couples to marry or be together as they choose, the police often act at the behest of parents and relatives by pressing criminal charges (usually abduction and rape) in an attempt to sunder the relationship. Traditional notions of ‘honour' and ‘dishonour' do have sociological dimensions. But only cultural relativists will justify the obscurantist prohibition and vicious intolerance of same gotra marriages, especially after the Hindu Marriage Disabilities Removal Act 1946 removed the legal ‘disability' against them. Nothing can justify the savage punishments being inflicted on young people for exercising free choice in marriage or personal relationships. While a lot of work needs to be done to change social attitudes, it is imperative to take tough legal measures to prevent vicious crimes in the name of caste, gotra, identity, and tradition.

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