Differences in Cabinet on tackling the issue

United on the need to deal with the pernicious practice of “honour killings,” but facing division in the Cabinet on how to tackle the issue, the Centre on Wednesday decided to consult the States and set up a Group of Ministers (GoM) to suggest changes in the law to deal with the matter.

Information and Broadcasting Minister Ambika Soni said after a Cabinet meeting: “We do feel the pressure to bring amendments [to the law] in the monsoon session of Parliament. There is not only social pressure [and] media pressure, but within our own Cabinet and party too; we feel the so-called honour killings have to be brought under the ambit of the law of the land.”

At the Cabinet meeting, there was agreement on the fact that the current laws simply cannot deal with such killings. But that was it. Home Minister P Chidambaram's fervent plea to expeditiously amend the Indian Penal Code, the Indian Evidence Act and the Special Marriages Act in the monsoon session did not find favour with many of his Cabinet colleagues.

Mr. Chidambaram's point was that the government could not afford to waste time in more discussion, unless it was prepared to see many more girls summarily killed. But his colleagues felt that it was too complex an issue to be dealt with hastily, especially as ‘khap panchayats' — which exerted pressure to act against the marriage of young men and women of the same ‘gotra,' village or outside the caste — often had social sanction.

Minister for Youth and Sports M.S. Gill pointed out that there could be problems in implementing any changes in the law, given that the Centre was dependent on the States to do so. He wanted to know whether when a whole congregation of villagers was involved in issuing orders to kill someone, all of them could be held accountable.

Others who spoke of the need to exercise caution included Surface Transport Minister Kamal Nath and Human Resource Development Minister Kapil Sibal, who suggested some changes in the law to deal with such killings specifically.

Sources in the government told TheHindu that the crux of the changes proposed focus on placing the onus of proving innocence on the “khap panchayat” members — and this includes not just the charge of murder, but of being an abettor, or having instigated any other sort of humiliation, including stripping, social boycott, etc. The amendments, if made into law, would also make all ‘khap panchayat' members associated with a death accountable.

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