The use of murderous violence in the face of imagined threats to family or community honour is an unfortunate reality in most parts of the country. The term ‘honour killing’ is being used widely to describe the class of murders that family members commit while seeking to impose on young couples their medieval view that all marriages should be within their community. The Supreme Court, which has been intervening repeatedly to preserve the freedom of marital choice of individuals, once remarked that there is no ‘honour’ in ‘honour killing’. Various judgments have highlighted the need to come down on such crimes, as well as the social structures that keep such a communal outlook alive. The judgment of the Principal Sessions Court, Kottayam, Kerala, awarding life imprisonment to 10 men involved in the abduction and murder of Kevin Joseph, a 23-year-old Dalit Christian, in May 2018, is in line with the apex court’s views. The investigation and trial into Kevin’s murder have been notably fast. Kevin was abducted by a group led by Shyanu Chacko, the principal accused and brother of Neenu, Kevin’s fianceé, just as the young man was making arrangements to have his marriage registered. The court ruled that it was an ‘honour killing’ based on Neenu’s testimony that her family was vehemently against the marriage as Kevin was a Dalit. The police managed to drive home the guilt of the accused by digital and electronic evidence, including records showing mobile phone signal locations and CCTV footage, to confirm the time and the routes through which the accused had taken Kevin before drowning him.
The court rightly chose not to award the death penalty. Instead it handed down two separate life terms, one each for kidnapping with intention to threaten the victim with death, and for murder. Even though there is a Supreme Court judgment allowing trial courts to deem ‘honour killings’ as those that fall under the ‘rarest of rare cases’ category, the trial judge chose to take note of the fact that the accused were young and had no previous criminal background. It is disquieting that the ‘honour killing’ phenomenon persists in highly literate societies too. Discrimination against Dalits is not limited to Hindu communities listed as Scheduled Castes, but extends to those who have converted to other religions too. At a time when caste groups have become politically organised and caste associations attract the young and the educated, there is a need for a redoubled effort to eliminate the evils of a stratified society. In particular, administrators must give full effect to the various preventive, remedial and punitive measures recommended by the Supreme Court. The Centre may also examine the need for a comprehensive law to curb killings in the name of honour and prohibit interference in matrimonial choice of individuals.