By Hari Manasa Mudunuri, Osmania University
Editor’s Note: It’s customary for the Khaps to oppose inter-caste marriages, inter-village marriages and marrying within the same gotra (clan). In the recent times they have been drawing negative criticism towards themselves for involvement or support in initiating threats of murder and violence and the practice of Honour killings against couples who marry outside the caste, or within the same gotra. Honour killing is also prevalent in various other countries like Jordon, Syria, Morocco, Latin America, Turkey, Pakistan, Egypt, etc. Despite its strong hold within the roots of caste system in India, the concept of Honour killing has been reduced notably, especially in West Bengal, they ceased about a century ago due to the influence and teachings of reformists like Swami Vivekananda, Ramakrishna Paramhamsa, Easwar Chandra Vidyasagar and Raja Ram Mohan Roy. The need of the hour is to implement a similar approach in other parts of the country as well.
The Khap and Sarv Khap have been a system of social administration and organization prevalent in the republics of Northern Indian states such as Haryana, Rajasthan Bihar and Uttar Pradesh along with western states of Maharashtra and Gujarat for a considerable period of time. Khap is a cluster of villages having caste or geography as the common element among members. It’s customary for the Khaps to oppose inter-caste marriages, inter-village marriages and marrying within the same gotra (clan). Khap panchayats on the other hand are formed by coming together of same gotra families from various surrounding villages to form a council to govern their respective khap.
The khap being based on one large gotra or a number of closely related gotras under one elected leader whose word is law. Mutual quarrels of any intensity could be settled under the leader’s orders and in times of danger, the whole clan rallies under the banner of the leader. In the recent times the khaps have been drawing negative criticism towards themselves for holding prejudice against other groups, the involvement or support of khaps in initiating threats of murder and violence and the practice of Honour killings against couples who marry outside the caste, or behavior which is not considered as suitable by the khap.
The khaps are emerging as quasi-judicial bodies that reside over gatherings and impose punishments based on their age old customs and beliefs. The khap panchayats are still in practice dispite it being beyond legal limits due to vote bank politics and indifference of society in certain sections.
Honour killing is also prevalent in various other countries like Jordon, Syria, Morocco, Latin America, Turkey, Pakistan, Egypt, etc. Despite their strong hold within the roots of caste system in India, the concept of Honour killing has been reduced and notably in West Bengal, honour killings have ceased about a century ago due to the influence and teachings of reformists like Swami Vivekananda, Ramakrishna Paramhamsa, Easwar ChandraVidyasagar, Raja Ram Mohan Roy.
Supreme Court’s Stand on Khap Panchayats
In the case of Bhagwan Dass vs. State (NCT of Delhi),(2011) 6 SCC 396, where Bhagwan Dass killed his daughter in the name of honour, was headed by a bench comprising of Justice Markandey Katju and Justice Gyan Sudha Misra has declared khap panchayats illegal, “which often decree or encourage honour killings or other institutionalized atrocities against partners belonging to different castes and religions who wish to get married or have married. We are of the opinion that this is wholly illegal and has to be ruthlessly stamped out”.[i] As stated in Lata Singh case, that “there is nothing honourable in honour killings or other atrocities that such crimes committed by brutal, feudal minded persons deserve harsh punishments. Only in this way can we stamp out such acts of barbarism and feudal mentality. Moreover, these acts take the law into their own hands and amount to ‘Kangaroo Courts’, which are wholly illegal.[ii]
The officials who failed to prevent such incidents or apprehend the culprits should also be charge sheeted and be proceeded against departmentally “as in our opinion they will be deemed to be directly or indirectly accountable in this connection”, the Supreme Court ruled. “Copy of this judgment shall be sent to all the Chief Secretaries, Home Secretaries and Director Generals of Police in all states and union Territories with the directions that it should be circulated to all officers upto the level of district magistrates and SSP/SPs for strict compliance. Copies will be sent to registrars of all High Courts who will circulate it to all Hon’ble Judges of the Court”, the Bench said.[iii]
The Supreme Court issued the directions while dismissing an appeal by those convicted for a similar crime in Tamil Nadu, the appellants “have behaved like uncivilized savages and hence deserve no mercy”. Pointing out that several such instances were being reported, the Supreme Court said “The nation is passing through a crucial transitional period in our history and this Court can’t remain silent in matters of great public concern such as the present one”
“The caste system is a curse on the nation and the sooner it’s destroyed the better. In fact, it is dividing the nation at a time when we have to be united to face the challenges before the nation unitedly hence, inter-caste marriages are in fact in the national interest, as they will result in destroying the caste system”.
The nineteenth Law Commission of India which was chaired by Justice P.V.Reddy, proposed a legislation to curb ‘honour killings’. “There must be a bar on assembly for discussing young person’s marrying as per their choice, village elders have no right to interfere with the life and liberty of such couples.”[iv] To tackle the menace of honour killings in some parts of the country and deal with illegal orders from the khap panchayats, the Law commission proposed legislation to prosecute persons or a group involved in such endangering conduct and activities. The proposed legislation, ‘The endangerment of Life and Liberty (Protection, Prosecution and Other Measures) Act, 2011’ drafted by the Law Commission member and senior advocate R.Venkataramani , was discussed and approved by the commission.[v]
The commission has turned down for introducing a clause in Section 300 of the Indian Penal Code (murder) to bring honour killing under the ambit of this section. The Commission reasoned that “there is no need to introduce a provision in Section 300 in order to bring the so-called honour killing within the ambit of this provision. The addition of such clause may cause confusion and interpretational difficulties. The existing provisions in the Indian Penal Code are adequate to take care of the situations leading to overt acts of killing or causing bodily or other acts to the targeted person who allegedly undermined the honour of the caste or community.” Not only giving conviction in a honour killing, but merely participating in a khap panchayat-like congregation would render a person ineligible to contest polls, there by hitting at the root of societal dictates. Participation in such congregations would attract a person a jail term upto 2 years. Anyone convicted under the anti-honour killing law, irrespective of the quantum of punishment will be debarred from contesting elections for 5 years even at the panchayat level, the commission has proposed.
The proposed Prevention of Interference with Matrimonial Alliances Bill, provides a prison term of 2 years for even participating khap-like congregation. The proposals are radically different from the Representation of Peoples Act, which says a person convicted for an offence and sentenced to more than 2 years will be debarred from contesting polls for 6 years from the date of completion of present term. The Commission also proposes to make all offences under the proposed law cognizable and non-bailable
The then Union Law Minister (May 2009 to May 2011), Mr. Veerappa Moily had requested the commission to suggest a draft law in the wake of a spurt in self appointed bodies intimidating, pressurizing and even taking extreme action against ‘sagotra’ (same gotra), inter-caste, inter-community and inter-religious marriages. Accordingly, the draft proposes to make it unlawful for people to assemble, term relationships as disgraceful and plan action against two persons of marriageable age who are married lawfully.
The idea behind the provisions in the draft legislations is that there must be a threshold bar on congregation or assembly for discussing and condemning the conduct of young persons of marriageable age in marrying as per their choice even if they belong to the same gotra or they belong to different castes or communities. Panchayats have no right to interfere with life and liberty of such young couples and they can’t create a hostile environment for the young couples in the concerned village or locality.
Under the proposed law the act of endangering of life and liberty shall mean and include any manner of acts of threat, encouragement, exhorting and creating an environment where by loss of life and liberty is imminent or threatened and shall include:
- Enforcement of measures such as social boycott, deprivation of the means of livelihood, denial of facilities and services which are otherwise generally available to the people of the locality concerned.
- or directly or indirectly compelling the persons concerned to leave, abandon their homestead in the locality.
It shall be presumed that any person or persons found to be part of the unlawful caste assembly did so with the intention to act in endangering of life or liberty.[vi] Such an assembly will be treated as an unlawful one and shall be punished with imprisonment for a period of not less than 3 years and extending upto 5 years and a fine of Rs. 30,000.
The draft legislation says, “any person or persons instrumental in gathering of such an assembly or who take an active part in the execution of the assembly shall also be subjected to civil sanctions”.[vii] The Supreme Court directed all the state governments to immediately suspend the District Magistrates/ Collectors and SSP/SPs if they fail to apprehend those responsible for honour killings or prevent such incidents despite having advance knowledge.
Though the bill is still in the pipe line and is yet to be passed by the Parliament, there has been positive shift in the mind set of the people and media in reporting such cases. In the midst of such policy impasse the recent khap panchayat, held in Haryana called the Satrol khap in Hisar has allowed inter-caste marriage. It is pertinent to note that this state which earlier saw bloodshed in the name of honour killings is now witnessing a radical change. Wide spread discussions and debates in print and electronic media, across the country will eventually ensure that the people know their rights and seek help when required through proper channels.
Edited by Kanchi Kaushik