By Soni Mishra in The Week

Government drafts law against “honour” killings. But taming the khaps won’t be easy

In the name of honour have young couples been killed and their bodies displayed as trophies. Now, the government has drafted a new law to rein in their killers. An amendment bill proposes to include, under Section 300 of the Indian Penal Code, a clause to deal exclusively with honour killings. According to the Indian Penal Code And Certain Other Laws (Amendment) Bill, 2010, the change in Section 300 would involve insertion of the clause “if it is done by any person or persons acting in concert with, or, at the behest of, a member of the family or a member of a body or group of the caste or clan or community or caste panchayat (by whatever name called) in the belief that the victim has brought dishonour or perceived to have brought dishonour upon the family or caste or clan or community or caste panchayat.” As per the proposed clause, all members of a group or a caste panchayat that has ordered the act by which death is caused shall be deemed guilty.

The bill lists adopting a dress code which is unacceptable to the family, caste or community, choosing to marry within or outside the gotra or caste and engaging in certain sexual relations which are unacceptable to the family or the community as acts that could be perceived as having brought dishonour to them.

The proposed changes include amendment to the Indian Evidence Act, 1872, to bring upon the accused the burden of proving that the case does not fall under Section 300. Also proposed is an amendment to the Special Marriage Act, 1954, to do away with the requirement of the 30 days’ notice period for a court marriage to take place so that the families or members of the community do not get a chance to harass the couple.

The bill, to be piloted by the Union home ministry, has been prepared by the law ministry and is likely to be introduced in the monsoon session of Parliament. The government, under pressure from the Supreme Court for replies from the Centre and eight states on the steps taken to put an end to such crimes, is also learnt to be thinking of bringing in an ordinance to prevent honour killings till the bill is passed. “If the panchayat members are made accountable for what happens in their village and cases are filed, it will have a deterrent effect on them. It will be as good as banning them (panchayats),” said Union Law Minister M. Veerappa Moily.

The proposal has evoked mixed reactions from experts. Ravi Kant, Legal counsel for the NGO Shakti Vahini, described the measure as a “stop-gap arrangement”. He demanded a more comprehensive law. “Research has shown that honour killings are taking place across the country. At the moment, only one region or community is being targeted. What we need is a more comprehensive law that gives more power to the police and the magistrates. The government needs to send a strong message to the law enforcement agencies,” he said.

It was while acting on a PIL filed by Shakti Vahini that the Supreme Court recently issued notices to the Centre and the states on the issue. The NGO has suggested that the states should constitute a special cell in each district to provide protection to couples who are being targeted.

While welcoming the changes, women’s rights activist Ranjana Kumari who heads the Centre for Social Research, said any law becomes redundant if it is not backed by a strong mechanism on the ground. Kumari cited the Domestic Violence Act, a review of which has shown that the necessary infrastructure comprising counsellors and shelter homes is not in place. “The police have to be sensitised. After all, they also come from the same community and have the same value system. Special courts should be set up to deal with such cases. A strong mechanism has to be put in place to provide the couples protection,” she said.

“The government needs to explain why the existing laws are not working or what is preventing the law enforcement agencies from implementing these laws against the khap panchayats. After all, a murder is a murder and we already have laws to deal with it,” said Mary John of the Centre for Women’s Development Studies. John also cautioned against the legalese and the mimicking of the language of the perpetrators of such crimes. “By mimicking their language and calling these murders honour killings, we could be giving credence to their justification of the crime,” she said. Kumari, too, disapproved of the term honour killings. “They should rather be called ‘horror killings’,” she said.

Another criticism of the proposed law is that it deals with only murder and not other acts such as harassment and social boycott. Experts feel the law should also take into account the betrayal by the victims’ families. Those in favour of a separate law feel that when cases are registered under it, a clearer picture of how serious the issue is will emerge. “Right now, we don’t have any data. Once the figures are available, we will be able to deal with the problem better,” said women’s rights activist Rishi Kant.

Reining in the khap panchayats would not be easy, going by the recent declarations at the Sarv Khap Sarv Jaat Mahasammelan, which was attended by the caste panchayats from Haryana, Rajasthan, Delhi and western Uttar Pradesh. The meeting termed the Karnal court verdict  sentencing five members of a family to life imprisonment for killing the young couple Manoj and Babli against tradition and offered support—legal help included—to the convicted. The khap panchayats have also been putting pressure on politicians to make changes in the Hindu Marriage Act to ban same-gotra marriages.

Opposing the moves to curb the activities of the khap panchayats, Baljit Singh Malik, chief of the Ghatwala khap panchayat in Sonepat, Haryana, said: “Khap panchayats are an old custom. They are far older than our Constitution and have societal recognition. No law is above society.”

According to Malik, khap panchayats haven’t ordered any killings. He tried to explain the circumstances in which families kill. “You need to put yourself in the position of parents whose daughter has eloped. If they take the extreme step, they do so to protect their honour and reputation in society,” he said. Can any law be good enough to stop the crimes committed in the name of honour?