A MATTER OF HONOUR

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By The law ministry is mulling over amendments to the IPC to make conviction easier in cases of honour killing, Saheli Mitra reports
  • Published 28.04.10
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Manoj and Babli fell in love, eloped and got married. Just like in the movies. Unfortunately, their story didn’t end happily ever after — they were kidnapped from a crowded bus, poisoned and thrown into a canal. All because both of them belonged to the same gotra (sub caste). So the local khap (caste) panchayat passed a death sentence against them, which was carried out by Babli’s family because she had besmirched their honour. And even the court-ordered police protection could not save the couple.

The slain duo has got a measure of justice at last. On March 30, Vani Gopal Sharma, additional district and sessions judge of Karnal, sentenced five people to death, including Babli’s brother, cousins and uncles, while the khap panchayat leader was sentenced to life. She described the case as being “the rarest of rare, which merits capital punishment” and has also called for specific legislation to curb honour killings. This is the first time the head of a khap panchayat has been convicted for ordering an honour killing. Justice Sharma may, however, have to pay a price for her brave judgement. Last week, she sought a transfer from Kurukshetra as she feared for her life.

The judgement has definitely made an impact. “This is a landmark judgement because for the first time a sentence as severe as the death sentence has been awarded to those who carried out murder in the name of honour killing. Even murder, under Section 302 of the Indian Penal Code (IPC), does not always attract the death sentence,” says Calcutta-based human rights lawyer Tapas Kumar Bhanja. “The judgement reflects that the tradition of oppression against women can be better curbed by categorising honour killing as a separate offence under the IPC,” he adds.

The Union law ministry seems to have the same idea. It wants to introduce a section defining honour killing as an offence and providing for strong punishment to those who order as well as those who carry out such killings. As of now, there is no law describing honour killing as an offence. A senior official in the law ministry, who did not want to be quoted, said that the new section would provide for the same punishment for honour killings as that for murder — a minimum of life imprisonment and maximum of death penalty.

Since there is no law on the subject, there is no clarity on how those responsible for honour killings should be booked. The police usually treat these as murder cases but it is very difficult to prove the guilt of those directly responsible for such killings and the panchayat heads who order the murders go scot-free because of the lack of evidence.

The ministry also plans to amend various sections of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) to make it easier to convict perpetrators of honour killings. As senior Supreme Court lawyer Geeta Luthra points out, “The conviction rate in such cases is extremely poor because the panchayat heads ensure that there are no witnesses or evidence to prove the murder. There is even refusal to recognise such cases, lodge first information reports (FIRs) by the police or conduct post-mortems.”

“The law ministry is trying to fix the loopholes by making amendments to the Evidence Act by shifting the burden of proof on the accused rather than leaving it to the victim’s family to prove the case,” said the ministry official. This means that instead of the victim’s family proving his guilt, the accused will have to prove his innocence. Changes will also be made to the Special Marriage Act to simplify the procedure of marriage between two consenting adults of different religions, as often honour killings take place in the case of inter-religious marriages.

Bhanja however feels that the proposed amendments will not be successful without a witness protection clause. “To encourage witnesses to come forward, a witness protection clause is essential. The amendments should have enough provisions to allow the victim’s family to move court if the police fail to take action. Complaints filed by the victims before they are murdered should be taken into consideration as evidence while proving the case against the accused,” he says.

That might lead to more convictions but just amending the IPC will not stop honour killings. “The notion of honour killing has strong relevance within the society of certain Indian states like Haryana, Punjab and Uttar Pradesh even today. It’s not just the presence or absence of a law, but the typical patriarchal social psyche that leads to such killings. That’s exactly what needs to be changed first. The panchayats are just the agents. Simply making them illegal will not help. What we need to do is educate the masses, create awareness as well as inflict a sense of fear through stringent punishments to stop such practices,” says Prasanta Ray, former head of the sociology department, Presidency College, Calcutta.

Khap panchayats are anyway extra-constitutional and illegal. What right do they have to hand down death sentences to consenting adults who marry within the same gotra by describing it as incest,” asks woman activist Saswati Ghosh.

“According to the Hindu Marriage Act, there is no prohibition regarding marriages taking place within the same gotra,” clarifies criminal lawyer Kallol Basu of Calcutta High Court. “The tradition denouncing such marriages was instituted only to genetically maintain hybrid vigour.”

Why then have no steps been taken against what are effectively kangaroo courts? “The caste panchayats enjoy strong political patronage, especially in Haryana, Punjab and Uttar Pradesh. Everyone chooses to turn a blind eye to their questionable diktats as these panchayats make a great contribution in winning vote banks. Otherwise, how could the police cremate Manoj and Babli as destitutes despite the missing person complaint lodged by Manoj’s mother? How is it that policemen supposed to protect the duo did nothing when they were being dragged out of the bus and taken away,” asks Ghosh.

Manoj and Babli are not the last victims of khap panchayats. Even before the euphoria over the conviction of their killers faded, news came of another honour killing in Farrukhabad in Uttar Pradesh while yet another couple was poisoned in Haryana this month. As Manoj’s mother says, as long as men are ready to kill sisters and daughters for a perceived slight to their honour, no law — no matter how well-intentioned — will be able to curb this menace.