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By A law to deal with honour killing is in the offing. But will it be effective, asks Smitha Verma
  • Published 23.11.11

Last week a Mathura sessions court awarded the death penalty to eight people and life sentence to 27 others for an honour killing that took place in 1991. The convicted were members of a village panchayat held guilty for publicly hanging a local Jat girl, her lover, and their friend.

This judgment could be significant in view of the many honour killing cases that have occurred in India in recent times. But what could lend further weight to the fight against the egregious practice of honour killing is that a draft bill to tackle the crime may soon be passed into a law. The Prevention of Crimes in the Name of ‘Honour’ and Tradition Bill, 2010, is likely to be tabled in the winter session of Parliament.

The need for a law on honour killings was felt in view of the sharp rise in the number of such cases, especially in north India. A boy and a girl whose marriage is not sanctioned by their caste and community are not just ostracised — they are hunted down and brutally killed in the name of removing the so-called “blot” on the family honour. Remarkably, an entire community, supported by village khap panchayats (which have no legal standing), is often behind this terrible act.

Indeed, such has been the terror unleashed by these khap panchayats that some couples like Amit Singh and Sonu (names changed), natives of a nondescript village in Haryana, have chosen to part ways rather than evoke their wrath. Belonging to the same gotra or sub-caste, the couple can’t tie the nuptial knot as it would go against their family honour. “Perhaps, a law could change the attitude of the panchayats,” says Amit Singh hopefully.

The government had earlier suggested making changes to Section 300 of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) to include “honour killing” as a crime. But activists have been pushing for a separate law on this for a while. Accordingly, the proposed legislation states that consenting adults have the right to marry any one of their choice and that any action to prevent such a marriage is punishable by law.

“The bill will deal with honour killings, keeping it separate from the ambit of murder and criminal conspiracy,” says Mamta Sharma, chairperson, National Commission for Women (NCW) which has adopted the bill, drafted by the All India Democratic Women’s Association (AIDWA), and forwarded it to the government. According to the proposed legislation, a crime in the name of honour “is one of a range of violent or abusive acts including emotional, physical and sexual abuse and other coercive acts”.

Legal experts believe that such a law was long overdue. “When our lawmakers were framing the laws in 1869 they did not conceive punishment for honour killings as they were non-existent then,” says Kirti Singh, Supreme Court lawyer and a former member of the Law Commission. A separate law is needed, he argues, for honour killing is not just about murder. It includes many other criminal acts that precede or follow an honour killing. “For instance, there is no law that recognises harassment of the couple by a community as a crime,” says Singh, who as a legal convenor with the AIDWA, was one of the key persons who drafted the bill.

Indeed, the bill brings under its purview all kinds of harassment — public endorsement of violence, threats, social and economic sanctions against families of the victims by either individuals or collective bodies such as khap panchayats, and so on. Punishment for these acts ranges from one to 10 years’ imprisonment. For example, the draft bill lays down an imprisonment of up to two years for anyone glorifying or supporting the crime in public.

Another plus point of the new law is that under it, couples will have more power to exercise their rights. “Credence would be given to the oral statements of the couple, especially if they have consented to marry or stay with each other,” says Singh. Besides, the burden of proving his or her innocence would lie with the person accused of having committed an offence under the law. At present, the onus of proving someone’s involvement in a case of honour killing lies with the prosecution.

Most activists and legal experts have welcomed the move to bring in a special law to deal with honour killings. “A new law would accommodate societal perceptions. Dowry deaths were treated as a crime only after changes were made to Section 304(B) of the IPC,” says Supreme Court lawyer Pinky Anand. “If we have a new law against such diktats, it would create fear in the minds of people,” adds Congress MP Prabha Thakur.

Of course, there are those who say that a separate law to tackle and punish honour killing is completely unnecessary and would only confuse the legal response to the crime. They argue that it is already being dealt with under various sections of the IPC. For instance, a person accused of honour killing can be booked under Section 302 (murder) while those involved in planning it or being part of a conspiracy can be tried under Sections 120B (criminal conspiracy) and Section 34 (acts done by several persons in furtherance of common intention).

Critics also say that a new law is superfluous because the draft bill clearly states that for the moment its provisions shall be in addition to, and not in derogation of, the provisions of any other law that may be in force.

Some states too have voiced their reservations about the bill. Ironically, the states where the crime is most prevalent are also those that are reluctant to see it being passed into a law. For instance, Haryana, which has witnessed the maximum number of honour killings in the recent past, is not keen to bring in the law for fear of invoking the wrath of the khaps.

Members of khap panchayats are also tight-lipped about the new law which would indict them for issuing orders against couples who marry against the wishes of their community. Not one of them agreed to comment on the matter.

However, though the initiative is laudable, no one doubts that the law would be extremely difficult to implement. “It is one thing to make a law. It’s quite another to implement it,” says Thakur. After all, in cases of honour killing, the state has to fight not just the ones who committed the murder, but also an entire community. “It has often been seen that the officers who go to prevent such crimes are unable to deal with an entire village,” she adds, citing the example of child marriages that continue to take place despite stringent laws.

Naturally, rooting out honour killings will not be an easy task. But it is heartening that the government has taken a step in the right direction. “We are going to send another reminder to the government so that the law is looked into at the earliest,” says NCW chairperson Sharma. Until that happens, couples like Amit and Sonu will continue to cower before the ruthless writ of the khap panchayats.