By Maithili Parikh, Government Law College, Mumbai.
Since time immemorial, the two most influential institutions of the Indian society, namely, traditions and customs, and law have been at loggerheads with each other. Several of the traditionally deep-rooted Indian customs have come under the scrutiny of human rights law and constitutional law, be it sati or the caste practice of untouchability. In this conflict, the practice of honour killings has often garnered much prominence. The term honor killing, a misnomer to say the least, encompasses a wide variety of violence perpetrated by the family of the victim in order to interfere with her (or his) choice of marriage or with an aim of punishing the victim for the dishonor, the perpetrated believes the victim has brought on the family, clan or cultural group.
These killings generally occur in circumstances, which involve an inter-caste or inter-class relationship or marriage but are often executed for reasons as fickle as clothing, considered inappropriate by society. These killings are generally a manifestation of a sense of misogynism, which views the women as a vessel of honour and considers them to be property of the men of the family. It is hard to believe that in the 21st century, the largest democracy of the world is home to a crime where kith and kin murder their own to save the “honour” of their family, but the vital question is, is there any honour in these killings?
In order to fully appreciate the dreadfulness of honour killings and understand the exact motives that could drive family members to murder their own kin, it is essential to understand the ideology that gives rise to it. Customarily, there are a plethora of rules, which regulate marriage in an Indian society, which largely differ from region to region, tribe to tribe, community to community and such cultural groups. Even more stringent rules exist in regard to the caste system in India, where inter-caste marriages are punishable by the death of the couple as a sanction of customary violations. In fact several parts of India have a formally constituted body called the ‘Khap Council’, i.e., caste council that employs this sanction. The belief lies that the women of the family are the source of family repute and hence are expected to behave in a particular manner, as the men of the family deem fit. The violation of these customary codes of conduct could lead to the boycott of the entire family by the caste group or specific society and in order to avoid risking the reputation of the entire family, which could tarnish their livelihood or acceptance in society, the perpetrators prefer eliminating the potential person who would cause such tarnish.
There is no singular specific law that deals with honour killings in India and perhaps the biggest challenge to the elimination of this gruesome form of violence is the strong sanction it receives from the society itself, wherein cultural groups utilise honour killings as an integral form of punishment. Despite that, there is no particular law; it attracts several constitutional and criminal provisions in India. Honour killings are murder and culpable homicide, both of which are severely punishable under the Sections 299 and 300 of the Indian Penal Code (hereon referred to as “IPC”) respectively. Further they breach Article 14 of the Constitution of India, which guarantees to all citizens equality before law or equal protection by law. Since this crime is generally perpetrated against the female gender, it grossly violates Article 15 of the Constitution of India, which prohibits the State from discrimination, on the basis of gender, religion, race, caste and place of birth. In light of the magnanimous increase in occurrences of honour killings, the Government has proposed to amend the IPC to include a deterrent law penalizing honour killings, as a fifth clause to Section 300. The proposed fifth clause will read, “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 panchayats.” There will also be an amendment to the Indian Evidence Act, which will put the onus of proof on the Khap Panchayats to prove their innocence in relation to honour killings; and in the Special Marriage Act an amendment will require a month’s notice to be given in case of inter-caste marriages.
The Supreme Court have viewed cases of honour killings strictly and in the case of State of Uttar Pradesh v. Krishna Master & Ors., the Apex Court awarded life imprisonment to all three accused in the honour killing which witnessed the gunning down of six family members. The Apex Court further chastised the High Court for acquitting them and disregarding vital testimonies, expressing regret that death sentence could not be awarded to the accused in this regard as the case was nearly twenty years old. In the case of Lata Singh v. State of Uttar Pradesh & Ors., the Supreme Court related its concern regarding the rising incidents of violence against young men and women who want to marry outside their caste, reasoning that these marriages are in fact a positive step towards abolishing the caste system altogether. Ordering the police authorities to exercise extra precaution in this regard, the Court reaffirmed the right of a major to marry the person of his or her choice and if the parents disapprove, the maximum they can do is cut off social relations with the child but they cannot threaten their son or daughter with acts of violence.
Largely these cases go unreported due to extremist gender views and discriminatory beliefs of officials who condone the torture or violence. However the increasing role of the media has brought to public eye, certain high profile honour killings. A few examples are as follows:
- Rizwanur Rahman, a 30-year-old computer graphic trainer, secretly married Priyanka Todi, daughter of an affluent businessman, in August 2007 in Kolkata. The Todi family, under false pretense, took their daughter home for a few days after the marriage but she never returned. Rahman, who tried to get her back, was severely harassed by the police and others. Within a month he was found dead near a railway track in Kolkata.
- Nitish Katara was abducted and killed by Vikas Yadav, the son of D.P. Yadav, a Member of Parliament from Western Uttar Pradesh in 2002, for being friendly with his sister Bharati. The couple had planned to get married. Katara, who belonged to a different caste, was totally unacceptable to the Yadavs and hence they killed him to protect their ‘honour’.
In a country like India, which is growing strides at a time, it is difficult to imagine a society where falling in love is a crime, only due to a set of bigoted beliefs and intolerant views. How could there be any honor in killing your own kin and kith? Quite contrary to the romantic Bollywood songs we have grown up hearing right, ‘pyaar kiya toh darna kya’?