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Above: The purpose of the new Act is to empower people against Khap Panchayat diktats/Photo: lawschoolpolicyreview.com

Faced with a spurt in “justice” dispensed by Khap Panchayats, the Congress government in Rajasthan has brought in tough legislation to curb honour killings

By Prakash Bhandari in Jaipur

Rajasthan has in the last five years witnessed 71 cases registered against illegal diktats issued by Khap Panchayats. Of these, 10 resulted in honour killings in which four men and eight women lost their lives. That perhaps explains why during the campaign for the assembly elections last year, the Congress held out the promise to put a curb on such panchayats which are basically caste-based councils that function like Kangaroo courts, quoting honour and tradition to interfere in relationships between young men and women. The Khap Panchayats frequently make pronouncements on social issues, such as abortion, alcohol abuse, dowry, and promoting education, specially among girls. The decision of the Khaps have often triggered honour killings too.

“There has been a spurt in illegal intimidation by self-appointed bodies for bringing pressure against sagotra marriages and inter-caste, inter-community and inter-religious marriages between two consenting adults in the name of vindicating the honour of family, caste or community. Although such intimidation or acts of violence constitute offences under the Indian Penal Code, yet it is necessary to prevent assemblies which take place to condemn such alliances as also to punish such acts of violence and criminal intimidation severely. The Bill seeks to achieve the aforesaid objectives,” said parliamentary affairs minister, Shanti Dhariwal, while introducing The Rajasthan Prohibition of Interference with the Freedom of Matrimonial Alliances in the Name of Honour and Tradition Bill, 2019, in the assembly last month. The assembly passed the Bill on August 5 to curb incidents of honour killings with stringent punishment for murdering couples in the name of family honour. “The government was quick to bring the legislation against the Khap Panchayats to drive home the point that they are not affiliated to the formally elected government or various local or panchayat bodies and have no legal sanctity,” added Dhariwal.

The minister while piloting the Bill in the assembly said that its purpose was to empower people against illegal outfits that use draconian measures to punish adult couples who marry by defying tradition. The Bill mandates the death penalty or imprisonment till death for killing a couple or either of them in the name of honour. It says: “Whoever causes death of a couple or either of them on the basis that marriage of such couple has dishonoured, or brought disrepute to the caste, community or family shall be punished with death, or with imprisonment for life, which shall mean imprisonment for the remainder of that person’s natural life, and with fine which may extend to Rs 5 lakh.” Further, the Bill says that if the couple or either of them is grievously hurt, the punishment shall be extended from ten years’ rigorous imprisonment to imprisonment for life and with fine of maximum Rs 3 lakh, and it will be three to five years of imprisonment with fine which may extend to Rs 2 lakh in case of simple injuries.

According to the Bill, a sub-divisional magistrate or district magistrate shall receive a request or information from any person or persons seeking protection from any unlawful assembly, or from any other person who is likely to or who has been objecting to any lawful marriage. It says that no person or group shall assemble at any time with the view or intention to deliberate on or condemn any marriage not prohibited by law, on the basis that such marriage has dishonoured the caste or community tradition or brought disrepute to all or any of the persons forming part of the assembly or the family or the people of the locality concerned. Such a gathering shall be treated as unlawful and every person convening or organising such assembly, and every member thereof, participating therein directly or indirectly shall be punishable with imprisonment for a term not less than six months, but it may extend to five years and shall also be liable to fine which may extend to Rs 1 lakh.

In March last year, the Supreme Court had declared Khap Panchayats illegal. The Court said that it was illegal for so-called assemblies of village elders to interfere in marriage between two consenting adults and to summon and punish them. The Court also laid down preventive, remedial and punitive measures to stop honour killings. The right of an adult to choose his or her life partner is above “class honour,” a three-judge bench headed by then Chief Justice of India Dipak Misra had said. The bench had also laid down guidelines to check unlawful interference in the lives of inter-faith and inter-caste couples by Khap Panchayats and ruled that the guidelines shall remain in force until suitable legislation is enacted by Parliament.

The Rajasthan Assembly which discussed the Bill passed it by a voice vote and it has now become an Act. During the debate, the BJP members opposed the Bill over the death penalty provision. The BJP’s Rajendra Singh Rathor and Girdhari Singh Mahiya said that the provision of the death penalty was too harsh and demanded that it be amended to life imprisonment. After hearing the plea of the Opposition, the government agreed to delete the term “death penalty”.

Rathor, who is also the Deputy Leader of the BJP in the assembly, and party colleague Madan Dilawar said that the Bill will encourage inter-caste marriages which would be harmful to the social fabric of society. The BJP members insisted on removing the term “sagotra” from the Bill. A “sagotra” marriage is one in which the bride and the groom hail from the same clan and sub-caste. Dhariwal agreed to remove the term “sagotra” from the Bill. He said that the Act will come in handy in dealing with Khap Panchayat orders.

As it happened with the SC ruling, the initial reaction of Khaps to the law seemed to be one of defiance.

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