Above: A khap panchayat in progress. The apex court has disapproved of their conduct/Photo Courtesy: ddnews.gov.in
The Supreme Court’s latest ruling on honour killings and khap panchayats is liberal and forward-looking as is its view that no one can interfere when two adults fall in love and decide to marry each other. How will it affect tradition and customs in states like Haryana?
~By Srishty Raj
The Supreme Court has taken a giant step towards eliminating the regressive tradition of honour killings and khap panchayats which act as judge, jury and executioner in the backward areas of states like Haryana, Punjab and parts of Uttar Pradesh. A bench headed by Chief Justice Dipak Misra and comprising Justices AM Khanwilkar and DY Chandrachud laid down that crime in the name of honour is illegal and unconstitutional. The key element of the judgment was the declaration that every individual has the right to choose their life partner and the consent of family/ clan/community is immaterial when two adults decide to marry. The bench also observed that any acts of a khap panchayat leading to so-called honour killings will be subject to punishment under existing criminal laws till suitable legislation is drafted.
It is a judgment in which individual liberty has been given paramount importance. As the judges said: “Liberty, taking the word in its concrete sense, consists in the ability to choose… When the ability to choose is crushed in the name of class, honour and the person’s physical frame is treated with absolute indignity, a chilling effect dominates over the brains and bones of the society at large….”
The background to the path-breaking judgment was a research study, “Honour Killings in Haryana and Western Uttar Pradesh”, by an NGO on orders passed by the National Commission for Women. The NGO found that honour killings routinely take place in Haryana, Punjab and western Uttar Pradesh with the probability of increase in such atrocities. The NGO then filed a writ petition in the Supreme Court asking it to issue a writ of mandamus to state governments and the central government for taking preventive steps and measures to combat honour crimes. The NGO also asked the apex court to direct state governments to constitute special cells in each district which can be approached by targeted couples for their safety. The petition said that as the police and public order are state subjects under the Constitution, it is primarily the responsibility of the states to deal with honour killings. It also reminded the court that the Law Commission of India had recommended a bill, the Prohibition of Interference with the Freedom of Matrimonial Alliances Bill, which should be introduced.
More important, the petitioner submitted that khap panchayats have cultivated and nurtured the feeling that their duty is sanctified and their action of punishing the hapless victims is inviolable. Thus, they, without the slightest pang of conscience, subscribe to honour killing, basically because their functioning and orders of violence, even death, have never been seriously questioned by the concerned administrations.
The operative part of the Supreme Court judgment lies in the directives and measures it has laid down to be followed by state governments and local administrations. The directives are divided into preventive directives, remedial measures and punitive measures.
The state government needs to identify places where instances of honour killing have been reported in the last five years. Directives should be issued to the police officials by the concerned authorities to take appropriate action in case honour killing is reported or comes to their knowledge. Quick information ab-out unlawful gathering of khaps needs to be given to the Deputy Superintendent of Police (DSP) and the Superintendent of Police (SP) with requisite action to avoid any occurence of honour killing.
If the DSP and the SP find that matters might become uncontrollable then information must be forwarded to the district magistrate/sub-divisional magistrate of the district/competent authority of the concerned area for issuing orders under Section 144 of the CrPC and also by arresting the participants in the assembly under Section 151 of the CrPC. Institutional machinery should be set up and measures should be identified for achieving the constitutional goal of social justice and rule of law.
If the police get any information regarding khap panchayat actions against a couple or family, it shall lodge an FIR under the appropriate provisions of the Indian Penal Code, including Sections 141, 143, 503 read with 506 of the IPC. Information of FIR must be given to the SP/DSP who, in turn, shall ensure effective investigation of the crime. Security to the couple must be provided and the state government may contribute towards providing safe homes under the supervision of the jurisdictional district magistrate and SP.
The district magistrate/SP must deal with the complaint regarding threats administered to such couples/families with utmost sensitivity. After the marriage, if the couple so desires, it can be provided accommodation on payment of nominal charges in the safe house initially for a period of one month, to be extended on monthly basis but not exceeding one year in aggregate, depending on the case. Any complaint received about threats and so on shall be entrusted by the district magistrate/SP to an officer of the rank of Additional Superintendent of Police who shall conduct a preliminary inquiry and ascertain the authenticity. The report of an inquiry shall be submitted to the SP in not later than one week. The DSP, upon receipt of such report will, if necessary, invoke Section 151 of the CrPC.
In case of failure in compliance with the directives listed by the apex court, it shall be considered an act of deliberate negligence and/or misconduct for which departmental action must be taken under the service rules within a period of six months. The state governments shall create special cells in every district comprising the SP, the district social welfare officer and district adi-dravidar welfare officer to receive petitions/complaints of harassment of and threat to couples of inter-caste marriage. The special cells shall create a 24-hour helpline to receive and register such complaints and provide protection to couples. The criminal cases of honour killing or violence shall be tried before the designated court/fast track court earmarked for that purpose. The trial must proceed on a day-to-day basis and shall be concluded within six months from the date of taking cognisance of the offence.
This judgment of the Supreme Court is a big step towards creating a more progressive and liberal society, and eliminating core groups/khap panchayats who arrogate to themselves the position of lawmakers, violating the human and fundamental rights of individuals and couples in the name of “class honour’’. The ultimate message the apex court sent is this—choose your partner without the fear of death.