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Power of village elders hampers battle against 'honour' killings in India

Although the Indian Supreme Court last week called the practice of honour killings barbaric and feudal, women's advocacy groups say the power of village governing bodies, known as khap panchayats, a lack of a specific law and the caste system mean the practice will continue.

An activist participates in a demonstration in Delhi in June last year, protesting against honour killings in India. Manish Swarup / AP Photo
An activist participates in a demonstration in Delhi in June last year, protesting against honour killings in India. Manish Swarup / AP Photo

NEW DELHI // Despite a landmark ruling recommending the death penalty for those who commit so-called honour killings, women's advocacy groups say the power of village elders, a lack of a specific law and the caste system mean the practice will continue.

An independent study last year suggested as many as 900 people were murdered each year in just three states, Haryana, Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, for defying their families.

The victims, who came from Muslim, Hindu and Sikh backgrounds, were mostly young women who fell in love or married against the wishes of their elders.

The Supreme Court last week called the practice of honour killings "barbaric" and "feudal" and directed the lower courts, police and local governments to offer protection to couples seeking to marry outside their caste or religion.

Justice Markandeya Katju and Justice Gyan Sudha Misra wrote in their joint statement that honour killings deserve to be a capital crime.

Few experts believe the ruling will be effective unless there is a change in the law to target the victim's families, or the village governing bodies, known as khap panchayats, composed of elderly men who order the killings in the name of preserving the tradition of the caste system.

Kirti Singh, a prominent rights activist and lawyer in New Delhi, said there should be a specific law targeting "honour" crimes.

"Any crimes committed in the name of honour killings should be punishable too, whether they are intimidation, harassment, social and economic boycotts brought on the couples family by others in the community."

The Supreme Court's statement specifically targeted the khap panchayats, accusing them of taking the law into their own hands in "kangaroo courts".

Especially prevalent in northern India, they are one of the oldest forms of self governance in the country, once championed by Mahatma Gandhi, in order to bring the rural poor into the country's legal fold. It is estimated that there are 300 such councils in the north alone, representing 25,000 villages. During a meeting this week, more than 84 representatives of various panchayats met in Jind, Haryana and said that they intended to file a petition against the Supreme Court ruling.

Surender Dahiya, secretary of the Dahiya khap panchayat told the Times of India: "Like every society, our society too has a set of traditions which we follow. But when anybody breaks these norms, panchayat tries to correct things through discussion. But khap panchayats have not ordered any honour killing."

Rashmi Raman, a lawyer with the Public Interest Legal Support and Research Centre in New Delhi, said: "The khaps are a very powerful social organisation and they are not losing relevance.

"They are elected representatives of the village government. There is a lot of good coming out of them because in some cases they work with local governments to empower women, but they are a formidable force in certain areas, where they choose to act according to ancient caste laws."

Jagmati Sangwan, who teaches women's studies at Maharshi Dayanand University in Rohtak, Haryana, has battled the influence of the khap panchayats since 1988 when she read in a newspaper about a girl being tortured and held hostage because of her brother's decision to marry outside their caste.

"At first people could not see it as violence or crime. It was so accepted and internalised, so our complaints were focused to bring about awareness and making it an issue so it could be registered as a violent act, and in people's minds. Just that took five years," Ms Sangwan said.

Ms Sangwan remembers no witnesses would come forward and there was no collection of evidence after these crimes took place.

"At that stage, we felt there has to be a specific law that has to be put in place."

Although the Supreme Court ruling may lead to a less lenient view towards khap judgments, it is unlikely to change the beliefs about protecting family honour.

"I seriously doubt it will trickle down to these levels," Ms Raman said.

 

sbhattacharya@thenational.ae