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Mainstream, VOL XLIX, No 23, May 28, 2011

Death For Honour : Khap Panchayats are a National Shame

Thursday 9 June 2011, by Sunita Vakil

This is a ruling that couldn’t have come a day sooner. The Supreme Court’s directions to rein in Khap Panchayats for their bizarre edicts is a welcome step towards dismantling the clutch of these medieval community courts. This landmark judgment not only delegitimises caste councils which have become a law unto themselves but also conveys that nobody is above the law. The verdict is a bodyblow to Khap Panchayats that administer Taliban-style justice to promote caste-based politics in complete disregard of the law of the land.

Khap Panchayats are Jat social structures in Haryana, UP and Rajasthan that once doled out some kind of rough justice. Despite the fact that they have no legal justification, they are a terrible force for villagers and directly or indirectly provoke honour killings. These self-styled keepers of public morality reserve the most dreaded punishment, including death, exile and excommunication for those marrying within one’s gotra or not conforming to the Khap Panchayat decrees. So far, this system of medieval oppression, which has no lawful authority has operated with near impunity holding sway over much of Haryana’s traditional society. But do these upholders of social norms, who believe in the barbaric concept of honour killing, have a place in modern India? Keeping in view the women-hating nature of the Khap’s dictums, one fails to understand how honour killings can take place in a country where reservation of women in the law-making bodies is all set to become a reality?

The Supreme Court verdict is likely to send a strong signal to the Khaps, which lay down oppressive writs and generally operate as parallel judiciary enforcing kangaroo court decisions in parts of Northern India. Indeed, there have been several instances in the recent past where the Khaps have been party to honour killings. The brutal murder of Manoj and Babli in 2007 at the bidding of the Khap Panchayat for marrying in the same gotra serves as a grim reminder of this feudal mindset that sanctions violence under the garb of saving the “honour” of the community, caste or family. It has been estimated that at least hundred men and women are murdered or forced to commit suicide every year by the Khaps for not adhering to traditional norms. The largest number of cases were found to have occurred in Haryana, Punjab and Uttar Pradesh. In Muzzaffarnagar district at least 13 honour killings were reported within nine months in 2003. While ten such killings occurred in 2002, more than 35 couples were declared missing. According to one study, Haryana and Punjab alone account for 10 per cent of all honour killings in the country. It is not surprising that no such category of crimes exists in government records. Most of the cases go unreported and even when reported often FIRs are not filed and post mortems are not conducted. Often enough such cases end up as suicides and fall flat during police investigation for want of evidence. This is evident from the fact that the gruesome murder of Manoj and Babli was the first case in the State in which the affected families decided to seek justice against the illegal diktat. Such medieval prejudices again came Saanch villages of Panipat where a rural court forced Krishan Chandania and Ramandeep to live as siblings within four days of their wedding. The propensity of caste councils to flaunt “cultural practices” as an excuse to perpetrate human rights violations and get away with everything can no longer be allowed to go on: violence prompted by an exaggerated sense of so-called family or community honour should make people sit up and take notice of the criminality of such actions. Such diktats are downright outrageous and as such should be condemned by all.

THE problem is compounded by the law-makers and enforcement officers who condone the criminality of such actions. Ideally the gover-nment should have firmly put them in their place. But indeed they have been encouraged in their endeavour because the sympathetic political class is reluctant to take on the system, accepting it as tradition. The reason is simple. For politicians, these self-styled Panchayats are nothing more than a dependable political tool and vote-bank. Political leaders in Haryana, be it Naveen Juidal or Prakash Chautala, have all condoned the retrogressive practice as a way of life in the region. The Haryana Government argued that going after the Khap Panchayats would be a rash step slated to disturb law and order. Even as yet another honour killing rocked Haryana when two women were lynched in public in Bhiwani recently, CM Bhupender Hooda opposed all Union Home Ministry proposals to draft a law to counter honour killings. In fact, the worst betrayal is that of politicians as caste solidarity feeds into their vote-banks.

However, it is heartening that the Court has stepped in even as the administration has failed. In fact, the Court has deemed these Khap Panchayats as barbaric and shameful in no uncertain terms. All State governments have been directed to suspended District Magistrates and SSPs/SPs of police if they fail in their duty. The Apex Court will have to be on its toes to ensure that its orders are implemented in letter and in spirit. With the Supreme Court throwing its weight behind the move, it seems that finally the noose is tightening around the neck of such forces.

The Court ruling is a good beginning to bring the Khap Panchayats to book. But it is also foolhardy to believe that this one verdict will bring about a sea change in the thinking of the society. Enforcement of laws must be accompanied by a change in mindset. There must also be a push to raise the literacy levels in rural and semi-rural areas where the Khap Panchayats wield undisputed sway. With the Honour Killings Bill likely to be introduced in the next session of Parliament, could it usher in the end for the Khap Panchayats’ oppressive order?

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