M. Sudhakar, 24 years old of Morappan Thangal village in Tamil Nadu was brutally beaten with iron rods and ultimately murdered on March 27, 2020 when he tried meeting his wife. He was sentenced to this punishment by his fellow villagers because he chose not to follow the typical societal norms and married a woman from a different community. Even before his murder, Sudhakar, his wife and even his family were threatened and harassed continuously by the girl's relatives and by the Panchayat- a group of five respected elders chosen and accepted by the local community to make important decisions related to the population of a particular village area ( traditionally known as Khap Panchayat).
This incident comes under the barbaric but sadly the most prevalent truth of Indian society: HONOUR KILLING. Murdering someone in the name of honour, community and religious culture.
Caste and religion have been integral components of Indian society since time immemorial. But does any religion preach about taking another person's life just for the sake of one's own foul beliefs? No. There is not a single religious scripture that justifies and supports this heinous crime. Still, this evil practice has been going on in our society for a long time. According to a report by the National Crime Records Bureau, in the year 2015, about 251 honour killings were reported in India. These numbers were considered a significant undercount by the activists due to misreporting of killings under general murders.
Due to the presence and dominance of Khap Panchayat, we generally associate honour killings with Haryana, Punjab, Uttar Pradesh and Bihar but since past few years, unsettling data related to honour killings can be seen in the states with a so-called progressive image such as Gujarat, Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu.
Recently, a case was recorded in Gujarat's Rajkot district where a woman and her husband were hacked to death by her brother and cousin because they were opposed to the couple's marriage. This is a very disturbing example of what happens when one defies unwritten rules and tries to go against the torch bearers of family 'honour'. There are several cases of honour killings in the name of religion, family, caste or culture with horrifying details and stories behind them but pointing towards one common issue of people being resistant to changing their ill beliefs and norms.
Similar to what happened in Gujarat and Tamil Nadu, a case recently was reported in Maharashtra's Ahmednagar, where a woman was killed by her parents for marrying against their wishes.
If we compare the state-wise data, Gujarat reported 30 cases of honour killings in three years making it to the third-highest number in the country. In the last five years, there have been 195 cases of honour killing in Tamil Nadu only.
Even with these data and an unending list of cases, there exists no separate law to punish those found guilty of such murders against Khap Panchayat.
A recent judgement by a sessions court in Karnal awarded, for the first time, the death penalty to five men for murdering a young couple who had married against the decisions of a Khap Panchayat. It gave life sentence to a member of the Khap Panchayat who declared the marriage invalid and was present when the killing took place.
Former Law Minister, M. VeerappaMoily proposed an amendment in the Indian Penal Code to rein in Khap Panchayat but the proposal was rejected by the government. However, the government did appoint a Group of Ministers to look into the scope for enacting special laws that would treat honour killing as a separate social evil. Some experts suggest existing laws to be sufficient in the matter but the others demand proper amendment and implementation of them to tackle this problem.
But the lack of specific laws to deal with these particular crimes results in them being reported under general crimes, thus making them impossible to track. In these situations, honour killings carried out by family and relatives, are reported as suicides and accidents with any relevant pieces of evidence linked to the crime being destroyed and leading to immediate cremation.
In 2012, The Prohibition of Interference with the Freedom of Matrimonial Alliances Bill was proposed in LokSabha. This was about activities and behaviours associated with honour crimes by criminalizing, for example, the unlawful assembly of groups of people to condemn marriage and criminal intimidation of a couple. It also recommended punishments, protection measures for vulnerable couples, and counselling and legal awareness for couples but over time its proper working and implementation came to a halt.
According to Barathi, Founder of KadhalAran, an app that helps inter-caste couples facing familial harassment by providing counselling and legal help, even if separate laws were introduced for this issue, there will still be the difficulty of enforcing them and police cooperation is generally absent in these cases. Police often side with the family and panchayat in most of the cases and thus refuse to register the complaint, even threatening or harassing the victims.
Honour killings should have a separate law because it's not just about the murders that this term might be referred to, it's about every assault, harassment, threatening experience, or, kidnapping carried out on the victims. Having a well-defined law could articulate all these crimes clearly.
In 2019, a bill was passed by the Rajasthan Assembly: the Rajasthan Prohibition of Interference with the Freedom of Matrimonial Alliances in the Name of Honour and Tradition Bill 2019. This bill included not only the laws against killings but also all the crimes which may lead to it. Under this, the type of crimes motivated by honour is considered non-bailable offences in the state, punishable by death or a life sentence. This was seen as a very important step towards the protection of couples at risk of honour crimes.
But there is substantial work to be done between the passing of a new bill and the enforcing of it. Eradication of this deep-rooted social evil of India is still under progress. We can see some exceptional decisions being made relating to these issues through the court of law but the majority of unnoticed victims are still suffering, waiting for proper justice to be achieved.