The spate of honour killings in Delhi, Haryana and other parts of north India in recent weeks seems to have stirred the government out of its slumber. The law ministry is considering amendments to certain laws, including the Indian Penal Code, the Indian Evidence Act and the Special Marriage Act to address the problem. Government action was long overdue. Honour killings are neither new nor rare. Around a thousand such killings take place annually in the country, mostly in Haryana, Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan. The Jat community in Haryana is particularly notorious for its practice.
However, the problem is not restricted to ‘backward communities.’ It is prevalent among rich and landed class as well as educated, urban families. At the core of this problem are khap panchayats. These extra-legal bodies issue diktats against marriages between people of the same ‘gotra’ as well as inter-caste and inter-religion marriages. Stern punishments, including torture and death are meted out to couples who dare to violate these norms or marry against the wishes of their family. Hundreds of young couples have been hunted down and killed, in the name of protecting the honour of their families. In recent weeks, khap panchayats have been demanding a ban on same-gotra marriage. They are also calling for lowering the legal age of marriage of girls and boys to 15 years and 17 years respectively.
So far, honour killing is not a classified crime in India. Under the proposed amendments, it is likely to be defined and will carry the same punishment as that for murder. Members of khap panchayats, who order the killings, will be treated as accomplices to the crime. The government is also considering changes to simplify the legal procedure of marriage between consenting adults belonging to different religions.
While the proposed amendments seem promising, it is hard to dispel the feeling that the government is simply tinkering with a few laws. What is needed is a separate law that will deal with the problem comprehensively. Is it fighting shy of taking on the khap panchayats and prevailing social traditions for fear of antagonising powerful vote banks? Legislation that does not hesitate to confront ugly social norms robustly is of little use. The government should draw on civil society and legal expertise to put in place strong legislation to eliminate the problem.