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Honour Killings: Are we prepared to tackle the problem?

The issue of honour killing grabbed headlines with the death of Nirupama Pathak, a Delhi-based journalist, who was alleged to have been killed by her family because she was pregnant and was planning to marry a person outside her caste.  This was followed by two more cases of suspected honour killing (see here and here) in the capital.

While incidences of honour killing are a rarity in the capital, such incidences are common in the northern states of India such as Punjab, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh.  The basic reason behind honour killings is the idea that a family’s honour is tied to a woman’s chastity.  Thus, a wide range of causes can trigger honour killing such as marital infidelity, pre-marital sex, having unapproved relationships, refusing an arranged marriage or even rape.

In India, honour killings take place if a couple marries outside their caste or religionKhap panchayats also oppose and mete out punishments to couples who marry within the same gotra (lineage) or transgress other societal norms.  A recent judgement by a sessions court in Karnal for the first time awarded the death penalty to five men for murdering a young couple who had married against the diktats 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.

On June 22, the Supreme Court issued a notice to the centre and eight states to explain the steps taken to prevent honour killing.  Taking a cautious approach the government rejected Law Minister, M. Veerappa Moily’s proposal to amend the Indian Penal Code and rein in the khap panchayats (caste based extra constitutional bodies).  It however decided to constitute a Group of Ministers to consult the states and look into the scope for enacting a special law that would treat honour killing as a social evil.

Experts are divided over the proposed honour killing law.  Some experts argue that the existing laws are sufficient to deter honour killing, if implemented properly while others feel that more stringent and specific provisions are required to tackle the menace of honour killings.

Existing Penalties under Indian Penal Code:

  • Sections 299-304: Penalises any person guilty of murder and culpable homicide not amounting to murder.  The punishment for murder is life sentence or death and fine.  The punishment for culpable homicide not amounting to murder is life imprisonment or imprisonment for upto 10 years and fine.
  • Section 307: Penalises attempt to murder with imprisonment for upto 10 years and a fine.  If a person is hurt, the penalty can extend to life imprisonment.
  • Section 308: Penalises attempt to commit culpable homicide by imprisonment for upto 3 years or with fine or with both.  If it causes hurt, the person shall be imprisoned for upto 7 years or fined or both.
  • Section 120A and B: Penalises any person who is a party to a criminal conspiracy.
  • Sections 107-116: Penalises persons for abetment of offences including murder and culpable homicide.
  • Section 34 and 35: Penalises criminal acts done by several persons in furtherance of common intention.
Arguments favouring new law Arguments against new law
  • Making the crime of honour killing a separate offence would help bring more clarity for law enforcement agencies.
  • One of the proposals is to amend the Indian Evidence Act to put the burden of proof on the accused.  Thus, the khap panchayat or the family members would be responsible for proving their innocence.
  • There would be joint liability under the proposed new law.  The khap panchayat (or any group ordering honour killings) and the person who carries out the killing would be jointly liable for punishment.
  • The existing penalty for the offence of murder is sufficient if they are implemented strictly and effectively.
  • A new set of laws would not deter honour killings because the basic issue is social sanction for acts committed to curtail same gotra marriage, inter-caste marriage, inter-religion marriage.
  • Need for creating awareness among traditional communities through education.
  • Holding khap panchayats  collectively accountable can be detrimental to members who do not support such killing.  Also, it could be misused for vindictive agendas.
Sources: “Define honour killing as ‘heinous crime’: Experts”, Hindustan Times, May 12, 2010; “Legal experts divided over proposed honour killing law,” Indian Express, Feb 16, 2010; “Legal Tangle,” Indian Express, July 10, 2010; and “Honour Killing: Govt defers decision on Khap Bill,” Indian Express, July 8, 2010; “Honour Killing: Govt considers special law,” Indian Express, July 9, 2010.

Meanwhile, khap panchayats are up in arms defending their stance against same gotra marriage.  They have demanded an amendment to the Hindu Marriage Act, 1955 disallowing same gotra marriage.  While condemning honour killings, some politicians such as Naveen Jindal and Bhupinder Singh Hooda have extended support to the demands of the khap panchayats.

It remains to be seen if India is effectively able to address this tug of war between tradition and modernity.

  1. Naveen K G
    July 16th, 2010 at 22:38 | #1

    This is a case of blatant abuse of human dignity and freedom. Murderous acts indeed. Now for the question of are we prepared to tackle it,the answer would be a plain no. The reason being that this is not a law and order problem but a social problem. Caste considerations still being the undercurrent of the society, Coupled with changing economic and cultural scenario. These times can be said of as one of turmoil. What we actually would need is to revitalize the Indian society. We do have parallels of this kind of situation in our country, successfully dealt by icons like Raja ram mohan roy, ishwar chandra vidya sagar, akshay kumar dutt etc.

  2. Umesh
    August 18th, 2010 at 23:16 | #2

    Its time for Government both Central as well as State to take some serious steps to eradicate this heinous act . May be now (bad to say) the situation is not that worse. But remember this is sowing seed for some extremist and radical views that might enter the people’s head and might take a turn where will have to tackle a force like Taliban in our country. So before we allow it to grow we must act now.

  3. October 19th, 2010 at 15:24 | #3

    As always, changing laws can be for the better, but it can also make things worse. It may discover some backlashes that we didn’t expect. The governments should be more concered about taking actions b e f o r e somethings happen in a preventive manner. Educating social workers and government staff, giving protection to those in need, talking about in in schools and offer solutions to the families who are under deep social pressure. There has to be solutions..
    Thank you for an interesting piece.
    Team gomiddleeast

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