A case apart

The proposed legal amendments do not factor in the complex cruelties of ‘honour’ crimes...

Written by Brinda Karat | Published: July 19, 2010 4:05:18 am

Two years ago,in a case related to a young inter-caste couple’s appeal for protection against death threats,an anguished bench of the Punjab and Haryana high court had observed — “In the last five years,thousands of (such) petitions have been filed. Out of 26 matters listed today,10 pertain to marriages of young people. In four days the cases have swelled to 27… Couples (are) hiding themselves in the corridors of the courts chased by relations accompanied by musclemen armed with weapons..(but) the state is a mute spectator. When shall the state awake from its slumber,how long will the state elude permanent solution…”

These remarks are even more relevant in the context of the Central government’s recent decision to set up yet another GoM on the legal framework required to address honour crimes. While this delaying tactic is disturbing enough,what is worse is the flawed understanding of those charged with addressing the crime,reflected in the proposed amendments which are reportedly being sent to the states for discussion.

The main amendment is to Sec 300 of the IPC which defines specific causes for murder. The other amendments relate to the Special Marriage Act and the Indian Evidence Act. Such a piecemeal approach to a complex and multi-dimensional social crime will do more harm than good. To give just one example,while the main amendment defines what constitutes “perceived dishonour” in a very narrow fashion,its definition of those to be held guilty as “anyone associated with a caste panchayat” which has given the order for the crime,is too wide and may include and punish persons who were not present at the time or did not concur with the decision. Those with the slightest experience of working on such cases,as many women’s organisations,know that more often than not such criminal decisions are taken by a handful of people,certainly not by the wider association. Since it is neither warranted nor wise to ban caste associations,ordinary members cannot then be punished in the way suggested.

The amendment concerns only the crime of murder. However “honour” crimes include many other crimes such as social and economic boycott,coercive dissolution of the marriage,levelling of fines on the family of the boy and their supporters,externment from the village,public humiliation,threats and harassment against relatives of the boy etc. The proposed amendments do not cover any of these.

The aspects which need to be addressed include a comprehensive definition of the ‘honour” crime,the role of caste panchayats or self-declared community representatives,the role of the girl’s family because of which often there is no complainant in the case of the disappearance of the girl when she has actually been murdered,which necessitates the mandatory role of suo moto state intervention,monitoring and investigation,the role of the law enforcement agencies acting in connivance with the perpetrators of the crime which requires legal accountability of the police,the glorification of the crime and so on.

Take for example a recent case involving two neighbouring villages on the outskirts of Delhi when a 23-year-old Scheduled Caste youth eloped with his 20-year-old upper caste colleague. They had both taught in the same junior college. An aggressive upper caste group of the girl’s village went to the boy’s village,called a panchayat with scheduled caste members and threatened them that unless the couple was found and brought back within four days,a scheduled caste girl from the village would be taken in exchange. To show that they meant business a young Dalit boy was abducted and confined for a day. The terrorised Dalits sent all the young women out of the village. The father of the boy,who had been taken into illegal custody by the police for four days on a complaint of the upper castes of abetment to kidnapping and abduction,had to finance search parties to look for the couple. It cost him 1.5 lakh rupees. Since he is a construction worker with a low income,he had to take loans and ultimately mortgaged 2 bighas of land owned by the family to meet the expenses. The threats remain. No one has been arrested. The sections of the IPC applied in the FIR registered by the police relate to criminal intimidation (Sec 506 of the IPC),rioting (147) and thuggery (310). While both the latter sections appear entirely irrelevant,the present definitions of criminal intimidation do not take into account the consequences of such intimidation in this case,loss of livelihood etc. But the officials say that in the absence of a law they have no alternative.

A preliminary consensus for a separate law emerged across political parties in Parliament,when for the first time the Rajya Sabha had a full-fledged discussion on the issue in July last year. There was strong support for the suggestion that there should be a separate law to deal with the range of so-called honour crimes.

Unfortunately the Union home minister seems to not have fully grasped the various aspects of the issue as made clear in his reply to the Rajya Sabha discussion. He said “I think the demand for a special law is the one that has been made most eloquently. But I am afraid that it is a very simple demand in the sense that make a law,but the answer is not to make another law. Whatever law we make honour killing is murder… I would look into this whether we can define honour killing,but prima facie I am not sure whether that will take us very far.” If India’s home minister continues to hold this understanding,it is of little surprise that the amendments proposed are so flawed.

It is strange why the top leadership of the government and the ruling party are unable to take a decision and make a firm intervention. Perhaps the procrastination of the government on the issue has also something to do with the politics of not upsetting the self-styled panchayats on the belief that they constitute powerful vote banks. Whatever the reason,it is Indian democracy that has to suffer.

The writer is a member of the CPM politburo and a Rajya Sabha MP

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