A Haryana court’s verdict awarding death sentence to five for murdering a young couple on the orders of a khap panchayat is bound to evoke sharp reactions — both in favour and against it.
But it’s a landmark verdict.
First, it sends the right message to society and instills a sense of confidence among law-abiding citizens, particularly in northwestern India, where people have often been at the receiving end of khap (clan) leaders’ diktats.
Second, it’s a much-needed lesson for khap leaders who have become a law unto themselves. Their intolerance, support for honour killings and violent ways of dealing with dissenters are well known.
But India is governed by rule of law where crime is not what is forbidden by society or religion. It’s only when an individual commits an act prohibited by law that it becomes a crime. Even so it’s for the state machinery — not khap leaders — to bring culprits to justice.
The Centre is considering amending the Indian Penal Code to make honour killings a distinct offence with a deterrent punishment. That would be a welcome step. But laws alone can’t change society. Despite the dowry-prohibition law, dowry is prevalent. What is needed is education.
Also, the judiciary needs to change its mindset.
Just three months back, the Supreme Court commuted the death penalty of Dilip Tiwari who killed his sister’s husband and other family members near Mumbai in 2004 to avenge her marriage to a lower caste man. Dilip got 25 years in jail.
In the judgment, a bench headed by Justice V S Sirpurkar said: “It is a common experience that when the younger sister commits something unusual and, in this case it was an inter-caste marriage out of a secret love affair, then… it is the elder brother who justifiably or otherwise is held responsible for not stopping such affairs. It is held as the family defeat. At times, he has to suffer taunts…Dilip, therefore, must have been a prey of the so-called insult that his younger sister had imposed on his family.”
Noted jurist Rajeev Dhavan said: “Honour killing by any form of panchayat in the name of caste responsibility can not be accepted as a ground for commuting a death sentence. Constitutionally, it’s reprehensible.”