If there’s one strong message that was sent out by Tuesday’s judgement and sentencing of five people for the murder of a couple, it is that community traditions and personal laws cannot be above the law. The Haryana court that found six people from the Jat community guilty of committing ‘honour killings’ was rightly unswayed by the legal relativism that is all too often brought as defence to protect perpetrators of a ‘tradition-backed’ crime. The murder of Manoj and Babli, who had ‘violated’ tradition and thus ‘besmirched family honour’ by eloping to get married, was not only heinous but also barbaric. It also highlighted the dangers and shameful blindness involved in perpetuating caste divisions in a country where we have a history of such categorisations leading to outright irrational floutings of the law. What was the couple’s crime? That being from the same ‘gotra’ (sharing a common ancestor according to caste traditions), they had got ‘married’.
At the root of the murder was the ‘khap panchayat’ (caste council) of the village that sanctioned — nay, ordered — the murders. Too many times have upholders of the law looked the other way when dealing with members of communities using ‘customs’ as an excuse to perpetuate practices that are directly in conflict with our Constitution and human values. One simple rule must kick in each time a person or a community quotes ‘tradition’ to commit a crime: personal laws can only exist within the secular law of the State. If sati (widow immolation) was a Hindu custom, it was a barbaric one that needed to be exterminated. The law of the land did exactly that. If paying alimony to a divorced woman by her husband is not standard practice according to some interpretation of Muslim law, then the law is well within its right to overwhelm such a sanctioned act of omission and impose its writ. One can’t hide behind ‘cultural practices’ and get away with anything.
Cultural relativism — even in multi-cultural India, especially in multi-cultural India — can only go so far. A murder is a murder is a murder. No amount of theology or anthropology can be brought on to the table explain it away. It’s bad enough that crimes in India manage to ‘de-criminalise’ themselves with the help of power and pelf. We enter another level of shame when arguments condoning crimes like ‘honour killing’ or ‘ritual murder’ come in the form of ‘tradition’. The fact that the lives of two youngsters could have been saved if the police had provided the couple with security after they complained that their lives were under threat is truly tragic. Let the law that has been laid down by the court now do its job unobstructed.