Article 21 of the Constitution of India bestows upon every individual the right to live with dignity and the right to be treated with basic human decency. Even the ostracised sections of the society consisting of prisoners, terrorists, insolvent persons and alike whom the society may despise, possess the right to life. No member of the society, other than by the procedure established by law may deprive individuals of their right to life. A practice as fiendish, barbarous and iniquitous as honour killing certainly is in gross violation of various provisions of the Constitution of India, aside from the fact that honour killing is in contradiction to the ethical values and principles of any civilised society. If truth be told, the term ‘honour killing’ is a misnomer as there is no honour in honour killing. Honor Killing refers to the assassination of a person in the name of honour, often done out of fury, fear, shame and anger, with a view to preserve a family’s reputation and to set an example for others. Because of the complex socio-cultural issues, the crime of honour killing is on the rise. Honour Killing has been a widely prevalent practice in India since time immemorial and the spate of honour killings in India does not seem to plummet, which should be a cause of concern for the Indian society.
Marriage out of caste, divorce, marriage by choice, homosexuality, pregnancy before marriage, inappropriate dressing, among other factors are usually the chief reasons behind such nefarious instances of crime. The prime cause of heinous instances of honour killings is that the majority of caste members refuse to accept inter-caste marriages under the guise of maintaining their caste’s or family’s social status and they seek to reclaim the honour and respect that had been lost as a result of the inter-caste love marriage. The commonly perceived notion that the incidence of honour killing is only witnessed by India due to the prevalence of caste system and caste-related discrimination is erroneous. The practice of honour killing is not confined to India but is a global phenomenon. Honour killings are commonly associated with the Asian continent, particularly the East and South Asia, but they are witnessed throughout the globe. In a report, the United Nations revealed that 5,000 women lost their lives each year as a result of honour killings. According to the BBC, women’s advocacy groups believe that more than 20,000 women are killed every year around the world. However, murder is not the only form of honour killing, other crimes such as acid attacks, abductions, mutilations, and beatings occur; the UK police recorded at least 2,823 such crimes in 2010. Instances of honour killing is widespread in the Indian states of Punjab, Haryana, Rajasthan, Delhi, Bihar, etc., however it is seen to take place in other states too. Due to the presence of ‘Khap Panchayat’ or ‘Caste Panchayat’ in Punjab, it is the most infamous state in this regard, with the highest rate of honour killing cases. In March, 2011, the Punjab and Haryana High Court delivered a judgment in the Manoj-Babli honour killing case, which astounded the entire nation. In June 2007, on the order of a khap panchayat, Manoj and Babli from Karora village in Kaithal district were mercilessly murdered by Babli’s relatives for marrying in the same gotra. Five members of Babli’s family comprising her brother Suresh, uncles Rajender and Baru Ram, and cousins Satish and Gurdev, were sentenced to death by a Karnal district court in March 2010 for killing the couple. The Punjab and Haryana High Court, in 2011, commuted the death sentences of all the convicts in the Manoj–Babli honour killing case. Ganga Raj, the alleged mastermind of the plot, and another convict, Satish, were both acquitted by the Court.
In 2010, Shakti Vahini, a non-governmental organisation, owing to the rampant instances of honour killings in Haryana, Punjab, and Western U.P., filed a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) highlighting khap panchayats’ reign of terror, which includes draconian punishments for couples who have fallen in love or broken the traditional sagotra marital relationship rule. The petition was filed requesting that the respondent, viz., the state and federal governments take preventive measures to combat honour crimes, submit a National and State Plan of Action to combat such crimes, and further direct the state governments to establish special cells in each district that couples can approach for their safety and well-being. Furthermore, a request for writ of mandamus to be issued to the state governments, ordering them to prosecute each case of honour killing and to take appropriate measures to ensure that all such honour crimes and embedded evil in the mindset of certain members of society are dealt with appropriately. While delivering the judgement of this case, then Chief Justice of India Dipak Misra quoted a few lines of the French philosopher and thinker Simone Weil, “We don’t live in a world in which there exists a single definition of honour anymore, and it’s a fool that hangs on to the traditional standards and hopes that the world will come around him.” The Honourable Court was of the opinion that ‘an individual’s choice is inextricably linked to dignity, as dignity cannot be imagined in the absence of choice. It is true that the same is bound by the principle of constitutional limitation, but in the absence of such a limitation, no person shall be allowed to interfere with the fulfilment of the said choice. If one’s right to make one’s own decisions is restricted, it’s difficult to imagine dignity in all of its sanctified glory’. The Court had also ordered the states to implement preventive, remedial, and punitive measures in order to build a strong mechanism that can identify and punish supporters of Honour Killing, and had given a deadline of six weeks for the states to comply.
Women in India are not treated as able, independent individuals with their own lives and choices. Instead, they are viewed as the possessors of the family’s ‘honour’ and their actions are thought to define the family’s position in the community. They are forbidden from talking to men, selecting life partners of their choice, acquiring education, and so on. To many women in India, the concept of life and personal liberty is fictitious and probably still a dream. The Netflix film ‘Bulbul’ produced by the popular Bollywood actress Anushka Sharma had generated quite a buzz in 2020. The film had a particular scene in which a mother figure while helping a young bride getting decked up for her wedding, says to her that a toe-ring signifies a form of restraint and that girls must be kept in control. This is the school of thought that the Indian society nurtures. Women are at the centre of the majority of honour crimes. Since typical Indian families seem to place their honour in the women of their family and are prepared to go to any extent to preserve their honour and thereby prevent their daughters from bringing dishonour to their family, including killing their own daughters and the persons they choose to be with; hence, India needs stringent and formidable laws to deal with the increasing instances of honour killings. Killing women for the sake of honour signifies s a despotic society governed by arbitrary culture. In the judgement of Shakti Vahini v. Union of India (2018 7 SCC 192), the Honourable Supreme Court of India stated that “The concept of honour encompasses a wide range of aspects. When a young man falls in love or enters into marriage, he may become the victim of honour killings or be subjected to violent treatment by the girl’s family members. The collective acts as if it were a patriarchal monarch, treating wives, sisters, and daughters as second-class citizens, even if they are servile or self-sacrificing, with no individual autonomy, desire, or identity. The male members of the community emphasise the concept of status, and a sense of masculine dominance becomes the sole governing factor of perceptive Honour.” In the judgment of the case Asha Ranjan v. State of Bihar, the Supreme Court dictated that “the choice of a woman in choosing her partner in life is a legitimate constitutional right. It is founded on the individual choice that is recognised in the Constitution Article 19, and such a right is not expected to succumb to the concept of “class honour” or “group thinking”.”
One might reason that homicides are as appalling as honour killings. However, on reflecting on that thought one may realize that albeit homicides are unquestionably grievous crimes, the society as a whole may not always be affected by them, whereas honour killing is an odious crime and a greater evil that affects the society as a whole. To put it another way, while homicides may cripple public interest, honour killings cause community conscience to crumble. There are several exceptions to the Indian Penal Code in the case of homicides, but in the case of honour killings, they are pre-planned, brutally executed more often than not within blood relations, and that too in collusion with law enforcement agencies, so the defence should not be made ordinarily available and are not ordinarily justified in the eyes of the law. The Rajasthan government took stringent action and reforms by passing the Rajasthan Prohibition of Interference with the Freedom of Matrimonial Alliances in the Name of Honour and Tradition Bill, 2019. In May 2019, the Principal Sessions Court, Kottayam, Kerala, awarded life imprisonment to ten men involved in the abduction and murder of Kevin Joseph, a 23-year-old Dalit Christian who was abducted and murdered by a group led by Shyanu Chacko, the principal accused and brother of Kevin’s fiancée, Neenu, just as the young man was making plans to register his marriage. This case testifies to the fact that discrimination against Dalits is not limited to Scheduled Caste Hindus, but also includes those who have converted to other religions. At a time when caste groups have become politically organised and caste associations are attracting the young and educated, a renewed effort to eliminate the ills of a stratified society is a dire need.
In the long run, a greater societal change is required to reduce the increasing instances of honour killings. Only through education and awareness will this be possible. The government will have to develop and implement policies to improve women’s socio-economic conditions, as well as raise awareness among police and other stakeholders about the importance of gender equality, with a particular focus on areas where statistics show a higher percentage of crimes against women. All said and done, the narrow, hollow, and superficial mindset of the society must be changed. People must ponder whether their actions are reasonable and honourable. In the name of honour, they commit dishonourable deeds and brutal crimes which cannot be reversed. The case of Shakti Vahini v. Union of India, 2018, was a landmark case in which Former Chief Justice of India Dipak Misra stated, “Liberty, taken in its practical sense, means the right to choose.” Feudal thinking must vanish into the shadows, paving the way for liberty. The right to enjoy freedom must be constantly and zealously protected in order for it to grow in strength and glory. Therefore, stringent and formidable laws must be framed and implemented to prevent and penalize horrific instances of honour killing which differentially deprives individuals, particularly, women of their inalienable rights and liberties.
- Bhardwaj, Urmila., Legal Services India, “Nothing Honourable in Honour Killing”, retrieved from http://www.legalservicesindia.com/article/1721/Nothing-Honourable-in-Honour-Killing.html
- The Hindu (August 29th, 2019), “Murder most foul: On Kerala ‘honour killing’ case”, retrieved from https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/editorial/murder-most-foul/article29282082.ece
- Doshi, Kosha., Latest Laws (June 13th, 2020), “Socio-Legal dimensions of Honour Killing”, retrieved from https://www.latestlaws.com/articles/socio-legal-dimensions-of-honour-killing/
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Debalina Roy, 1st year, BA LL. B
Xavier Law School, Xavier University, Bhubaneswar