S VISWASNATHAN IN THE HINDU
The Indian media have a vital responsibility in enabling society to combat and eliminate social evils. ‘Honour killings’ are a particularly barbaric social practice targeting those who defy the traditional ban on ‘same gotra’ marriages or marry out of caste. The central government has decided to “consult” the States on steps to put an end to the spate of such killings in several parts of the country. A Group of Ministers will go into the issue and suggest changes in the law. It has been reported that although Cabinet Ministers agreed on the need to stop the killings, they were divided on which laws needed to be amended.
This is not an issue on which State rights are at stake because there is no question of a civilised society, governed by the rule of law, tolerating such savagery in the name of tradition. The challenge is the existence of ‘khap panchayats,’ which provide social sanction for the savagery. In Haryana, which probably accounts for the largest number of ‘honour killings,’ both the Opposition and the ruling Congress are one in defending the institution. Chief Minister Bhupinder Singh Hooda has declared that marriage within the same gotra was not part of the tradition in Haryana. He claimed that the khap or community panchayats were not responsible for the killing of couples marrying within the same gotra. He was glossing over the social truth that it is the ruling given by the khap panchayats nullifying the marriages within a gotra that leads to the killing of girls and boys, invariably by brothers or uncles of the girls. Mr. Hooda’s principal political opponent, former Chief Minister and President of the Indian National Lok Dal Om Prakash Chautala, did not lag behind. He was also seeking a change in the law. He met Union Home Minister P. Chidambaram and pressed for amendments to the Hindu Marriage Act with a view to banning “the same gotra marriage.”
(The law referred to is The Hindu Marriage Disabilities Removal Act, 1946. It is an act to remove certain disabilities and doubts under Hindu Law in respect of marriages between Hindus; marriages between persons of same gotra or prevara. The Act says: “Notwithstanding any text, rule or interpretation of the Hindu Law or any custom or usage, a marriage between Hindus, which is otherwise valid, shall not be invalid by reason only of the fact that the parties thereto (a) belong to the same gotra or (b) belong to different sub-divisions of the same caste.”)
A Congress M.P. from Haryana, Naveen Jindal, swore by the khap panchayats, reportedly explaining that he and his entire family respected their “years old traditions and rituals.” In Punjab, Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Jharkhand, in which the practice of ‘honour killings,’ whether based on khap panchayats or otherwise, has been reported, the situation might be somewhat different from Haryana’s. However, given the proximity of the caste leaders to the power centres in several States, their response to the idea of changing laws woud be an interesting subject for the media to study, report, and comment on.
In respect of amending certain laws, the central government has taken the lead from the orders of the Supreme Court of India to eight State governments, besides the Centre, to submit reports on the steps taken to prevent the inhuman practice of ‘honour killings.’ The orders of a Division Bench of the Court followed a petition filed by Shakti Vahini, a non-governmental organisation, under Public Interest Litigation. Shakti Vahini, which had been working in the field of women’s rights and related issues, told the court that apart from ‘honour killings,’ which was an extreme form of reaction, women had to confront long-term, low-level physical abuse and bullying as a punishment for bringing the ‘family honour’ to disrepute. Such abuses could include torture, mutilation, rape, forced marriage, and imprisonment within the home, according to the petitioner. It also pointed out that when the State remained a mute spectator, there was fear among the youth and young couples who were already married or were planning to get married. The petitioner wanted the Supreme Court to lay down guidelines for law-enforcing officials on the pattern of the guidelines for combating sexual harassment at the workplace.
There is no evidence to show that the killer panchayats have been stopped in their tracks. At the same time, the movement against their barbaric diktats has gained momentum. Human rights organisations, social and political activists, and youth and women’s organisations have stepped up their campaigns. These, together with what has begun to assume the contours of a national media campaign, have created greater awareness of the rights of young men and women to free choice and dignity. Almost all daily newspapers and magazines carry detailed reports with interviews and opinion pieces on the subject. Sadly, there is no matching endeavour among administrators and law-enforcement authorities in the affected States to keep pace with the crimes and help stop the atrocities. Here is an opportunity for the media to step up their campaign against the social evil in a big way. They can do this through more detailed and comprehensive coverage on the ground and a more systematic attempt to mould public opinion, especially in the States where the khaps are at their deadly work.