T. K. Rajalakshmi IN THE FRONTLINE
ON March 25, a sessions court in Karnal, Haryana, convicted six people in the June 2007 case of “honour killing” of Manoj and Babli, a newly married couple from Karora village in Kaithal district. A week later, five of them were awarded the death sentence, while the leader of the Banwala khap, Ganga Raj, was awarded life imprisonment. Five of the accused, who are direct relatives of the girl, were charged under Sections 302, 264, 201 and 120-B of the Indian Penal Code. The seventh accused, the driver of the vehicle used to kidnap the couple before they were done in, was charged with conspiracy and kidnapping. The court also ordered a probe into the role of the police and their collusion with the killers. The judgment, delivered by Additional District and Sessions Judge Vani Gopal Sharma, i s the first of its kind in the State. It is expected to send a strong signal to all caste/khap panchayats harassing couples and their families for allegedly violating caste and community norms. Khap panchayats are prevalent among the Jats of Haryana, western Uttar Pradesh and parts of Rajasthan. The judgment has been hailed by the Left parties, the All India Democratic Women’s Association (AIDWA) and other left-liberal groups and individuals. Meanwhile, the khap panchayats, contending that the verdict would send a wrong signal to their society and encourage same-gotra marriages, convened a mahapanchayat at Kurukshetra on April 13. Under the leadership of Bharatiya Kisan Union leader Mahendra Singh Tikait, the meeting demanded that the Hindu Marriage Act be amended to proscribe same-gotra and same-village marriages altogether and disallow the recognition given by the Arya Samaj to the marriages of eloping couples held in temples. The mahapanchayat resolved to launch an agitation and gave a call to raise funds for those found guilty in the Manoj-Babli murder. The media were also held responsible for conspiring to destroy the social fabric in rural areas by favouring socially unacceptable marriages. Manoj, 23, and Babli, 19, had eloped and got married on April 7, 2007. Fearing for their lives, they sought police protection from the Punjab and Haryana High Court. But on June 15, when they were returning from a court hearing, they were kidnapped and brutally killed, and their bodies were thrown into a canal. According to the police report, Babli’s own brother forced her to consume poison and watch her husband being strangled to death by her uncles and cousins. The trussed-up bodies of the couple, mutilated beyond recognition, were found on June 23 and cremated as “unclaimed” by the police. When Manoj’s family took up the case, influential sections in Karora village declared a social and economic boycott on it. Thirty-three months, 50 hearings and 41 witnesses later, justice has come the way of the victim’s family. In the 96-page judgment, the judge called for specific legislation to curb honour killings, an issue that came up in Parliament last year after Rajya Sabha member Brinda Karat drew attention to them. In April this year, three cases of honour-related killings and harassment were reported. A schoolboy was beheaded allegedly for falling in love with a girl of his village; a 16-year-old girl in a village in Sonepat district was strangled to death by her brother for a similar offence; and a couple hailing from different gotras in Ludhana village of Rohtak district was asked to annul their marriage because they both belonged to the dominant gotras of the village. The Congress government of Bhupinder Singh Hooda has refrained from taking a strident line against caste panchayats. This, despite the Punjab and Haryana High Court being flooded with petitions against the functioning of some of them. Even opposition leaders have pandered to the unconstitutional diktats of the khaps for political expediency. For instance, a leader of the Indian National Lok Dal presided over a khap panchayat meeting and issued a diktat against a couple’s family in Charkhi Dadri . The government has not been able to do much. In most cases, according to an affidavit filed by Krishna Mohan, Haryana Financial Commissioner-cum-Principal Secretary, Department of Home, the accused were acquitted as witnesses turned hostile or were won over. In some instances, compromises were brokered after cases were registered. These compromises were hardly voluntary or mutually arrived at. In the absence of assured security to life and property extended by the state, very few people are able to take their fight to its logical conclusion. The government says it is unable to take action against these panchayats because their activities are not covered under the Prevention of Unlawful Activities Act. A few months ago, the government promised shelters for harassed couples and their families. But this remains just a promise.