The home ministry proposes, and now a group of ministers may dispose. P. Chidambaram’s suggestion that the IPC, the CrPC, the Evidence Act, and marriage laws be adapted to deal with the spurt of honour killings that have recently shamed the nation, is now being pulled apart by his more cautious colleagues.
Honour killings are a complicated stew of sexual and social anxieties — as we know only too well by now, khaps are medieval community structures that believe intra-gotra marriage is a crime punishable with death, and their verdicts are enforced through intimidation, degradation and other forms of control, and often actual violence. The home ministry’s proposed amendments were an acknowledgement of this special nature of honour killings, and an attempt to extend protection to individuals against the collective might of these community guardians. It suggested that khap panchayat members would now have to prove their innocence in case of a death, and that enforcement agencies would have the power to arrest and act against community leaders who may be spurring social boycotts. It also suggested amending the Indian Evidence Act and doing away with the 30-day notice requirement and amending the Special Marriage Act, typically the critical window period when couples are harassed by their families. However, others in the cabinet have objected to the proposal’s expansive provisions, saying these could be used for “witch-hunts” and vindictive agendas, and place unwarranted stress on all khap panchayat members irrespective of whether they were complicit in the killing. Some ministers pointed to the fragile sensitivities of the community, saying that blunt legal tools shouldn’t roll over social customs.
However, the vexing question is not whether honour killings need a dedicated legal instrument or not. Police and administration tend to be reluctant to take on this system of rough justice because politics thrives on these community solidarities. If this delay is about refining the legal changes to ensure that there is no collateral damage or misuse, that’s entirely sensible. However, electoral inconvenience shouldn’t be an excuse to let the issue slide.