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Botched probe

12 Apr


The Punjab and Haryana High Court commutes the sentences in the ‘Manoj and Babli’ case and raps the police for poor investigation.

IT was exactly a year ago, in March 2010, that a sessions court in Karnal district, Haryana, convicted seven persons for the murder of a newly married couple, Manoj and Babli of Karora village, Kaithal district. The court awarded the death sentence to five persons; one person got life imprisonment and another was given seven years’ rigorous imprisonment. All of them appealed against the verdict in the Punjab and Haryana High Court. On March 11 this year, a two-judge Bench of the High Court not only commuted the death sentence for four of the accused to life imprisonment but acquitted two of the main accused. One of them had been awarded the death penalty, while the other had been sentenced to life imprisonment by the lower court.

The “Manoj and Babli case”, as it came to be known, received much attention, not least because the sessions court’s order seemed to send a strong signal to those who felt they could get away with such murders in the name of honour. The case successfully mobilised public opinion against honour killings. Women’s organisations hailed the verdict, which they hoped would act as an effective deterrent. Led by the All India Democratic Women’s Association (AIDWA), the women’s groups also demanded a comprehensive law dealing with honour-related crimes, and the Centre, too, began contemplating seriously the merits of such a law. For Manoj’s widowed mother, younger brother and sister, the verdict was a positive step in securing justice.

It was, of course, expected that the convicted persons would appeal in a higher court. It was also expected that the State would do its best to ensure that the order was not reversed. This was not an ordinary scenario. The convicted persons not only enjoyed open community support but also had political support as the community itself constituted an important vote bank in the politics of the State. It was not a coincidence that following the sessions court order, there began a clamour for an amendment to the Hindu Marriage Act, proscribing same-gotra marriages.

Manoj and Babli, both residents of Karora village and belonging to the Jat community, left their village on April 6, 2007, and got married the next day. Babli’s family registered a complaint against Manoj, who secured anticipatory bail from the court. On June 15, the couple were produced before the investigating officer, and Babli’s statement was recorded. She was then produced before the court of the additional chief judicial magistrate and her statement was recorded again: she said she had married Manoj and was living with him in Chandigarh on her own volition and that nobody had exerted pressure on her.

Two police escorts were given to the couple. They accompanied the couple in a bus, and they were followed by a sub-inspector who was in a private vehicle. The couple got off the bus at a stop and, according to the police, expressed a wish to be left alone. However, Manoj’s mother, Chanderpati, says she received a call that day from her son, who said that Babli’s relatives were in the bus and had been following them from Kaithal. It is not clear why the couple should want the police to leave when danger was clearly so close. Anyway, the police left them at the Pipli bus stand.

During that phone call, Manoj told Chanderpati that they would go to Delhi. That was the last she heard from her son. At around 5 p.m., at Bhutana police station, the head constable got a message that a couple had been forced to get off a bus by around 16 people and bundled into a Scorpio car.On June 23, in Narnaud district, a watchman found Manoj’s body, with the hands, feet and neck tied up. The same day, Babli’s body was found in a canal in Hisar district. It was wrapped in a white gunny bag, which was oozing maggots. Police investigations unravelled the identity of the driver of the vehicle; with his help, the other suspects, who were Babli’s relatives, were found.

All the accused pleaded not guilty and alleged that Manoj’s mother had falsely implicated them. The defence argued that the couple’s threat perception came from both the families and that the investigation had been misdirected towards Babli’s family alone. “No mother would have waited five long days to lodge a complaint when there was serious threat to the life of Manoj and Babli. Who committed the abduction and murder had not been established by the prosecution beyond reasonable doubt,” the defence lawyer argued in the High Court. The trial court, the defence said, had been swayed by the vague reference to the family members and relatives by Chanderpati.The Bench, however, dismissed the defence argument that Manoj’s family had an equal motive in murdering the couple. Indeed, the court’s order seemed to accept most of the arguments of the prosecution, including the fundamental one that the couple faced a constant threat to their lives from Babli’s family. (The persons convicted by the sessions court included two of Babli’s uncles, a cousin and a brother.)

But while the Bench condemned the “shameful act of hollow honour killing” and the barbarism it involved, it held that “unfortunately in this case there is no eyewitness to the occurrence” and that the entire case of the prosecution depended on circumstantial evidence. It was, therefore, left with little option but to infer certain facts on the basis of the circumstances projected by the prosecution. “As we have rendered the verdict based on circumstantial evidence, our conscience does not permit us to confirm the death sentence awarded to the accused,” it held. It also said that no offence had been made out against one of the five who had got the death sentence. The Bench referred to a recent decision of the apex court where the death sentence given by the trial court and confirmed by the High Court in a similar case of honour killing had been commuted to 25 years of actual imprisonment to three of the accused and 20 years to the fourth.

The Bench also added that Babli’s family had no criminal antecedents and that there was nothing to show they could not be reformed while serving their sentence. “A neighbour had taken away the girl and got her married. They had been confronted with a disturbed mental feeling,” the Bench said. It also said: “Just because it is a case of hollow honour killing, we cannot jump to a conclusion that the case [ sic] squarely shall not choose to incline that it squarely falls under the category of rarest of rare cases.”

Four of the accused were convicted under Section 302 (murder) of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) and sentenced to life imprisonment. The Bench directed that they would not be released until each of them completed 20 years of actual imprisonment without remission. An additional fine of Rs.5,000 each was imposed on them.

Two of the accused, Ganga Raj, who allegedly masterminded the crime, and Satish Kumar, were acquitted of all charges, including abduction, murder and criminal conspiracy. The Bench rejected Chanderpati’s plea for enhanced compensation from Ganga Raj. Chanderpati and her family said that they would appeal against the High Court order.

Investigating agencies censured

The role of the investigating agencies came in for severe criticism from the Bench, which observed that it was constrained to infer that police officers were hand in glove with the accused and had left a “loophole” at each and every stage of investigation. It ordered the State’s Director General of Police to initiate disciplinary proceedings against three police officers for their role in the botched investigations. It also said that the murder could have been prevented had the police acted on the message that they received soon after the abduction. “To our surprise, no step was taken by the Bhutana police station based on such a VT message with respect to abduction. We do not approve of such inaction on the part of the police force…. It appears that the investigating officials were completely sleeping over the matter even when the abductors forced the family members of Manoj to plunge headlong into the search…. The police officials had not woken up from their deep slumber till the dead bodies were identified.”

The police had bungled at every stage, beginning from the withdrawal of security to the couple, which ensured that they landed in a “death trap”, the Bench said. The mobile phones of the persons involved were not seized; crucial witnesses in the bus in which the couple travelled were not examined; and the owner of the phone booth from where Manoj made his last call to his mother was not cited as a witness. The Bench observed that the investigating officials “just investigated the matter for the purpose of giving disposal to the investigation”.


No honour in murder

22 May


Youngsters in certain parts of India today cannot choose their partners. If they still do and the choice violates arbitrary, extra-legal norms set down by caste panchayats, the consequence can be death. Isn’t it time we built a popular movement against the medieval practice of honour killings.



A newly-wed bride and her mother-in-law were killed and the groom seriously injured by the girl’s relatives in the Tarn Taran district of Punjab on May 11. According to the police, 19-year-old Gurleen Kaur’s naked body had deep cuts in the neck area, and her shoulder and fingers had been mutilated. Her father, brothers and uncles obviously thought this was fit punishment for her crime: marrying 25-year-old Amarpreet Singh against their wishes.

Around the same time, an 18-year-old girl, Rajni Sahu, was murdered by her family in Allahabad (Uttar Pradesh) after they discovered she was pregnant. Although her death was initially sought to be passed off as a suicide, her elder brother subsequently confessed that she was killed because she was determined to marry a neighbourhood boy despite her family’s disapproval. He told the media that he killed her “to safeguard the honour of our family.”

These are among the latest in the series of gruesome murders in the name of honour that have been reported from various parts of the country in recent months.

Will such so-called “honour killings” stop if the Hindu Marriage Act, 1955 is amended to prohibit marriages within the same gotra? Unlikely. That may be the most publicised of the demands and threats issued by the Khap Mahapanchayat — a congregation of caste Panchayats from Jat strongholds in Haryana, Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan — in Kurukshetra on April 13, and subsequently elsewhere. But it was not the only one. They have also reportedly called for a ban on marriages within the same village and contiguous villages, as well as de-recognition of temple weddings uniting runaway couples.

Landmark judgment

The mythical gotra factor may have come to the fore because the Kurukshetra gathering was clearly triggered by the recent landmark judgment delivered by District and Sessions Judge Vani Gopal Sharma in Karnal (Haryana) in the case of Manoj and Babli Banwala, a young couple belonging to the same caste and gotra, who were murdered in 2007 because they dared to marry each other.

But, as scholar and activist Jagmati Sangwan has pointed out, not all honour killings even within Haryana involve same-gotra couples. According to her, the majority of the marriages condemned by Khap Panchayats are of couples who do not share a gotra.

Besides, even in a small state like Haryana, there are apparently areas and castes that permit intra-village and intra-gotra marriages, and do not have caste or Khap Panchayats. So the self-styled Khap Mahapanchayat cannot legitimately claim to represent all Hindu communities in Haryana, let alone the rest of India.

Most victims of “honour killings” reported from various parts of the country are young people who choose to love or marry outside their caste, sub-caste or religion. Not surprisingly, the socially and economically dominant castes are usually responsible for acts of reprisal against inter-caste relationships.

The bottom line is that, even today, many young lovers are punished — often with death — for having the temerity to fall in love across boundaries of caste or religion. Many caste groups, communities and families in several parts of the country still seem violently opposed to the right of young adults to choose a life partner (even though courts have upheld citizens’ right to select their significant other, including a same-sex partner). In the name of preserving “social order” and saving the “honour” of the community, caste or family, all kinds of justifications are pressed into service. If the same village or gotra obstacle does not apply, there is always something else: a man was killed in Haryana last year for violating the “customary” proscription of marriage between residents of neighbouring villages.

Against individual choice

Opposition to matrimonial autonomy is so endemic in certain areas that in June 2008 Justice K.S. Ahluwalia of the High Court of Punjab and Haryana called for State intervention. While simultaneously hearing several cases relating to couples in the 18-21 age group he observed that the court was “flooded with petitions” seeking judicial confirmation of “the right of life and liberty of married couples,” while the State remained “a mute spectator”. “When shall the State awake from its slumber [and] for how long can Courts provide solace and balm by disposing of such cases?” he asked.

The recent spate of deaths attributed to “honour killing” and the aggressive, unrepentant posturing of Khap leaders seem to have pushed at least some in the government into taking a more decisive stand on the issue than was common in the past (under any political dispensation). However, it is no secret that these caste-based, extra-legal bodies enjoy at least tacit support from a number of political leaders, civil servants, police officers, lawyers and even judges. Already two politicians from Haryana — one supposedly enlightened, the other definitely old school — have publicly sought to make peace with the increasingly combative Khaps, albeit with riders (which ring rather hollow).

Sangwan’s statement that “A legislature with little political will and a pliant executive will have to be made responsive under pressure of a mass movement” brings to mind a recent book by the woman who was largely responsible for catalysing a popular movement against honour killings in Jordan, one of the many countries where a life — especially a woman’s life — appears to be worth less than “honour.”

Award-winning Jordanian journalist Rana Husseini’s Murder in the Name of Honouris a passionate, powerful, provocative but remarkably positive and eminently readable book about the struggle against “honour killings” in her West Asian nation and the prevalence of the crime in several other countries, including the U.S., the U.K. and Europe. Drawing on her personal and professional experience, it vividly tells the fascinating story of her engagement with the subject from the day she followed up on a four-line report about a 16-year-old girl killed by her brother in one of Amman’s poorer areas. Like the “kitchen accident” briefs in the Indian press in the 1970s that turned out to be about dowry-related murders, such reports were common in the Arabic press. As a cub crime reporter with The Jordan Times, Husseini felt the need to further investigate such deaths.

Relentless coverage

Each terrible tale she uncovered (described in chilling detail in the book) strengthened her determination to become the voice of women murdered by their own relatives and to make so-called honour killings into a national issue. Her relentless reporting of every case she came across from mid-1994 onwards attracted public support as well as opposition — even threats of violence. In 1998 she received the Reebok Human Rights Award for her reporting and activism on the issue. The international spotlight generated a national debate which, in turn, led to a citizens’ movement aiming to not only raise local awareness about the horror of “honour crimes” but also demand changes in the law as well as tougher punishment for perpetrators.

Of the many interesting and inspiring aspects of the Jordanian struggle against “honour killings,” the one that impressed me most was the organisers’ attempts to involve different sections of society, including the economically and educationally disadvantaged in both urban and rural areas, in the effort to eliminate such crimes.

According to Husseini, “We used every method we could think of to collect as many signatures as possible — the Internet, faxes, free and paid ads in newspapers, as well as TV and radio interviews. It was tremendously exciting; we carried the petitions with us wherever we went and whatever we did, and we always caused a stir… I frequently went with my friends…to restaurants where we approached diners…and many gladly signed as we chatted. Then we asked the waiters, waitresses, cooks, cleaners and managers. Outside one restaurant I bumped into a garbage collector who asked me what I was doing. Once I explained, he said, ‘Of course I will sign. This is against our religion’.” Husseini’s mother, a librarian, asked everyone she came across wherever she went to sign the petition. In less than six months, the campaigners managed to collect 15,300 signatures from the general public (55 per cent male, 45 per cent female).

Of course, as she points out, the struggle against “honour killings” has to be home-grown because the nature and manifestation of the crime, the social, cultural, political and economic factors involved, and the legal context, are often distinct in the various places where it occurs, calling for different approaches in different societies. For example, in Jordan — and many other countries — “honour killings” are almost invariably crimes against women and girls. In India, although women are the primary targets, young men who ‘ dare’ to transgress prescribed social boundaries are often not spared either.

Striking similarities

But there are similarities, too. According to Husseini, some influential and powerful people in Jordan, such as parliamentarians, judges, lawyers and policemen, believe that perpetrators of “honour killings” deserve leniency because everyone has the right to protect their family’s honour. In India, Sushma (Tiwari) Nochil has had to seek a review of the Supreme Court’s recent decision to commute to life imprisonment the death penalty awarded to her brother and his associates, who had murdered her husband and most members of his family. The judgment seemed to suggest that the patriarchal and casteist factors motivating the killers could be considered mitigating circumstances.

Likewise, if we have the Khap Mahapanchayat, they have the Islamic Action Front, the political arm of the Muslim Brotherhood in Jordan. If they have their conservative deputies, we have our regressive members of Parliament and, unfortunately, we both face “a great deal of apathy and laissez-faire from various parliamentarians.”

But here’s an advantage they have that we don’t. According to Husseini, several members of the Jordanian royal family signed the campaign petition; King Abdullah and Queen Raina have spoken out against so-called crimes of honour; Queen Noor has consistently fought to end violence against women in general and honour crimes in particular; the late King Hussein made a passionate plea in Parliament for an end to violence against women, besides pushing for changes in the laws offering leniency to perpetrators of honour killings; his brother, Prince Hassan, was one of the first royals to address the issue in the mid-1990s; two days after the legislative battle was lost in Parliament in 1999, Prince Ali (King Abdullah’s brother) called for a public march to Parliament in protest against the deputies’ decision to vote against the proposed amendments — and led it himself.

Monarchy may be passé in India but we have no dearth of modern-day royals in a number of fields such as politics, cinema, sports and business. Will they step up and speak out on an issue like murder in the name of honour?

Horrifying numbers

Honour killing is a somewhat misleading term for a ritualised form of murder precipitated by the aggressor’s perceived loss of “honour.” The perpetrators are generally male and the victims most often female. Some sections of society consider such crimes understandable, if not justifiable.

There is no nationwide data on the prevalence of honour killing in India; the National Crime Records Bureau does not collect separate data on the crime since it is not yet separately classified under Indian law. However, according to the All India Democratic Women’s Association (AIDWA) there were 103 cases of honour killings in Haryana alone within a period of four months in 2007. If that figure can be extrapolated to assume that the annual toll in the state is about 300, the total across the three states reporting the largest number of cases at the time (Haryana, Punjab and Uttar Pradesh) would be 900 per annum. If another 100-300 are added for the rest of the country, the figure for India would be about the same as estimates for Pakistan, which some researchers suggest has the highest per capita incidence of honour killings in the world.

Global phenomenon

This form of violence is a global phenomenon, prevalent in a number of countries. Ten years ago the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) estimated the annual world-wide number of “honour killing” victims at 5,000. But that is probably an underestimate since many cases go unreported, while many more are disguised as suicides, accidents and disappearances. Between 2000 and 2004 the UN General Assembly adopted three resolutions reflecting international commitment to working towards the elimination of crimes against women committed in the name of honour, with the third acknowledging that girls, too, are victims of such crimes.

Ancient claims

Gotra is a term applied to a clan, a group of families, or a lineage — exogamous and patrilineal — whose members trace their descent from a common male ancestor, usually a sage of ancient times. Believed to have begun to consolidate around 10-8 Century B.C., the present-day gotra classification is supposed to have been created from a core of eight rishis. Same-gotra marriages were declared legally valid by the Bombay High Court as far back as in 1945 in the Madhavrao vs. Raghavendrarao case involving a Deshastha Brahmin couple. Two reputed judges — Harilal Kania (who became the first Chief Justice of independent India) and P.B. Gajendragadkar (who went on to become the Chief Justice of India in the 1960s) — examined several court verdicts, consulted the writings of leading experts and quoted from Hindu scriptures in their ruling on whether a ‘sagotra’ (same-gotra) marriage was valid under Hindu law/custom. They concluded that it was.

Outside the law

18 May


Khap panchayats want the Hindu Marriage Act amended to prevent same-gotra marriages.

ON May 9, Naveen Jindal, the young and highly educated Member of Parliament from Kurukshetra in Haryana, was in a dilemma over having to take a stand on the issue of same- gotra marriages after khap panchayats, or caste councils, threatened to lay siege to his residence. The next day, in order to avoid an impending political embarrassment, he attended a meeting of the sarva khap panchayat at Kaithal district as if to extend support to their demands. That ruffled a few feathers.

Of late, khap panchayats have been demanding an amendment to certain sections of the Hindu Marriage Act, 1955, in order to prohibit same- gotra marriages. The immediate context is the March 30 verdict in the sensational two-and-a-half-year-old Manoj-Babli murder case in which a Karnal court awarded the death sentence to five persons. The court also sentenced to life imprisonment two others, one of whom was a khap panchayat leader of the Barwala gotra. Manoj and Babli, both Jats, had apparently violated the norms of village and gotra exogamy and were brutally done to death. A dominant khap in the area had ordered that the couple be killed.

Ever since the judgment, khap panchayats have been on the offensive, perhaps fearing similar verdicts in other cases of honour killing. On April 13, representatives of over 20 khaps met at Kurukshetra and demanded a ban on same- gotra marriages.

Section 29 of the Hindu Marriage Act validates same- gotra marriages. The section, titled “Savings”, says that “a marriage solemnised between Hindus before the commencement of this Act, which is otherwise valid, shall not be deemed to be invalid or ever to have been invalid by reason only of the fact that the parties thereto belonged to the same gotra or pravara or belonged to different religions, castes or subdivisions of the same caste”. Though the Act lists degrees of prohibited relationships, it accepts that under customary law certain marriages are valid. For instance, in certain parts of South India, marriages between cousins (children of a brother and sister) and between a man and his sister’s daughter are common and valid by custom.

Also, recognising the plurality of customs in the country, Section 5 (Sub-section 4) of the Act says that a marriage between two Hindus can be solemnised if the parties are not sapindas (meaning, of the same body) of each other, unless the custom or usage governing each of them permits of a marriage between the two. The sapinda relationship with reference to any person extends as far as the third generation in the line of ascent through the mother and fifth in the line of ascent through the father. Khap panchayats want the Act to be amended to disallow same- gotra marriages and it is in this context that they met their elected representative.

A cornered Jindal, in a letter to the khap representatives, acknowledged the existence of khap panchayats since the time of rulers such as Asoka and Harshavardhana and said they had always given a “new direction” to society. He declared his support to them by saying that the panchayats had been rendering yeoman service to society by resolving people’s problems even before the present-day legal system came into existence. As if to balance his unqualified support of their undemocratic diktats, he urged them to take up issues such as female foeticide and dowry.

The young MP made certain pronouncements that indirectly supported the actions of such panchayats. What is shocking in the entire episode is that while khap panchayats have been known to impose their cruel writ on young couples going for inter-caste, inter- gotra or even inter-religious marriages, enforce social and economic boycotts and humiliate families – more so if they happened to be poor as well – this was the first time that an elected representative was bulldozed into taking a position on same- gotra marriages.

Significantly, no one in the Congress party to which Jindal belongs condemned or protested when the khap panchayats threatened to lay siege to his house. It was as if Jindal had to fight his own battle.

However, Chief Minister Bhupinder Singh Hooda broke his silence a few days later, clarifying that khaps would not be allowed to take the law into their own hands. But he remained non-committal on the issue of same- gotra marriages.

The central leadership of the Congress took a more radical view of the matter and broke its silence when confronted with Jindal’s stance. It claimed that his statements were an “expression of opinion by an honourable Member of Parliament” and that there was no change in the party’s stand on the matter, which, according to party spokesperson Abhishek Manu Singhvi, was that “no customary law or practice can be excused or condoned in any manner if it involves killing of any kind in the name of honour, tradition or heritage”.

The Union Law Ministry has refrained from taking a head-on position regarding the banning of khap panchayats. But, in what seems to a progressive move, in line with what women’s organisations have been demanding for long, the Ministry appears to be seriously contemplating to do away with the 30-day notice period required to register marriages, including inter-caste, inter-community and inter-religious ones, solemnised under the Special Marriage Act, 1954.

The one-month time was often used to track down and harass couples. Union Law Minister M. Veerappa Moily has overruled the question of making any change to the Hindu Marriage Act, and indicated that a strong deterrent against khaps issuing death diktats would be set in place. However, khap panchayats have been aggressive in their demand to amend the Act. The representatives of 20 khaps who met at Kurukshetra on April 13 challenged the Karnal court judgment and declared that they would collect money on behalf of those who had been sentenced to death and life imprisonment.

Observers feel that the forthcoming panchayat and municipal elections are one reason for the sudden caste-based mobilisation. On May 2, khap panchayats, in a meeting held at Pai in Kaithal district, gave all elected representatives in the State a month’s notice to support their demand.

On May 4, Satbir Chahal, the organiser of the Akhil Bharatiya Jat Swabhimaan Sangathan and the Sarvajatiya Committee (all-caste committee), said that if the demand to amend the Act was not met, tough decisions would be taken at the all-caste panchayat meeting at Jind on May 23. He also announced that the panchayat would not allow the hanging of those who had been sentenced to death in the Manoj-Babli case. According to newspaper reports, representatives from 84 khaps attended the meeting.

The organisation also expressed annoyance with the Congress leadership for labelling Jindal’s views as personal. It has asked the Congress to clarify its position on same- gotra marriages.

Not surprisingly, former Chief Minister and Indian National Lok Dal leader Om Prakash Chautala has taken up the issue. He not only supported the demand for amendments to the Hindu Marriage Act but opined that such marriages were not right “medically or scientifically”. His stand is surprising as his own village, Chautala, has witnessed such marriages.

Om Prakash Chautala also said that he would bring up a proposal in the Assembly regarding the same. He has found an ally in Congress Rajya Sabha member Shadilal Batra, who has supported the demand for an amendment to the Act.

That leaders of the two mainstream parties in the State have taken a stand favouring khap panchayats is a matter of concern. This will have repercussions in neighbouring States such as Rajasthan and Punjab and in western Uttar Pradesh, where Jats as a caste group are dominant.

“It is ridiculous. If couples in love are willing to give up their lives to get married, they will find ways of marrying one way or the other, including outside the Hindu Marriage Act. I don’t know what these groups and political parties are trying to prove,” said Inderjit Singh, State secretary of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), adding that the current trajectory of caste identity politics was worrisome.

Parallel system

It maybe recalled that soon after the infamous Mirchpur incident on April 21, where 18 Dalit homes were torched and a physically challenged girl and her father killed, khaps rallied in support of those arrested in the arson. Many quarters view with concern the attempt to create a parallel law and order system that goes beyond honour killings.

“After a long history of struggles, the Special Marriage Act was amended to allow for inter-caste, inter-religious and inter-community marriages. Under the Hindu Marriage Act too, the consent of a person to get married became essential and gotra marriages were not included within the degrees of relationships that were prohibited. It was recognised that a gotra involved a large number of people – their numbers running into lakhs – who were not necessarily direct or indirect relations of each other. Section 29 of the Act specifically provided that marriages between persons of the same gotra or pravara would not be invalidated,” said Kirti Singh, senior lawyer in the Supreme Court of India.

Formerly a member of the Law Commission of India, Kirti Singh said that the issues at stake included the rights of young people to get married according to their choice and to decide when they should get married. Khaps, she said, wanted the Act amended in order to justify their violent acts against young couples in the name of protecting custom and tradition.

Khap terror

9 Mar


ON February 12, Meham town in Rohtak district, Haryana, saw a citizens’ convention that was unusual in more than one sense. First, it was being held from the ramparts of the Meham Chaubisi Chabootara, a platform reserved for members of the Meham panchayat (a conglomeration of 24 villages, better known as the Meham Chaubisi). Second, the meeting was not dominated by any one caste. Third, it was a congregation of secular and democratic groups, and a good number of women participated in it. (Women had never attended meetings at that venue since all caste and khap panchayats are male-dominated.) Fourth, it was a meeting where caste and khap panchayats and their undemocratic ways were roundly criticised. People from neighbouring villages also attended the meeting and expressed their opposition to the illegal acts of the panchayats.

The meeting reflected a growing anger against the actions of self-styled khap panchayats. In early February itself, there were at least three reported cases of panchayats ordering the expulsion of married couples for having allegedly violated one community norm or the other. Meham shot into notoriety 20 years ago following complaints of poll-rigging and booth-capturing in an Assembly byelection. The election had to be countermanded twice because of large-scale violence and the murder of an independent candidate. The Meham Chaubisi has historically played a crucial role in elections.

Bhaichaara victims

On January 31, Kavita and Satish, a young couple from Kheri Meham with a nine-month-old child, were told by the khap panchayat that their marriage three years ago was in violation of the gotra norm of bhaichaara, or brotherhood. Kavita belongs to the Beniwal gotra and Satish to the Berwal gotra, and their marriage had seemingly not violated any caste or gotra norm. However, according to the bhaichaara norm, girls belonging to a village’s dominant gotra could be accepted in that village only as sisters, and not as wives. Of late, this has been used to harass couples who either married out of their own choice or whose marriages were arranged by their families.

Twenty-one members of the Beniwal gotra convened a meeting and decided to expel Kavita and Satish from the village. Kavita could not stay in the village as the wife of Satish, but the child could live with Satish’s father, Azad Singh, the meeting decreed.

As a punishment for allowing the marriage to take place, the 65-year-old Azad Singh was paraded around the village with a shoe shoved into his mouth. Azad Singh’s family is among the poorer ones in the village and belongs to a minority gotra. “We were told that we could stay on in the village if we donated whatever land we possessed to the village dera (a village shelter used by mendicants). As per the ruling, Satish would become his own child’s uncle while I have to pay Rs.3 lakh for the upkeep of my grandchild. How will I procure all the money for this after giving away my land?” said Azad Singh.

Anil Rao, Senior Superintendent of Police, Rohtak, told Frontline that the couple was now staying in Bhiwani district and that he had sent word to the police authorities there to provide them security.

Kavita had, with support from her parents, who live in Bhiwani district, approached the SSP with a detailed complaint, naming the people who had convened the panchayat and humiliated her father-in-law. She demanded action against the 21 gotra members involved in the act. But the police registered a first information report (FIR) without mentioning any names – reportedly owing to pressure from influential people. Frontline learnt that at least two revenue department employees and one panchayat samiti member were involved in the humiliation of Azad Singh and in the decision to expel the couple.

The SSP said that the police were doing everything possible to help the couple and claimed that police intervention had forced the Meham Chaubisi to reverse its judgment. A joint meeting of the Berwal and Beniwal khaps resolved that the couple could live as man and wife but outside their village. The Chaubisi also condemned the humiliation of Azad Singh.

At Azad Singh’s house, emotions run high. “They have done their worst. What more can they do?” said Azad Singh, referring to his humiliation. While he and his wife Lakshmi are relieved to have police protection against further assaults by members of the dominant gotra, they are scared to say openly that they will bring their daughter-in-law home. “What would you do if you are surrounded by the village toughs? But how can a man and his wife reconvert as brother and sister?” wondered an elderly relative of Azad Singh. However, she said that the panchayat was right in its decision but others had influenced it wrongly. Lakshmi wondered what would be the nature of her relationship with her grandson, Raunaq, if her son and daughter-in-law were to see each other as brother and sister.

It was shocking that none of the influential Berwal gotra members was ready to stand by the family. Dharamraj, a former sarpanch of Kheri village, said that the khaps’ decision, taken at a joint meeting of the two khaps, was final. The role of an elected sarpanch, as has been seen in most cases relating to such issues, is marginal. An older citizen of the village told Frontline that an elected sarpanch was of use only if he was influential and “strong”.

The police maintained a studious silence regarding the couple’s desire to live together in their own village of Kheri. “Mindsets have to change, and then there is the issue of bhaichaara that cannot be disturbed,” said a police officer.

It is significant that the Punjab and Haryana High Court took suo motu notice of the issue and asked the Haryana government to file a reply. The Director-General of Police told the court that the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, 1967, does not cover the activities of khap panchayats. Equally significant is the fact that apart from the Left parties and the All India Democratic Women’s Association (AIDWA), which took up the cudgels on Kavita’s behalf, several individuals, including veteran Congress leader Shamsher Singh Surjewala, and organisations such as the All India Lawyers’ Union, the All India Kisan Sabha and a few youth organisations, denounced the undemocratic diktats of the caste panchayat.

Apart from the Kheri incident, three other cases of caste panchayat atrocities were reported in the recent past. A couple in Jind district came under immense pressure to call off their engagement after a section of residents of the boy’s village, Budalkhera, claimed that the gotras of the groom and the bride had brotherly relations. The Budalkhera panchayat declared that the marriage could not take place in the village. The families of the couple resisted and finally, on February 6, the panchayat reversed its order. But it ensured that the wedding took place outside the village.

Similarly, on November 1 last year, a joint panchayat of the Garhi Ballam and Sundana villages ordered a couple to leave the village for violating gotra norms. The couple quietly left. No complaint was lodged.

Curiously, on February 3, in a village in Hisar district, members of the Scheduled Caste Dhanak community objected to a wedding and banished the boy from the village, alleging gotra violations. That was perhaps the first time that the Dhanak community had targeted one of its own. Until then, only a section of the Jat community was found raising vocal and violent objections on the grounds of gotra violations. It was because of the intervention of some Left and democratic organisations and the determination of the boy’s mother, a widow who threatened to commit suicide, that the panchayat finally relented.

The Bhupinder Singh Hooda government’s record in taking on illegal actions of caste groups is less than satisfactory. Such incidents are as common as they were before, but many of them go unreported.

“There are so many more important issues – such as dowry, domestic violence and livelihood issues. But we spend most of our energy and time fighting the unconstitutional fiats of these self-styled panchayats,” said Jagmati Sangwan, president of the State unit of AIDWA.

She pointed out that though the government had promised to set up shelters for couples who were being targeted by khap panchayats, to date not a single one had come up.

The Rohtak SSP told Frontline that harassed couples could stay in the police lines, sharing accommodation with other families until the government shelters came up. “We can’t provide independent accommodation for 2,000 couples overnight,” he said.

Her struggle for justice against honour killing

8 Mar

Divya Gandhi in THE HINDU

Sushma’s brother murdered her husband, three others to avenge their marriage

Bangalore: As the Women’s Reservation Bill rings in the centennial year of Women’s Day on a celebratory note, 25-year-old Sushma Tiwari’s story tells of an inspirational fight-back against a brutal form of patriarchy and caste oppression.



It has been a six-year legal battle for Sushma against the horrific ‘honour killing’ by her brother of almost her entire marital family: husband Prabhu Nochil, her father-in-law and two minors in their home near Mumbai, all to avenge her marriage into a family of a ‘lower’ caste. Sushma is from a Brahmin family of UP, and Prabhu, an Ezhava from Kerala.

Although the fast track sessions court in Maharashtra, and later the Bombay High Court, awarded the death penalty to Sushma’s brother Dilip Tiwari and his accomplices, the Supreme Court in December 2009 reduced the sentence to 25-year imprisonment.

This February, Sushma filed a review petition questioning the decision to let off the perpetrators of this heinous crime.

In 2004, seven months after the couple got married, Dilip and his associates massacred four members of the Nochil family, and grievously injured two others. A pregnant Sushma luckily escaped as she was visiting a relative.

The Supreme Court, explaining its decision to revoke the death sentence, said: “It is a common experience that when the younger sister commits something unusual and in this case it was an inter-caste, intercommunity marriage out of [a] secret love affair, then in society it is the elder brother who justifiably or otherwise is held responsible for not stopping such [an] affair.”

It added: “If he became the victim of his wrong but genuine caste considerations, it would not justify the death sentence… The vicious grip of the caste, community, religion, though totally unjustified, is a stark reality.”

“Totally illegal”

Sushma has challenged this reasoning, stating this perception “is wrong and totally illegal under our Constitution and various laws of the land like the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989” and “can never be made a ground for lessening a sentence. In fact, these feelings of caste hatred are themselves criminal…”

Her petition states: “In fact, mass killings based on the concept of ‘honour’ must be viewed by this Hon’ble Court as murders which must be given the highest deterrent sentence.”

In Bangalore recently to attend the National Young Women’s convention organised by the All India Democratic Women’s Association (AIDWA), this resolute young woman told The Hindu that by reducing the sentence, the highest court of the land has sent out a wrong message to all those who wished to marry out of caste. “Even if not for my own safety or that of my five-year-old daughter Trishna, the death sentence must be upheld for the sake of humanity.”


7 Feb

Khap panchayat decision ‘abhorrent’, says Haryana caste body president


A 22-year-old woman in Haryana has thrown the gauntlet at the powerful Jat khap panchayat (village caste council), refusing to follow its diktat to start living with her husband of three years as “brother and sister”. The president of the larger body of khap panchayats has now denounced the diktat as “abhorrent”.

The defiance of Kavita — whose marriage to Satish was summarily declared annulled by the khap panchayat in Rohtak’s Meham Kheri village on January 30 because husband and wife belonged to the same gotra — was reported by The Indian Express on February 6.“I will never agree to their decision,” Kavita, who has a 10-month-old baby and is one of only three women in her village who have a diploma in teacher’s training, had said.

Today, Randhir Singh, chief of the Meham Chaubisi, the umbrella body of khap panchayats in whose jurisdiction the panchayat of Kavita’s village lies, said he strongly disapproved of the diktat.“Let me be very categorical. The manner in which punishment was meted out to the family was abhorrent,” said Singh. “In our view, the marriage was wrong, but the way the Kheri panchayat went about administering its justice was doubly wrong. This is why I have called a meeting on Tuesday (February 9). We want to avoid any sort of violence or unrest.”The area has been tense since Kavita complained to the Rohtak SSP against the khap panchayat’s order, and an FIR was registered against 21 people. The family is now living under police protection.Meham Chaubisi is the most powerful khap panchayat body in Haryana, with influence over 3.5 lakh people. In the early 1990s, Meham Chaubisi had famously and violently stood up to former Chief Minister Om Parkash Chautala. Singh, who is in his sixties, is aware of the significance of the decision taken by a Meham Chaubisi panchayat in a state where khap panchayats annulled over 40 marriages in 2009 alone.

“I know the girl well,” said Singh. “She is a very docile and polite child. All the (strong) utterances she has been making are under the influence of the media and some relatives. However, the whole issue should make us ponder over an ill which has been ignored for a long time now.”Singh was referring to the social ill of female infanticide, which, he said, had shrunk the number of women available for marriage, and contributed to the rising number of weddings between the “prohibited sets of gotras”.“Haryana has the one of the worst sex ratios in India. I think this is a collective failure of our society. Today there are villages, where there simply aren’t enough girls. Considering their far reaching influence, it is high time that panchayats took a lead in this direction.”Satish and Kavita belong to the Berwal and Beniwal communities respectively, who are, as per local custom, bound by consanguinity and hence barred from marrying each other.

“This is not irrational,” Singh said. “Even some of our greatest social reformers have warned against the dangers of marrying within the same family. For example, Swami Dayanand Saraswati specifically said that there should be a gap of at least seven steps between two families. It is a practice that is being followed since time immemorial.”Despite his arguments in favour of the separation of gotras, Singh, a former officer in the state government, wants to do everything to avoid violence.“Contrary to projections in the media, we are not like the Taliban. We are simply upholding our customs. The main purpose of the meeting on 9th is to avert bloodshed. We don’t want lives to be lost.”

He has some idea of the possible “solution”: “I think if we can convince the couple to leave the village and allow the parents to live in their home with dignity, the solution can be sorted out.”However, this is a solution that both Kavita and Satish have already rejected. At Satish’s home, 50 km away from Kavita’s, Satish’s 20-year-old brother Ravinder put forth a condition: “My brother and sister-in-law may leave the village only if the man who made my father go around the village with a shoe in his mouth is made to do the same. He is a powerful local politician, but he cannot treat people like this.”

This Haryana caste panchayat story has a twist: a woman stands up to fight back

Holding her 10-month-old son, Kavita, 22, repeats just one line: “I will never agree to their decision.” Overnight, the khap panchayat (caste council) in Maham Kheri village, annulled Kavita’s 3-year-old marriage. The Jat caste panchayat declared that Kavita and her husband Satish were of the same gotra and cannot live as couple. The panchayat announced that they had to treat each other as siblings.Not an unusual story in Haryana’s Jat heartland but this one has a twist: Kavita, one of the three women from the village with a diploma in teacher’s training, has refused to buckle. She is fighting back.

“How can they decide one fine morning that I should treat my husband as my brother? All of them attended our wedding, they even sat during the pheras when the gotras of both the bridegroom and the bride were announced. Then nobody raised a question, so why now?” she speaks out as the other women of the house remain huddled on the kitchen floor and as two constables, posted for their security, watch.Kavita went with her family to the Rohtak SSP’s office to lodge a complaint against the khap panchayat early this week. An FIR was registered against the 21 members of the panchayat and forced the council to call a review meeting. In a meeting held on Friday, the khap panchayat apologised to Satish’s father for parading him with a shoe in his mouth. The members decided that in case Kavita and Statish wanted to live together, they would have to leave the village. But for Kavita, that’s not an option. “Why should I?” she says.

“We have registered an FIR based on Kavita’s complaint and we are investigating the case. Based on the findings, we will take appropriate action against the persons found guilty,” says SP Rohtak, Anil Kumar Rao. An assistant sub-inspector posted in Hissar was also part of the khap panchayat. “We have reported his involvement to his superiors in Hissar who will take departmental action against him,” Rao adds.Even as Kavita is running from pillar to post against the panchayat’s ruling, her husband stays inside his house, 50 km away. Its courtyard is full of relatives. Three police constables, who have been posted for the family’s security, pass on the hookka and take part in the discussions.The only person who is not involved in the talks is Satish, a temporary worker in a milk plant in Rohtak. Since the khap panchayat order, he has not even stepped outside the house, fearing backlash.“I do not know why they targeted us. The local numberdar wants to fight for panchayat elections as sarpanch. Maybe he just wanted to rake up some issue,” Satish says.

“On January 30, the khap panchayat started at 12:00 pm. Instead of having it in an open chaupal, they held it behind closed doors. They came out at 4:00 pm to announce the decision,” Kavita says.The panchayat then forced a shoe in mouth of Kavita’s father-in-law Azad Singh and paraded him in the village. His wife Laxmi fainted. Kavita’s brother immediately took her home. “I did not have time to pack and why should I pack? I am not abiding by this decision. I will go back soon to my husband,” Kavita says.The drama began when Hawa Singh Pradhan, who retired from the Haryana State Electricity Board, went to a neighbourhood village, Charkhi, to visit his relatives. While leaving, as per tradition, he was distributing money among the women of the family. During the brief interaction, an old woman who belonged to the Beniwal gotra told him that one of her granddaughters was married in his village.

Within hours, the news had spread across Maham Kheri village that Kavita and Satish were from the same gotra. Within three days, a 21-member committee was formed and a decision taken. “The marriage stands annulled and they should live as brother and sister,” Pradhan says. “The village is volatile because of this issue. We have taken this decision to calm down the villagers.” Kavita is waiting for February 9 when the khap panchayat of 24 villages will be held. “I will not leave my village. I have done no wrong,” she says.

Victim of khap panchayat order files complaint with Rohtak police


The controversy over a same-gotra marriage in Rohtak district of Haryana has taken a new turn after its victim filed a formal complaint seeking registration of a case against the Benewal khap panchayat. Kavita, who was forced to leave her in-laws’ house on January 31 following a diktat issued by the khap panchayat, met Rohtak Senior Superintendent of Police Anil Kumar Rai on Wednesday, seeking action against the panchayat for issuing an “unconstitutional” order declaring her marriage null and void. She also sought reunion with her husband Satish of Kheri Meham village.

Rai said her written complaint had been forwarded to the station house officer (SHO) of Meham for necessary action. In her complaint, Kavita has alleged that it was a pre-planned conspiracy to disrupt her marriage and action must be initiated against the panchayat so that it was not repeated again. Meanwhile, the mahapanchayat of Meham Chaubisi is scheduled to meet on February 9 to resolve the issue. —C B Singh

Woman, baby forced to leave in-laws’ home on khap order


Following the orders of a khap panchayat, a resident of Kheri Meham village in Rohtak, Haryana, was forced to leave the house of her in-laws with her nine-month-old son on Sunday. On Saturday, the Kheri Meham khap panchayat had declared the marriage of Kavita Beharwal with Satish Benewal illegal, and ordered her to leave the village. Kavita of Bagi village in Jhajjar had got married to Satish in November 2007. After remaining silent for two years, on Saturday the Kheri Meham panchayat ruled their marriage invalid as they were of the same gotra and, even though they had been living together for two years, were like siblings.Meanwhile, parents of Kavita met representatives of the Meham Chaubisi and informed them about the undemocratic decision of the Kheri panchayat.

Satpal Sings, PRO of SSP office Rohtak, said: “We have not received any complaint from the girl’s or the boy’s parents. We will act once we receive the complaint.” On Sunday, a Mahapanchayat of nearby villages was summoned to review the directions issued by the Kheri Meham panchayat, but its members did not turn up. The issue has now been referred to the Meham Chaubisi, the panchayat representing 24 villages of the area, who will soon meet to take a final decision on the marriage.

Khap panchayats are not above Constitution, says Punjab CJ


Making it clear that khap panchayats are not above the law, Punjab and Haryana High Court Chief Justice Mukul Mudgal on Friday expressed serious concern over the diktats issued by such bodies.“Are you trying to say that khap panchayats are above the Constitution? This is not Afghanistan, this is India. Talibani courts cannot be allowed here,” said Justice Mudgal. He was hearing a case related to a PIL filed by an NGO, Lawyers for Human Rights International.

In an intervening application, advocate Pirthi Singh Chauhan had stated that khap panchayats were not doing anything illegal. “Khap panchayats are complimenting customary law and it is the right of khap panchayats, rather their fundamental duty as well, to abide by the customs,” said the plea. Referring to a case in which a person, Ved Pal, was lynched by a mob in a village for marrying within the same gotra, Chauhan stated: “The acts of Ved Pal and his wife amounted to public nuisance, affecting other members of the religion.”

Saying that the victim had not conformed to the “conditions of a valid Hindu marriage,” he added: “Marriage between same gotra is strictly prohibited. The actions of khap panchayats are not inconsistent or derogatory to the Constitution. Any restrictions imposed by the khap are valid.” Chauhan further stated that “If khap panchayats do not impose restrictions, then violators will destroy the society and create chaos. Ved Pal wanted to destabilise the society and administration”.Reacting sharply to the application, the Chief Justice made it clear that nobody is above the Constitution.Appearing for the NGO, advocate Navkiran Singh argued that khap panchayats are an affront to the establishment of judicial system. “The diktats of these panchayats cannot be allowed in a democratic set-up,” he said.

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