By Saptarishi Dutta and Margherita Stancati – WALL STREET JOURNAL
In a document filed to the Supreme Court this week, a group of khap panchayats – unelected but powerful village councils common in parts of northern India – defended themselves against charges they have perpetuated honor killings in the country.
These crimes, which happen in some parts of rural India, are often sparked by couples marrying without their parents’ consent.
In traditional environments, strict cultural rules regulate who can marry whom – a decision that is usually left to families. Breaking these rules can bring shame to the couples’ families, who can be ostracized from their communities as a result.
The onus of upholding a family’s morality mostly falls on women, who are also the most common victims of honor killings, say activists. By marrying a man without her parents’ consent “she is seen as polluting not just herself but also her domestic group,” explains Deepak Mehta, a Delhi-based sociologist. In extreme cases, relatives turn to murder to restore their honor in the eyes of their community.
Shakti Vahini, a women’s rights group, filed a petition in the Supreme Court in 2010 demanding the government do more to prevent honor killings and punish those that carry them out.
The petition called on the court to limit the powers of khap panchayats, which are extremely influential in the northern states of Haryana and Uttar Pradesh, where they act as extrajudicial bodies. Critics say the bodies reinforce conservative attitudes toward caste and morality, perpetuating a patriarchal order. This, they say, encourages a social environment where honor killings happen.
“The khaps, though not directly involved in the killings, are guilty of providing sanctity to such crimes,” Shakti Vahini said in the petition.
This week, as part of hearings on the petition, the court called leaders representing a group of 67 khap panchayats from India’s northern Haryana state to defend themselves and to give their version of why honor killings occur.
The leaders presented a written document saying they can’t be held responsible for such actions. The document says the responsibility lies at the door of families who allow their daughters and sisters the freedom to interact with men, which leads them to be ostracized by other villagers.
Friends and relatives “cannot withstand the hostile taunts of their companions and public at large,” and this, in turn, “forces them…to commit such a heinous crime.” the document says.
In families where daughters fear their male relatives, such honor killings “never happen,” said Om Prakash Dhankhar, a leader who represented the khap panchayats in court.
The document suggested one way of reducing honor killings would be for India to ban marriages between couples from the same “gotra,” or sub-castes that are traditionally believed to share a common bloodline.
Citing religious texts, the leaders called for an amendment to the 1955 Hindu Marriage Act to make it unlawful for people from the same gotra to marry. This, it argued, would lead to a “very considerable” reduction in honor killings.
The message it gave to the court was clear: change the law so that people won’t punish such marriages.
However, according to Shakti Vahini, honor killings for same-gotra marriages accounted for less than a tenth of such murders reported in Haryana. Four-fifths of honor killings in the state were due to families’ anger at women marrying men from another caste, the group said.
The central government has opposed banning marriages between people of the same gotra and has condemned khap panchayats for their interference on such matters. A commission working under India’s Law Ministry last year drafted a bill aimed at curbing the interference of khap panchayats on weddings.
In a note introducing the bill, the chairman of the Law Commission of India spoke of the need to “curb the social evil” of caste-based khap panchayats, who are “interfering with and endangering the life and liberty of young persons marrying partners belonging to the same gotra or a different caste/religion.”
The “Prohibition of Interference with the Freedom of Matrimonial Alliances Bill” is yet to be introduced in Parliament.
Mr. Dhankar said the khap panchayats he represented were not against inter-caste marriage, only those between members of the same gotra.
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