The Supreme Court on Tuesday delivered a scathing judgement against khap panchayats or communal assemblies that target inter-caste and inter-religious couples and put in place a slew of preventive, remedial and punitive guidelines to tackle the menace of so-called honour crimes.

In a 54-page judgement authored by Chief Justice of India Dipak Misra, the court said “the act of honour killing puts the rule of law in a catastrophic crisis” and said it was the duty of the government to protect the life and dignity of those harassed by the assemblies. No individual or group has the right to interfere in a consensual and legal relationship between two adults, the court asserted.

The guidelines put in place now make it mandatory for the police to video record proceedings of khap panchayats. The court has also recommended disciplinary action within six months against officers who do not act against such khap panchayats despite knowledge of illegal proceedings.

The Supreme Court has reiterated the importance of the right to choose as an indisputable aspect of right to a dignified life guaranteed under Article 21 of the Constitution.

Freedom and dignity

Misra cited previous judgements of the court stating that there is no honour in so-called honour killings. India’s is a compassionate Constitution that provides not only the right to life but also the right to a dignified life, he said. The right to choose one’s life partner is integral to dignity of life. If a marriage is legal, no individual or body of individuals has any right to interfere.

“The human rights of a daughter, brother, sister or son are not mortgaged to the so-called or so-understood honour of the family or clan or the collective,” Mishra wrote in the judgement.

Citing a Law Commission report on honour killings, the chief justice said khap panchayats are a reflection of the male point of view of what is agreeable in a society. He also pointed out that honour crimes include not just honour killings but any ill-treatment of men and women for exercising their free will to choose their partner. Misra observed:

“It can be stated without any fear of contradiction that any kind of torture or torment or ill-treatment in the name of honour that tantamounts to atrophy of choice of an individual relating to love and marriage by any assembly, whatsoever nomenclature it assumes, is illegal and cannot be allowed a moment of existence.”

Strict guidelines

The Central government had told the court it was consulting with states to draft a law against “honour killings”. The court then issued guidelines to be followed until such a law is enacted. Misra categorised the guidelines as preventive, remedial and punitive.

The court said state governments should identify areas where honour killings have been reported or where khap panchayats are known to have gathered in the past five years, and direct the police to be “extra cautious” in these areas.

If a khap panchayat assembles, an officer of no less than the rank of deputy superintendent of police should try to persuade it not to take any decisions restricting or intimidating couples. If this does not work, the court said, a first information report must be filed against all those attending the meeting and they should be prosecuted within six months. Proceedings of the panchayats have to be videographed to help establish criminality, the court said. The police can even use Section 144 of the Code of Criminal Procedure to prevent a khap panchayat from assembling.

As a remedial measure, the police shall provide protection to couples facing threats and, if they so desire, facilitate their marriage and its registration. The government shall establish safe houses to shelter such couples and these safe houses shall be under the supervision of the district magistrate or the superintendent of police. This facility shall be available to both inter-caste or inter-religious couples facing threats and unmarried couples.

In case a police official learns that a khap panchayat has flouted the guidelines and fails to act, the court ruled, disciplinary proceedings must be initiated and the officer punished within six months.