CHENNAI : Days after the bodies of a young inter-caste couple- Nandesh and Swathi, were found floating in the Cauvery a few days ago, pointing to what is called an ‘honour killing’, voices demanding a separate legislation against the crime have grown louder. “When there is a surge in a particular crime, it naturally warrants a special legislation and special courts. The legislation will help standardise the punishment and not leave it to courts,” said K Samuel Raj, general secretary, Tamil Nadu Untouchability Eradication Front (TNUEF).
The State government had told the Madras High Court that anti-honour killing cells with 24x7 helplines would be set up in all districts in 2016. After there was a delay in setting up the cells as assured, the organisation moved a contempt petition in 2017, in response to which the special cells were finally set up. However, when it audited the functioning of these helplines, it found that only Madurai had a dedicated helpline.
“The helpline numbers notified by other districts were of existing police stations or NGOs, some of whom were taken aback when informed that their numbers were submitted in court as the numbers to the special hotline,” he said adding that they would soon seek a common helpline number for all districts.
The official apathy on display reiterated the need for a special legislation on ‘honour’ killings, he said.
“These are special cases, you see, when the couple’s close family members are directly or indirectly involved in the crime. Who, then, would help the victims fight the case in court? In other crimes like domestic violence, the victims can fall back on the support of family members while they seek legal recourse,” he said. It was also difficult to gather witnesses, he said, since the crime happened within closed walls in most cases.
“As far as Tamil Nadu is concerned, it is difficult even to recover the bodies, like in the case of Usilampatti Vimaladevi.”The body of V Vimaladevi, was allegedly cremated by her parents and relatives without informing the police in 2014, after she was said to have killed herself. She was said to have been in love with a Dalit boy.
Other than the physical and emotional harm inflicted on young couples, a key casualty with the lack of a legislation in place, is data, say activists. “Based on field reports, we have concluded that there has been 145 honour killings in the State from 2014 to 2015. However, with no special law for this crime, it is difficult to get the exact number of killings from officials,” said Kathir, Director of Evidence, a Madurai-based human rights organisation.
It was only in 2014 that the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) first began recording offences under the honour killing category. In 2014, no honour killings were reported in Tamil Nadu while in 2015 one honour killing was recorded and one again in 2016- a gross underestimation, according to activists.
It has also led to the lack of a statutory definition of what an honour killing is. The international
definitions of the crime often do not fit the caste-inspired killings that occurs in India.
On the need for a special law, he said, “When family members belonging to upper or intermediate castes murder their son or daughter for marrying a Dalit, there is no scope for the SC/ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act since neither the accused nor the victim are Dalits. But, the reason behind the killing is still casteism. What do we do then?”
Kausalya Shankar, who survived an attack on her and her husband Shankar, a Dalit in 2014 (the year when NCRB reported honour killings in the State to be nil) allegedly by her family, agrees. “Had it been Shankar who survived and I was the one killed, I doubt if he would have gotten justice for the same case. We could invoke the SC/ST Act for Shankar’s case, but if I had been killed, it would have been just another murder,” she said.
“If one or both of inter-caste couples are killed, the investigation should be from the caste angle first. A special law is needed for this. In my case, a vehicle was used to facilitate the attack. The law should have provisions to bring everyone involved, including the person who lent the vehicle for the purpose and the one who paid for it, to book,” she said.
In 2012, the National Law Commission came out with a report on
‘Prevention of Interference with Freedom of Matrimonial Alliances (in the name of Honour and
Tradition)’. The commission was of the view that there was no need to introduce a provision in Section 300 (Murder) IPC to include honour killings within its ambit. “The existing provisions in IPC are adequate enough to take care of the situations leading to overt acts of killing or causing bodily harm to the targeted person who allegedly undermined the honour of the caste or community,” the report said.
In March 2018, the Centre told the Supreme Court that it would soon bring in a law to make honour killing a cognisable offence, based on a plea by a Delhi-based NGO, Shakti Vahini, that sought to curb ‘honour killings’. The proposed bill had received comments from 23 States at that time. “The Centre had delayed the enactment for a long time. I believe that the latest update is that 27 States have responded with comments,” said Ravi Kant, president of the NGO and a Supreme Court advocate.
“What is important in the proposed bill is the common liability. Not only those who execute the killings, the conspirators and anyone who initiates them will all be held accountable. The investigations have also been deputed to senior officials which would come as a welcome relief,” he added.
With the law still not in sight, the Supreme Court had, in March 2018, laid down a set of ‘preventive, remedial and punitive’ guidelines until such a law was made.
Legislation not the solution, merely a part of itAccording to Kathir, there was an inextricable gender aspct to the ‘honour killings’. In Tamil Nadu, 80 per cent of ‘honour killing’ victims were women, especially those belonging to upper castes. The woman is considered essential for the continuity of caste. “There is this firm belief that if I get my daughter married to someone of my own caste, I have succeeded in safeguarding it,” he said.
In the case of the recent double murder in Hosur, the girl’s family, who are accused of the crime were not from financially strong background, he said. “While ideally, education, employment, food and shelter would be considered essential for life, for these men it did not matter. What mattered was their caste.”Marriage is also considered the threshold for these killings; marriage is viewed as the transfer of property- when the daughter stops being one of their own, he said.
The nature of emotions associated with marriage also led activists to call for a simplification of the procedure under the Special Marriage Act and to reduce the time gap of 30 days between the date of issuing notice of marriage and the registration- a time that young couples are said to be highly vulnerable to the attacks.
Others are of the opinion that a special legislation may not be of any help at all. Sociologist and author Kalpana Kannabiran, who is also a lawyer, said, “We have criminal law sections on murder, aggravated murder, atrocities under SC/ST Act; there is enough and more jurisprudence that has accumulated on hostile environments, on caste conflict and caste violence.“We are not lacking in criminal law provisions, we just don’t want to use them. How many law enforcement officers are aware of the amendments to the SC/ST Act?” she said.
According to her, the solution lies in discouraging any culture of subservience, even if it is to parents. “Nobody is encouraged to think, to engage and to debate, only to obey,” she said. Agreeing that implementation in many cases is indeed an issue, Samuel said, “When the POA was brought into effect, it was to be used mainly for the prevention of atrocities in vulnerable areas. But today, only after a crime is already committed, the Act is invoked.”