February 8, 2023

Shakti Vahini v. Union of India (2018)- A Case on Honour Killing

Honour killing guillotines individual liberty, freedom of choice and one’s own perception of choice. It has to be sublimely borne in mind that when two adults consensually choose each other as life partners, it is a manifestation of their choice which is recognized under Articles 19 and 21 of the Constitution.

A Writ Petition was filed under Article 32 of the Constitution of India seeking directions to the respondents- State Governments and the Central Government;

  • to take preventive steps to combat honour crimes,
  • to submit a National Plan of Action and State Plan of Action
  • to curb crimes of the said nature and
  • further to direct the State Governments to constitute special cells in each district which can be approached by the couples for their safety and wellbeing.

That apart, prayers were made to issue a writ of mandamus to the State Governments to launch prosecutions in each case of honour killing and take appropriate measures so that such honour crimes and embedded evil in the mind-set of certain members of the society are dealt with iron hands.

Contentions of the petitioner

It was contended that the existence of a woman in such an atmosphere is entirely dependent on the male view of the reputation of the family, the community and the milieu. Sometimes, it is centered on inherited local ethos which is rationally not discernible. The action of a woman or a man in choosing a life partner according to her or his own choice beyond the community norms is regarded as dishonour which, in the ultimate eventuate, innocently invites death at the cruel hands of the community prescription.

The reputation of a woman is weighed according to the manner in which she conducts herself, and the family to which the girl or the woman belongs is put to pressure as a consequence of which the members of the family, on certain occasions, become silent spectators to the treatment meted out or sometimes become active participants forming a part of the group either due to determined behaviour or unwanted sense of redemption of family pride.

Certain instances were cited with regard to honour crimes and how the said crimes reflect the gruesome phenomena of such incidents. Instances that were depicted in the Writ Petition pertain to beating of people, shaving of heads and sometimes putting the victims on fire as if they are flies to the wanton boys. Various news items were referred to express anguish with regard to the abominable and horrifying incidents that the human eyes cannot see and sensitive minds can never countenance.

It was contended in the petition that the parallel law enforcement agency consists of leading men of a group having the same lineage or caste which quite often meets to deal with the problems that affect the group. They call themselves Panchayats which have the power to punish for the crimes and direct for social boycott or killing by a mob. Sometimes these Panchayats have the nomenclature of Khap Panchayats which have cultivated and nurtured the feeling amongst themselves that their duty is sanctified and their action of punishing the hapless victims is inviolable.

Article 21 which provides for protection of life and liberty and guards basic human rights and equality of status has been unceremoniously shown the exit by the actions of these Panchayats or the groups who, without the slightest pangs of conscience, subscribe to honour killing.

State’s response

 A counter affidavit was filed on the behalf of the Union of India, Ministry of Home Affairs and Ministry of Women and Child Development. It was contended that honour killings are treated as murder as defined under Section 300 of the IPC and punishable under Section 302 of the IPC. As the police and public order are State subjects under the Constitution, it is primarily the responsibility of the States to deal with honour killings.

And, in order to tackle the issue of ‘honour killings’, a Bill titled The Prohibition of Interference with the Freedom of Matrimonial Alliances Bill has been recommended by the Law Commission of India vide the 242nd Law Commission Report.

Supreme Court on Honour Killings

The Apex court while condemning the patriarchal mind-set of society, commented,

“The concept of honour with which we are concerned has many facets. Sometimes, a young man can become the victim of honour killing or receive violent treatment at the hands of the family members of the girl when he has fallen in love or has entered into marriage. The collective behaves like a patriarchal monarch which treats the wives, sisters and daughters subordinate, even servile or self-sacrificing, persons moving in physical frame having no individual autonomy, desire and identity. The concept of status is accentuated by the male members of the community and a sense of masculine dominance becomes the sole governing factor of perceptive honour.”

Supreme Court referred some decisions, where court has expressed its concern with regard to such social evil which is the manifestation of perverse thought, egotism at its worst and inhuman brutality.

In Lata Singh v. State of U.P. and another[1], a two- Judge Bench, while dealing with a writ petition under Article 32 of the Constitution which was filed for issuing a writ of certiorari and/or mandamus for quashing of a trial, allowed the writ petition preferred by the petitioner whose life along with her husbands life was in constant danger as her brothers were threatening them.

The Court observed that there is no bar for inter-caste marriage under the Hindu Marriage Act or any other law and, hence, no offence was committed by the petitioner, her husband or husband’s relatives. The Court also expressed dismay that instead of taking action against the petitioner’s brothers for unlawful and high handed acts, the police proceeded against the petitioner’s husband and her sisters-in-law.

Being aware of the harassment faced and violence against women who marry outside their caste, the Court observed: –

“17. This is a free and democratic country, and once a person becomes a major he or she can marry whosoever he/she likes. If the parents of the boy or girl do not approve of such inter-caste or inter-religious marriage the maximum they can do is that they can cut-off social relations with the son or the daughter, but they cannot give threats or commit or instigate acts of violence and cannot harass the person who undergoes such inter-caste or inter-religious marriage.”

Deliberating further, the Court painfully stated: –

“18. We sometimes hear of honour killings of such persons who undergo inter-caste or inter- religious marriage of their own free will. There is nothing honourable in such killings, and in fact they are nothing but barbaric and shameful acts of murder committed by brutal, feudal-minded persons who deserve harsh punishment. Only in this way can we stamp out such acts of barbarism.”

In Arumugam Servai v. State of Tamil Nadu[2], the Court referred to the observations made in Lata Singh’s case and opined: –

“12. We have in recent years heard of Khap Panchayats (known as Katta Panchayats in Tamil Nadu) which often decree or encourage honour killings or other atrocities in an institutionalised way on boys and girls of different castes and religion, who wish to get married or have been married, or interfere with the personal lives of people. We are of the opinion that this is wholly illegal and has to be ruthlessly stamped out.”

In Vikas Yadav v. State of Uttar Pradesh and others[3] , the two-Judge Bench, while dwelling upon the quantum of sentence in the case where the young man chosen by the sister was murdered by the brother who had received education in good educational institutions, observed that the accused persons had not cultivated the ability to abandon the depreciable feelings and attitude for centuries.

Perhaps, they had harboured the fancy that it is an idea of which time had arrived from time immemorial and ought to stay till eternity. Proceeding further, the Court held: –

“75. One may feel My honour is my life but that does not mean sustaining ones honour at the cost of another. Freedom, independence, constitutional identity, individual choice and thought of a woman, be a wife or sister or daughter or mother, cannot be allowed to be curtailed definitely not by application of physical force or threat or mental cruelty in the name of his self-assumed honour. That apart, neither the family members nor the members of the collective have any right to assault the boy chosen by the girl.

Her individual choice is her self-respect and creating dent in it is destroying her honour. And to impose so-called brotherly or fatherly honour or class honour by eliminating her choice is a crime of extreme brutality, more so, when it is done under a guise. It is a vice, condemnable and deplorable perception of honour, comparable to medieval obsessive assertions.”

In Asha Ranjan v. State of Bihar and others[4], the Court, in a different context, noted:-

“61. choice of woman in choosing her partner in life is a legitimate constitutional right. It is founded on individual choice that is recognised in the Constitution under Article 19, and such a right is not expected to succumb to the concept of class honour or group thinking. It is because the sense of class honour has no legitimacy even if it is practised by the collective under some kind of a notion.”

Court’s Comment on the evil of Honour Killings

After referring the above mentioned cases, the court further said that,

“Though there has been constant social advancement, yet the problem of honour killing persists in the same way as history had seen in 1750 BC under the Code of Hammurabi. The people involved in such crimes become totally oblivious of the fact that they cannot tread an illegal path, break the law and offer justification with some kind of moral philosophy of their own. They forget that the law of the land requires that the same should be shown implicit obedience and profound obeisance. 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. The act of honour killing puts the rule of law in a catastrophic crisis.”

The court declared that, the consent of the family or the community or the clan is not necessary once the two adult individuals agree to enter into a wedlock. Their consent has to be piously given primacy. If there is offence committed by one because of some penal law, that has to be decided as per law which is called determination of criminality. It does not recognize any space for informal institutions for delivery of justice. It is so since a polity governed by Rule of Law only accepts determination of rights and violation thereof by the formal institutions set up for dealing with such situations.

It has to be constantly borne in mind that rule of law as a concept is meant to have order in a society. It respects human rights. Therefore, the Khap Panchayat or any Panchayat of any nomenclature cannot create a dent in exercise of the said right.

Emphasising the rights of people, the court said that Honour killing guillotines individual liberty, freedom of choice and one’s own perception of choice. It has to be sublimely borne in mind that when two adults consensually choose each other as life partners, it is a manifestation of their choice which is recognized under Articles 19 and 21 of the Constitution. Such a right has the sanction of the constitutional law and once that is recognized, the said right needs to be protected and it cannot succumb to the conception of class honour or group thinking which is conceived of on some notion that remotely does not have any legitimacy.

The fundamental feature of dignified existence is to assert for dignity that has the spark of divinity and the realization of choice within the parameters of law without any kind of subjugation. The purpose of laying stress on the concepts of individual dignity and choice within the framework of liberty is of paramount importance.

When two adults marry out of their volition, they choose their path; they consummate their relationship; they feel that it is their goal and they have the right to do so. And it can unequivocally be stated that they have the right and any infringement of the said right is a constitutional violation. The majority in the name of class or elevated honour of clan cannot call for their presence or force their appearance as if they are the monarchs of some indescribable era who have the power, authority and final say to impose any sentence and determine the execution of the same in the way they desire possibly harbouring the notion that they are a law unto themselves or they are the ancestors of Caesar or, for that matter, Louis the XIV.

Conclusion

The court concluded the judgment by laying down guidelines to curb the practice of honour killings.

Reference

Shakti Vahini v. Union of India, (2018)

Read hereFull Text of Supreme Court’s Guidelines on Honour Killings

Read also- Law Commission Report for alternative legal framework to curb Honour Killings


[1] (2006) 5 SCC 475

[2] (2011) 6 SCC 405

[3] (2016) 9 SCC 541

[4] (2017) 4 SCC 397