July 13, 2010

Khap Panchayats: Of Honor, Retributive Justice and Murder

How do we percieve a society that endorses and perpetuates killing of young men and women for choosing a partner of their choice or to put it in the other way, refusing to conform to the medieval and retrograde beliefs-upheld in the name of tradition? This medieval brand of killing, practiced by Khap Panchayats in India, reeks of danger and catastrophe to the freedom of the society as a whole. The light of the recent events of killings in the name of “Honour” necessitates the need to find ways to obliterate this horror out of our social edifice.

In India, the term “Khap” essentially means, in the geographical sense, a group of villages. The Khap Panchayats are supposedly the justice delivery systems comprising of village elders and grouped on the basis of their caste and community. These Khap Panchayats behold the power to pass judgments or diktats that are capable of ostracizing individuals and families, if they decide to transgress the norms and traditions of the Khap. Khap Panchayats are common in Rajasthan, Haryana, western Uttar Pradesh, parts of Punjab and Bihar. The particular practice of the Khaps in contention here is the prohibition of same gotra (clan) marriages between young men and women, living within a same Khap. This practice, dating back to 14th century, is based on the belief that men and women of the same gotra are considered as “siblings”, since they are believed to be the offspring’s of the same parental ancestor. Men and women, in the same village are barred from marrying each other and the rule extends to even the sub castes within a Khap. This rule, not to mention, falls outside the ambit of the Indian constitution or the Hindu Marriage act of 1956, wherein marriages are prohibited only between sapinda’s. Based on the act – “Two persons are said to be sapinda’s to each other if one is a lineal ascendant of the other within the limits of sapinda relationship, or if they have a common lineal ascendant who is within the limits of sapinda relationship with reference to each of them.

The Khap Panchayats are thus refusing the right of an individual to marry a person of his/her choice and passing diktats to kill them for their supposed act of “dishonor” is reminiscent of the barbaric acts of the medieval age. The term “Honor” attached to human butchery is intriguing, not just because it is ironic but because it panders to place societal norms over individual rights; tradition over personal freedom and despotism over democracy. Lobbyists of “tradition” need to come to terms with the fact that “traditions” evolve with the changing aspirations and needs of the society and so to suffuse them with obscurantism for vested political interests deserves the harshest punishment in the criminal jurisprudence. These lobbyists are also known for their devious acts of skewing scientific facts to fit their theories. Gotra’s, have their origins not from the birth of people, but from their gurus they followed. So the claims of carrying a common parental gene is baseless, since we know for a fact that people of different communities and khaps could have followed the same guru and thus descended with the same gotra, that they are known now. The major subtext or the underlying reason for this practice is the age old tendency of the khaps to augment society of their ilk by forcing people to marry outside their clan, thus increasing their community multifold.

So what then is the way out? When the laws of the land are in conflict with beliefs and practices of the society, there are ideally two ways out. One is to enact laws based on deliberations that shape our course of future actions, i.e. the dichotomy of using the law both as a deterrent and as tool to promulgate social values. The other way is to consider laws as tools that merely reflect our beliefs, i.e. by conforming to the idea of reforming the society by means of imparting education and values and thereby gradually obliterating the social malaise. In case of “Honour killings”, the first course of action is the urgent need of the hour simply for the reason that only a powerful judiciary can take the challenge of stopping this egregious practice of the Khaps, which otherwise enjoy huge “political patronage” because of the vote bank they come along with. In this respect, the initiative by the Government of India to consider making amendments to the Indian penal code to bring honour killings under the definition of murder is a step in the right direction. Also the proposals to make amendments to the Indian Evidence Act, wherein the onus is on the Khap Panchayats to prove their innocence, as opposed to the norm -“innocent until proven guilty”, will go a long way in removing this ugly blot out of our social edifice.

Laws can kick start the process of putting an efficient monitoring and deterrent system in place but ingrained medieval beliefs can achieve true transformation in the long run, only by means of imparting values and education. The urban ilk too is not free from guilt and barbarism. Anachronistic practices like “dowry” and “forced marriages” are prevalent even today and that such acts are endorsed even by young men and women is an appalling and gloomy state of affairs. Traditions are meant to uphold values and promote well being in a society. With changing times, if those traditions are found to cross the contour- threatening the very existence of the society they are meant to protect, we should not dither to make amends to protect the social fabric. Retributive justice by means of killing, in whatever name they are called or carried out, is tantamount to barbarism and has to be immediately done away with.


  1. Honor killings are one of the worst forms of "democratic crimes".

    Nice article. :)


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