Author: Divyanshi Saxena, B.A.LLB(H), UFYLC, University of Rajasthan
Honor killings or honor crimes are acts of violence against a family member due to the belief that the said member has brought dishonor upon the family by non-conforming with the established beliefs, customs and traditions. Though the term has garnered attention lately, it has been in existence since ancient Roman times. The origin of these killings lies in patriarchal and conventional psychology. It is a global phenomenon with widespread presence in orthodox societies. In India, it is on rise due to casteism, religionism, presence of conservative organizations such as Khap Panchayats and the lack of specific and stringent legislation. On international level, continuous efforts are being made to prevent and curb the commission of such crimes but domestically, we have no specific laws dealing with honor crimes though the Indian Penal Code, 1860 has some relevant provisions, but there is need for a specific law as suggested by the Law Commission of India in its 242nd report. At the central level, a bill for prohibition of honor killings was introduced in 2010 but it did not pass and at the state level, Rajasthan is the only state to have passed the bill against honor killings. The absence of stringent legislation augmented the commission of honor crimes but the judiciary from time to time has upheld individuals’ rights and liberties.
Definition, Origin and Worldwide Presence
Human Rights Watch defined honor crimes as, “acts of violence, usually murder, committed by male family members against female family members, who are held to have brought dishonor upon the family. A woman can be targeted by individuals within her family for a variety of reasons, including: refusing to enter into an arranged marriage, being the victim of sexual assault, seeking a divorce – even from an abusive husband – or (allegedly) committing adultery. The mere perception that a woman has behaved in a way that ‘dishonors’ her family is sufficient to trigger an attack on her life.” As evident, honor crimes are committed to protect one’s honor in the eyes of the society or maybe to set an example that dishonorable behavior is intolerable. The very source of honor killings is patriarchal reasoning where a woman is seen as somebody of inferior status who is not allowed to make choices for herself and every decision of her life is to be taken by men. She is expected to behave within bounds as she typifies family’s honor which should be preserved at all costs. Though the awareness about honor killings increased lately, they have been in practice since ancient Roman times where the senior male member of the family was permitted to kill sexually active bachelorettes. Early Jewish law prescribed lapidation of adulterous wife and her partner. Not only in societal noesis and legal authorizations but also in literature and wars, instances of honor killings can be traced. Moreover, these killings have been treated as legitimate crimes on pretext of preserving honor. These illogical practices of ancient times, unfortunately, left their footprints on the sands of contemporary times as well. Today, honor killing is a global phenomenon. They have been rampant in conventional and non-progressive societies such as Jordan, Turkey, Bangladesh, Pakistan and Palestinian regions. Regrettably, honor killings are not restricted only to the aforesaid countries but can also be found in developed countries such as United States, Sweden, Canada, Britain, Germany and some parts of Europe. United Nations Population Fund estimated that 5,000 women are murdered every year by honor killings. This statistical revelation is lesser than the actual murders because many of these crimes are not reported. Honor killings are the most widespread in Pakistan (according to Amnesty International). Turkey’s Human Rights Directorate reported in 2008, that there is one honor killing every week in Istanbul. The situation is worse in countries like Syria and Morocco.
India has been a patriarchal society since the very beginning. Therefore, the commission of honor crimes is not new. In India, the cases of honor killings mostly take place in the states of Rajasthan Punjab, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh, Tamil Nadu and Delhi.
The discussion of honor killings in India is incomplete without acknowledging the disastrous presence of Khap Panchayats. Khap Panchayats can be defined as community groups which aim at preserving orthodox customs and in order to achieve this end, they pronounce abrasive punishments – commanding rape and ensuant naked parading of two sisters as a punishment for their brother who ran off with an upper caste woman, threatening to not give birth to female child, coercing and harassing youngsters who intend to marry according to their choice – to name a few. They are mostly found in Northern India. The influential position enjoyed by these Khap Panchayats makes it impracticable to oppose or resist their decisions. Not only the presence of such conservative and authoritative organizations but also the existence of casteism and religionism augment the commission of honor killings.
It is pitiful to note that no credible data is available on such heinous crimes. The National Crime Records Bureau registered 28 cases of honor killing in the year 2014, 251 cases in the year 2016 and only one case in the year 2018 which clearly shows that data provided by the bureau cannot be relied upon to infer the true number of cases. According to the bureau, the data is verified not only at district level police station but also at the state level. Thus, it can be deduced that huge number of cases go unreported as the reports by some women welfare organizations and non-governmental organizations depict a completely contrasting picture. The unavailability of reliable data overshadows the gravity of the situation.
Law and Honour Killing
Most of the international conventions, covenants, resolutions and recommendations in regard to crimes against women have general applicability and are not specific in regard to honor killings but Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women General Recommendation 19 suggests that there shall be legislation for removing the defense of honor having regard to assault or murder of a female family member. The United Nations General Assembly Resolution 55/66, 57/179 and 59/165 call upon Member States to take such steps as required for eliminating and preventing honor crimes. Human Rights Committee’s General Comment No. 28 states that the commission of honor crimes violates requirement of equal treatment.
On one hand, the abovementioned recommendations, resolutions and covenants are trying to eradicate the evil of honor killings while on the other hand, penal laws of some countries provide for reduced punishment for crimes committed in the name of honor. For example – Article 418 of Morocco’s Penal Code grants ‘extenuating circumstances’ to a husband who murders or injures his wife for illegitimate sexual acts; Article 548 of Syria’s Penal Code provides for reduced penalty for a person who murders or injures his wife or sister if they indulge into illegitimate sexual acts. This stark contrast reveals that there is still a long way to go before the world gets rid of honor crimes.
Till date, there is no specific law in our country to deal with honor crimes. In the year 2010, government proposed ‘The Prevention of Crimes in the Name of Honour and Tradition Bill’ which intended to introduce fifty clauses to Section 300 Indian Penal Code, 1860 for making honor killing a distinct offence under the code. It also intended to make required changes in the Indian Evidence Act, 1872 and Hindu Marriage Act, 1955 but the bill was not passed by the Houses and as a result it lapsed.
The need for introducing a separate legislation for honor killings, when relevant provisions are present in the Indian Penal Code, 1860, has been questioned every now and then. 242nd report [Prevention of Interference with the Freedom of Matrimonial Alliances (in the name of honour and tradition): A Suggested Legal Framework] of Law Commission of India addresses all the doubts and questions in regard to need for having a separate legislation. The report exhaustively dealt with the dimensions of the problem at hand and clarified that “the penal law lacks direct application to the illegal acts of such caste assemblies…situation referred to above are not taken care of nor covered by the provisions of the Penal Code. At any rate, there is a room for doubt as regards the invocation of the provisions of the Indian Penal Code, 1860.” The said report not only deliberated upon the autonomy of choices and liberty but also suggested a legal framework for dealing with honor crimes. The bill provides provisions for unlawful assembly; endangerment of liberty; criminal intimidation; special powers to be conferred upon Magistrate, District Magistrate and Sub-divisional Magistrate; provision of special courts and made the offences under the said bill as cognizable, non-bailable and non-compoundable. The provisions of the bill are complementary to the provisions of the Indian Penal Code, 1860. In addition to this, the report suggested that provisions of Special Marriage Act,1954 shall be simplified to achieve the desired object.
In August 2019, the state of Rajasthan became the first state to pass the bill on honor killings. The ‘Rajasthan Prohibition of Interference with the Freedom of Matrimonial Alliances in the name of Honour and Tradition Bill, 2019’ provides for death penalty or life imprisonment for killing in the name of honor. Also, bill contains provisions for grievous hurt, conferment of powers upon Sub-divisional Magistrate or District Magistrate for providing adequate protection on request, unlawful assembly and illegal intimidation.
Though the legislature adopted callous approach towards this heinous crime but judiciary never failed to uphold the rights of individuals against whom the crime is committed nor hesitated in punishing the perpetrators. Manoj-Babli case is considered as a landmark judgement where the Ld. Additional District and Sessions Judge Vani Gopal Sharma ordered death penalty for 5 members of Babli’s family for killing the couple. In State of UP v. Krishna master & ors. the apex court held that honour killings fall within rare of the rarest cases and hence it is justified to order capital punishment. A Public Interest Litigation was filed by Shakti Vahini seeking stern action against honor killings. The Honorable Supreme Court dealt with the issue and gave various suggestions to State and Central Government for preventing honor killings. Also, the court held Khap Panchayats as illegal and declared that no assembly can interfere in a marriage between the two consenting adults. The honorable court in Lata Singh v. State of UP and Shafin Jahan v. Ashokan K.M. had declared right to marry with the person of own choice as a fundamental right by reading it into Article 21 of the Indian Constitution.
Conclusion and Suggestions
To sum up, there is still a long way to go for eradicating the evil of honor killing. The need of the hour is to introduce the bill proposed by Law Commission in its 242nd report. Also, the suggestions put forth in the said report shall be taken into consideration by the government to ensure prevention of honor crimes.
The case of our neighbor – Pakistan, an Islamic State which is considered more orthodox than India, is worthy of mention. It passed Anti Honour Killings Bill in the year 2016 after the death of Kandeel Baloch (known as Pakistan’s Kim Kardashian) which did not go unnoticed like other honor killings in the country. Also, Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy’s documentary (The Girl in the River) garnered much attention after bagging Academy Award and accelerated the introduction of the bill as enough international pressure was mounting on Pakistani government.
Therefore, it is advisable that the required action shall be taken by the government of India for preventing honor killings, for India cannot wait till she loses someone popular at the hands of perpetrators of honor crimes. Every citizen’s life is equally important in the eyes of law and we have lost enough lives. It is high time, and we cannot wait for something more unfortunate to happen to trigger the government for enacting the legislation.
 Murder Reference No. 2 of 2010 Criminal Appeal No. 479 DB of 2010 and Criminal Revision No. 2173 of 2010
 Criminal Appeal No. 1180 of 2004
 Petition (Civil) No. 231 of 2010
 Writ Petition (Criminal) 208 of 2004
 Criminal Appeal 366 of 2018