Village councils to be punished for destroying inter-caste marriages, Indian court rules

CHENNAI, India (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Punitive action should be taken against village councils that impose punishments including murder on inter-caste marriages between consenting adults, India’s Supreme Court ruled on Tuesday.

The judgment by the country’s top court underscores the prevalence of councils that act as de-facto courts and have sanctioned the killings of young couples, campaigners said.

“Across the country there have been increasing instances of couples being harassed or killed for marrying outside their caste,” petitioner Ravi Kant of charity Shakti Vahini told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in a telephone interview.

“This is a progressive order that addresses gender and caste based violence in the country.”

About 500 people - mostly women - have died in “honor killings” in India since 2014, according to government data. The murders are often carried out by family members who believe the relationship has brought “shame” on their community.

Many killings are instigated by village councils - or “khap panchayats” - comprised of unelected men of a particular clan or caste, according to human rights activists.

Calling for a crackdown on the practice, Kant filed a public interest litigation in 2010, which described instances where couples were beaten, had their heads shaved, and were sometimes set on fire at the behest of these “kangaroo courts”.

In some cases, couples were penalized with “social boycotts” in which they were banished from the community and denied access to temples, wells, markets and celebrations.

“The collective behaves like a patriarchal monarch which treats the wives, sisters and daughters subordinate, even servile or self-sacrificing,” said three judges in their ruling.

While their power has diminished since 1992 when elected village councils were made mandatory, the khap panchayats remain powerful in socially conservative regions such as Haryana, Punjab and Rajasthan states, and parts of Uttar Pradesh.

The killings have instilled a “chilling sense of fear” among young people who want to get married, Chief Justice of India Dipak Misra said in the ruling, which called for preventive, remedial and punitive measures.

The court suggested safe houses for couples, video-recordings of khap panchayat meetings, and a law to prosecute honor killings.