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Challenging the community councils that order honour killings and punitive rapes

24 May 2011

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The New York Times

The Female Factor

A Challenge to Doing Gender Justice by Violence


Published: May 17, 2011

NEW DELHI — A little more than an hour’s drive away from the capital, the rule of law yields to a more primitive form of justice. In the northern state of Haryana, in large parts of Uttar Pradesh and in Tamil Nadu in the south, women’s and civil rights advocates have expressed growing concern over the often deadly verdicts passed by local councils known as khap panchayats.

The councils, usually all male and held together by caste or clan ties, hear local disputes, and their extrajudicial verdicts are taken seriously, especially in the more conservative parts of northern India.

According to Shakti Vahini, a nongovernmental organization that has been advocating that the government take punitive action against councils that decree or abet violence against women and minorities, the main umbrella body in northern India, the Sarv Khap Panchayat, has 300 subordinate councils, controlling roughly 25,000 villages in Haryana, Punjab, Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan.

The verdicts of these councils have often been chilling for women.

In 2004, the Tevatia clan council issued a decree stating that families with fewer than two sons could not approach a village council for the settlement of property disputes. The implication was that families with daughters did not deserve equal consideration.

After the 2004 tsunami ravaged Tamil Nadu, journalists noted that single and widowed women had been excluded from financial relief and compensation for losses. Local councils argued that they were not entitled to a share, because their families could take care of them. And over the past decade, an ugly pattern of so-called honor killings and punitive rapes ordered by various community councils has emerged, as the Indian Supreme Court recently noted with alarm.

Last month, the Supreme Court spoke out against the councils in a landmark ruling by Justices Markandeya Katju and Gyan Sudha Mishra. The ruling marked the first time the court had condemned the role of councils in honor killings and other crimes against women and Dalits, formerly known as untouchables, and had directed state officials to initiate criminal proceedings against councils whose edicts led to violence.

“There is nothing honorable in honor killing or other atrocities and, in fact, it is nothing but barbaric and shameful murder,” the justices said. “Moreover, these acts take the law into their own hands, and amount to kangaroo courts.”

The councils reacted angrily to the ruling, with the Sarv Khap Panchayat declaring its intention to file a review petition.

For Jagmati Sangwan, president of the Haryana All India Democratic Women’s Association, the court’s stand was welcome.

Ms. Sangwan, who also teaches women’s studies at Maharishi Dayanand University in Rohtak, Haryana, has been campaigning against the local councils since 2002, when she led a group of women into a meeting of the Rohtak council to protest the exclusion of women. (A few councils have begun to allow women to observe the proceedings, though there are no women serving on the Sarv Khap Panchayat.)

“A ban on the khap panchayats is not practical,” said Ms. Sangwan in an interview. “They will come back in some form or the other. What we need are working laws that will punish the councils when they violate women’s rights and civil rights. There had been no attempt to punish the council representatives before this verdict — there is a lack of willingness at the state level. The court’s verdict might bring some change, even if it’s slow.”

Over the last decade, the local councils have taken a hard line on the social changes that swept across India, seeking to ban women from dancing and wearing jeans, and trying to prevent young women from using mobile phones. In Tamil Nadu this year, a local council declared a social boycott on a woman for breaking tradition by filing a domestic violence case against her uncle and other family members.

But the darkest legacy of these extrajudicial courts has been a string of honor killings. Ravi Kant, a lawyer and a founder of Shakti Vahini, said the organization’s research found a relationship between the local power of the community councils and a rise in such killings. In districts where councils play an active role, there have been more honor killings than in districts where the councils are dormant or absent. Shakti Vahini recorded 121 honor killings since 2005 in Uttar Pradesh, Haryana, Punjab and Delhi, most of them the result of council edicts.

In 2008, the village of Balla in Haryana witnessed the killing of a couple by family members for the crime of marrying within the same gotra, or caste family, which is forbidden by tradition. In 2009, the Banawala council declared a marriage illegal for similar reasons. The husband was killed by local villagers, while his wife was beaten and confined to her family’s home.

The most notorious case has become a kind of shorthand. In rural Haryana, people mention not the Manoj-Babli murders, but simply “Manoj-Babli” — referring to the killing of a young couple by members of the girl’s family and to a local court ruling that became the first in modern Indian history to find council members guilty of incitement to murder. In the wake of the verdict, activists have been pressing for stronger laws and enforcement, and the Supreme Court has directed other courts to classify honor killings among the rare crimes that take the death penalty.

“The root cause behind all of the violence,” said Ms. Sangwan, “is the need to disenfranchise women. The idea that women have a democratic right to marry the person of their choice is deeply threatening to the panchayats. The foundational issue is a question of property rights.”

She was referring to the strong preference in Haryana and Uttar Pradesh in particular for women to marry outside their villages, on the assumption that a woman who moves away can lay less claim to her paternal inheritance.

“The violence has been there for years in our society, but at least now it’s coming into the light,” she said.

In the Haryana village that gained notoriety for the Manoj-Babli murders, Manoj’s sister Seema Kumari spoke of her family’s fight to get justice for her brother and sister-in-law, with the case under review by the Supreme Court.

“We have gone through so much,” she said. “But one should never give up. It’s not just about us. It’s about millions of people who, in spite of the obstacles, fight for justice.”