In 2018, the Supreme Court of India, while hearing Shakti Vahini vs Union of India related to dishonour killing, held that “any kind of torture or ill-treatment that tantamount to atrophy of choice of an individual relating to love and marriage by any assembly, whatsoever nomenclature it assumes, is illegal and cannot be allowed a moment of existence”.
In an appeal filed by one Bhagwan Dass, a resident of Delhi (Bhagwan Dass vs State – NCT of Delhi), who was convicted for killing his daughter, the apex court maintained that dishonour killings come under the “rarest of rare” category so that it serves as a deterrent to such outrageous acts.
But do such proclamations have the teeth to tackle the menace of dishonour crimes, including killings?
Clearly not, if you take the example of Tamil Nadu. This, despite that fact that it is a state where the “self-respect movement” has had an upper hand over the complex, caste-layered communities for the past half-century.
Recent examples of such murders in the western belt of the state have yet again spurred debate on freedom of choice of marriage — and independence of women — being infringed upon by “self-assumed” honour.
Recent dishonour killings
On 15 April, a Hindu man from Krishnagiri town killed his son for marrying a Dalit woman, his mother for sheltering her grandson and his new bride, and also severely injured the daughter-in-law.
Dhandabani, an upper caste Hindu man, opposed his 28-year-old son Subash’s marriage to Anusha, a Dalit girl from Ariyalur district.
Subash and Anusha had fallen in love at work and got married on 27 March.
Aware of his father’s opposition to the union, Subhas began living with his wife at his grandmother’s house in another village in the same district.
An enraged Dhandabani followed them there, and attacked all three. While his son and 65-year-old mother were killed, his daughter-in-law survived but was grievously injured.
Dhandabani is believed to have been enraged because he believed his son’s marriage had brought dishonour to his family.
The Dharmapuri killing
The Krishnagiri double-killing occurred less than a month after a 25-year-old wage labourer was killed in Dharmapuri district by his newly-wed wife’s family.
In this case, both husband and wife hailed from the same Vanniyar community: The problem was that the woman’s family did not like her choice — as her husband was from a humble background and did not match their “social status” — and even got her engaged to a man they approved of.
It was in defiance of their wishes that the woman, S Saranya, married Jagan, the victim, last December.
Enraged by his daughter’s decision, C Shankar tricked his son-in-law Jagan into meeting him on 21 March, and with the help of two relatives, killed him in full public view.
He later surrendered before the law, and during police interrogation, said his honour had been “tarnished” by his daughter’s marriage.
Last June, another woman named Saranya, a caste Hindu, and her husband Mohan, a Dalit, were killed by her brother. The incident happened near Kumbakonam in Thanjavur district.
Angered by the inter-caste marriage, Saranya’s brother Sakthivel invited the newly married couple to dine and hacked them to death.
Flood of dishonour crimes
These are not stray incidents. According to Vincent Raj, a Dalit rights activist popularly known as “Evidence Kathir”, nearly 400 dishonour crimes — including dishonour killings — have been recorded in Tamil Nadu in the past five years.
In fact, he says, six to seven such crimes take place on an average every month in Tamil Nadu.
The official numbers — just 13 such killings in five years — are nowhere close to those offered by activists, who allege that the police do not record dishonour crimes as such and, in fact, go out of their way to downplay these incidents of violence and murde.
“Very few are recorded and, in the past 25 years, the accused have been convicted and sentenced in only six cases of honour killings in Tamil Nadu,” Kathir told South First.
The Dalit rights activist believes the situation called for a “strict and separate law” and special courts to try all dishonour killing cases.
“Unless a stringent law and a speedy justice is provided, we cannot stop such killings,” he said.
Draft Bill proposed
Kathir and other Dalit human rights activists have outlined the proposal for a draft Bill entitled “The Freedom of Marriage and Association and Prohibition of Crimes in the Name of Honour Bill 2022.”
They submitted the proposal to Tamil Nadu Chief Minister MK Stalin last September.
The draft Bill addressed the issue of victims’ safety and urged the state government to set up a safe house at each district headquarter for persons seeking protection in such cases.
The safe houses are proposed to be placed under the supervision of the district magistrate and the superintendent of police.
The proposal also calls for the establishment of a monitoring committee headed by the chief minister.
“We need a law to check this disgrace,” Raj said. “But so far there has been no effort to curb it.”
What about self-respect marriages?
P Salmon, a Dalit rights activist told South First that though the DMK, the biggest champion of the Dravidian model, introduced the idea of “self-respect” marriages, the focus of the Act has been diluted as years passed since it does not provide adequate protection to the beneficiaries.
“The ultimate aim of introducing self-respect marriages was to encourage inter-caste marriage. But it was limited to avoiding temple customs, priests, and the wearing of mangal sutra in the marriages,” he said.
Salmon said that dishonour killings happen in all religions in Tamil Nadu where caste is deeply rooted and unless an effort is made to curb these killings, the core of Dravidian model — self-respect — will be questioned.
At least implement court rulings
R Alagumani, an advocate who has appeared in several cases on behalf of the Dalits, said the state was duty-bound to uphold the freedom of choice in marriage, which he said was “an integral aspect” of Article 21 of the Constitution of India.
According to Article 21, “no person shall be deprived of his life or personal liberty except according to a procedure established by law”.
Thus, Article 21 secures two rights for all Indian citizens: The right to life, and the right to personal liberty.
In this connection, Alagumani also referred to the Lata Singh vs State of UP case, where the Supreme Court, in a landmark judgement in 2006, upheld a woman’s constitutional right to marry a person of her choosing.
The Supreme Court directed the police department to ensure inter-caste couples are not subjected to any kind of violence and in the event of such, to institute criminal proceedings against such people,” Alagumani said.
“The police handle honour killing cases under Section 302 of the Indian Penal Code since there are no special provisions in Tamil Nadu to run the trial,” he added.
In cases under Section 302, only the Sessions Court has the power to conduct a trial and convict a person. The dishonour killing cases are thus listed just like other murder cases in regular sessions courts, and hence there is no special provisions for a special court, speedy trial, and justice.
Supreme Court guidelines
Alagumani also referred to the guidelines laid down by the Supreme Court in 2018 following a writ filed by Shakti Vahini, an NGO fighting against social evils like child marriage.
The guidelines included setting up a 24-hour helpline for inter-caste couples, providing shelter to victimised couples for a month, and identifying the districts where honour killings are occurring often, and sensitising the law enforcement officers.
“Leave alone other aspects, does anyone in Tamil Nadu even knowthe dedicated helpline number for inter-caste couples? Is there one?” he asked rhetorically.
“This is the pathetic state of affairs in the state,” he said.