Khap Panchayats have no authority to order honour killings; Their activities are to be stopped in entirety: SC

Supreme Court:

“When the ability to choose is crushed in the name of class honour and the person’s physical frame is treated with absolute indignity, a chilling effect dominates over the brains and bones of the society at large.” – Dipak Misra, CJI

These were the opening words by CJI in the judgment that stated elaborate preventive, remedial and punitive measures to meet the challenges of the agonising effect of honour crime.

When the 3-judge bench of Dipak Misra, CJ and AM Khanwilkar and Dr. DY Chandrachud, JJ sat for answering the question as to whether the elders of the family or clan can ever be allowed to proclaim a verdict guided by some notion of passion and eliminate the life of the young who have exercised their choice to get married against the wishes of their elders or contrary to the customary practice of the clan, it held that the answer has to be an emphatic “No” and recommended the legislature to bring law appositely covering the field of honour killing. It further said:

“Class honour, howsoever perceived, cannot smother the choice of an individual which he or she is entitled to enjoy under our compassionate Constitution. And this right of enjoyment of liberty deserves to be continually and zealously guarded so that it can thrive with strength and flourish with resplendence.”

Stating that no authority has been conferred upon Khap Panchayats or any such assemblies under any law, the Bench explained:

“when a crime under IPC is committed, an assembly of people cannot impose the punishment. They have no authority. They are entitled to lodge an FIR or inform the police. They may also facilitate so that the accused is dealt with in accordance with law. But, by putting forth a stand that they are spreading awareness, they really can neither affect others’ fundamental rights nor cover up their own illegal acts. It is simply not permissible. In fact, it has to be condemned as an act abhorrent to law and, therefore, it has to stop. Their activities are to be stopped in entirety. There is no other alternative. What is illegal cannot commend recognition or acceptance.”

It was, however, made clear that an assembly or Panchayat committed to engage in any constructive work that does not offend the fundamental rights of an individual will not stand on the same footing of Khap Phanchayat.

Directing the State Governments to implement it’s directions within 6 weeks, the Bench enumerated the following steps to check the menace of honour killings ordered by the Khap Panchayats:

Preventive Steps:

  • The State Governments should identify Districts, Sub-Divisions and/or Villages where instances of honour killing or assembly of Khap Panchayats have been reported in the recent past, e.g., in the last five years.
  • If information about any proposed gathering of a Khap Panchayat comes to the knowledge of any police officer or any officer of the District Administration, he shall inform his immediate superior officer and also simultaneously intimate the jurisdictional Deputy Superintendent of Police and Superintendent of Police.
  • The Deputy Superintendent of Police shall then immediately interact with the members of the Khap Panchayat and impress upon them that convening of such meeting/gathering is not permissible in law and to eschew from going ahead with such a meeting.
  • Despite taking such measures, if the meeting is conducted, the Deputy Superintendent of Police shall personally remain present during the meeting and impress upon the assembly that no decision can be taken to cause any harm to the couple or the family members of the couple, failing which each one participating in the meeting besides the organisers would be personally liable for criminal prosecution.
  • If the Deputy Superintendent of Police, after interaction with the members of the Khap Panchayat, has reason to believe that the gathering cannot be prevented and/or is likely to cause harm to the couple or members of their family, he shall forthwith submit a proposal to the District Magistrate/Sub-Divisional Magistrate of the District/ Competent Authority of the concerned area for issuing orders to take preventive steps under the Cr.P.C., including by invoking prohibitory orders under Section 144 Cr.P.C. and also by causing arrest of the participants in the assembly under Section 151 Cr.P.C.

Remedial Steps:

  • Despite the preventive measures taken by the State Police, if it comes to the notice of the local police that the Khap Panchayat has taken place and it has passed any diktat, the jurisdictional police official shall cause to immediately lodge an F.I.R. under the appropriate provisions of the Penal Code including Sections 141, 143, 503 read with 506 of IPC.
  • Additionally, immediate steps should be taken to provide security to the couple/family and, if necessary, to remove them to a safe house within the same district or elsewhere keeping in mind their safety and threat perception. The State Government may consider of establishing a safe house at each District Headquarter for that purpose.
  • The District Magistrate/Superintendent of Police must deal with the complaint regarding threat administered to such couple/family with utmost sensitivity. It should be first ascertained whether the bachelor-bachelorette are capable adults. Thereafter, if necessary, they may be provided logistical support for solemnising their marriage and/or for being duly registered under police protection, if they so desire. After the marriage, if the couple so desire, they can be provided accommodation on payment of nominal charges in the safe house initially for a period of one month to be extended on monthly basis but not exceeding one year in aggregate, depending on their threat assessment on case to case basis.
  • The initial inquiry regarding the complaint received from the couple (bachelor-bachelorette or a young married couple) or upon receiving information from an independent source that the relationship/marriage of such couple is opposed by their family members/local community/Khaps shall be entrusted by the District Magistrate/ Superintendent of Police to an officer of the rank of Additional Superintendent of Police. He shall conduct a preliminary inquiry and ascertain the authenticity, nature and gravity of threat perception. On being satisfied as to the authenticity of such threats, he shall immediately submit a report to the Superintendent of Police in not later than one week.
  • The District Superintendent of Police, upon receipt of such report, shall direct the Deputy Superintendent of Police incharge of the concerned sub-division to cause to register an F.I.R. against the persons threatening the couple(s) and, if necessary, invoke Section 151 of Cr.P.C.
  • In the course of investigation, the concerned persons shall be booked without any exception including the members who have participated in the assembly. If the involvement of the members of Khap Panchayat comes to the fore, they shall also be charged for the offence of conspiracy or abetment, as the case may be.

Punitive Steps:

  • Any failure by either the police or district officer/officials to comply with the aforesaid directions shall be considered as an act of deliberate negligence and/or misconduct for which departmental action must be taken under the service rules. The departmental action shall be initiated and taken to its logical end, preferably not exceeding six months, by the authority of the first instance.
  • The States must take disciplinary action against the concerned officials if it is found that (i) such official(s) did not prevent the incident, despite having prior knowledge of it, or (ii) where the incident had already occurred, such official(s) did not promptly apprehend and institute criminal proceedings against the culprits.
  • The State Governments shall create Special Cells in every District comprising of the Superintendent of Police, the District Social Welfare Officer and District Adi-Dravidar Welfare Officer to receive petitions/complaints of harassment of and threat to couples of inter-caste marriage.
  • These Special Cells shall create a 24-hour helpline to receive and register such complaints and to provide necessary assistance/advice and protection to the couple.
  • The criminal cases pertaining to honour killing or violence to the couple(s) shall be tried before the designated Court/Fast Track Court earmarked for that purpose. The trial must proceed on day to day basis to be concluded preferably within six months from the date of taking cognizance of the offence. This direction shall apply even to pending cases.

[Shakti Vahini v. Union of India, 2018 SCC OnLine SC 275, decided on 27.03.2018]

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