Explained: Supreme Court says attacks on couples by Khap Panchayats illegal

By Vritika Mathur

In its recent condemnation of ‘honour killings’, the Supreme Court observed that no Khap Panchayat could interfere in the marriage of two people from different castes. It added that if the central government does not take preventive measures, the courts will have to step in.

What are Khap Panchayats?

A Khap Panchayat refers to the informal administrative union of several villages. They are infamous for delivering harsh punishments on villagers who act outside of the local social norms. They are in no way associated with any formally elected political body but, nonetheless, exert a considerable amount of social influence within the community.

In many village societies, there is an unquestionable faith in the verdicts of the Khap. At the bedrock of most of the panchayats’ decisions on social issues lies a stubborn and firmly established bias against women. Most of their verdicts demonstrate the lack of any conception of women’s rights in areas ruled by the khaps.

Some instances

In October 2012, a Khap Panchayat blamed the consumption of chowmein for an increase in the incidents of rape in the state. Meanwhile, another khap leader, Sube Singh, advocated lowering the age of marriage for girls from 18 years to 16 years, claiming that young girls are more vulnerable to rape and thus should be married off sooner.

One of the most frequent types of cases dealt with by khaps involves inter-caste marriage, which they staunchly oppose. There have been cases where it is alleged that these groups have made threats of murder and violence towards couples in such relationships. This, in turn, has resulted in the growth of the practice of honour killing. In 2014, the biggest khap in Haryana made history by allowing an inter-caste marriage for the first time, provided that the marriage is not within the same gotra, village or neighbourhood.

Supreme Court ruling

On Tuesday, the Supreme Court declared it “absolutely illegal” for parents, khap panchayats or any other associations to interfere in the marriage of people from different castes. According to the court, “Adults can get into marriages of their choice and no panchayat, khap, individual, society can question them.” Chief Justice Dipak Misra further added that it is not within the limits of a khap panchayat’s powers to summon adults and question their decisions.

“Whenever there is any kind of collective attack on a boy or girl who is adult, it is absolutely illegal,” said the bench. An NGO, ‘Shakti Vahini’, had earlier petitioned asking for a statement against honour crimes in 2010. The Supreme Court sought suggestions and views from Shakti Vahini—which is an amicus curiae (friend of the court)—as well as from the Khap Panchayats on the issue.

The central government pleaded with the apex court to establish a mechanism that would monitor crimes against women by these Khap Panchayats, as the police have been ineffective in doing so. The top court had said that, as a trial project, it would examine situations in different districts such as Haryana and Uttar Pradesh where the attacks were most frequent. This matter will next be heard on the 5th of February.

How effective is this move?

While this ruling acts as a starter in the step-by-step eradication of the caste system in India, so far it remains only a small step. However, if the law is firmly implemented it can bring change and help in the reduction of honour killings. Nevertheless, the communities will require more resources in order to spread social awareness, prompt debates and successfully implement the law.

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