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Anshul is a Political Science and Law graduate from the University of Delhi. He is interested in political, legal and policy developments and frequently writes on related themes. You can contact him on anshulkumarpandey [at] gmail [dot] com.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Kangaroo Courts Must Go!

This first appeared in Daily News and Analysis

The recent gang rape of a 20 year old woman in West Bengal on village council orders highlights the need to stamp out such extra judicial kangaroo courts in compliance with the previous Supreme Court orders.

In West Bengal’s Birbhum district, a village council ordered a 20 year old girl to be gang raped in front of the entire village on the accusation that she was having an affair with a married man from another village. The accusation wasn’t proved, but the girl had “visited Delhi and spoke Hindi” and that was enough for the village council to order such brutality on her.

Such incidents are not new. In Mushahari district in Bihar, a rape victim was offered Rs. 10,000 as compensation by the village council and her family was threatened not to report the incidence to anyone. Another famous case is that of Siya Dulari of Bhawanipur, who was burnt to death just because her son eloped with a girl belonging to an upper caste family. The incidence sparked widespread condemnation and was later the inspiration for a Bollywood film called ‘Lajja‘.

One can go on with a list of such incidences which were ordered by village councils and dutifully carried out without a hint of shame or remorse. These village councils do not exercise any power to mete out criminal punishment under any law and yet, there are frequent cases in which these councils not only order gang rapes, illegal confinements and social boycotts, but go to the extent of ordering killings, a phenomena which has come to be known as ‘honor killings’.

The Supreme Court has time and again delivered judgments against such village councils, asking them to be stamped out from the country. In Lata Singh v. State of UP and Another (2006), the apex court observed:

We sometimes hear of ‘honour’ killings of such persons who undergo inter-caste or inter-religious marriage of their own free will. There is nothing honourable in such killings, and in fact they are nothing but barbaric and shameful acts of murder committed by brutal, feudal minded persons who deserve harsh punishment. Only in this way can we stamp out such acts of barbarism. The police at all the concerned places should ensure that neither the petitioner nor her husband nor any relatives of the petitioner’s husband are harassed or threatened nor any acts of violence are committed against them. If anybody is found doing so, he should be proceeded against sternly in accordance with law, by the authorities concerned.

In Fiaz Ahmed Ahanger and Ors. V. State of J& K (2009), the court held that:

“In such cases of inter-caste or inter religion marriage the Court has only to be satisfied about two things:

(1) That the girl is above 18 yeas of age, in which case, the law regards her as a major vide Section 3 of the Indian Majority Act, 1875. A major is deemed by the law to know what is in his or her welfare.
(2) The wish of the girl.

In the circumstances, we direct that nobody will harass, threaten or commit any acts of violence or other unlawful act on the petitioner, Chanchali Devi/Mehvesh Anjum and the petitioner’ family members and they shall not be arrested till further orders in connection with the case in question. If they feel insecure, they can apply to the police and, in such event, the police shall grant protection to them.”

In Arumugam Servai v. State of Tamil Nadu (2011), the apex court ruled that:

We have in recent years heard of ‘Khap Panchayats’ (known as katta panchayats in Tamil Nadu) which often decree or encourage honour killings or other atrocities in an institutionalized way on boys and girls of different castes and religion, who wish to get married or have been married, or interfere with the personal lives of people. We are of the opinion that this is wholly illegal and has to be ruthlessly stamped out. As already stated in Lata Singh’s case (supra), there is nothing honourable in honour killing or other atrocities and, in fact, it is nothing but barbaric and shameful murder. Other atrocities in respect of personal lives of people committed by brutal, feudal minded persons deserve harsh punishment. Only in this way can we stamp out such acts of barbarism and feudal mentality. Moreover, these acts take the law into their own hands, and amount to kangaroo courts, which are wholly illegal.

In the Manoj Babli case (2011), the Punjab and Haryana High Court remarked:

"Even in the 21st century such a shameful act of hollow honor killing is perpetrated in our society. We feel that it is really a slur on the fine fabric of the Indian society. Abduction is really cruel and that too murder of the abductees is barbaric."

In addition to constituting a crime, any political justification of the acts of these village councils cannot stand the test of law as their actions are violative of Article 21 of the constitution, which guarantees the fundamental right of life and liberty to everyone in the country.

Failure of the state authorities to curb such crimes which are primarily directed against women also runs afoul of India’s international commitments as India is a party to Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (1981) and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

The Law Commission of India in its 242nd report titled “Prevention of Interference with the Freedom of Matrimonial Alliances (in the name of Honour and Tradition): A Suggested Legal Framework” has suggested a draft bill to penalize these honor killings and other crimes committed in the name of preserving one’s honor. The proposed bill prescribes strict punishment for unlawful assemblies of the panchayats, objectionable behavior towards any couple, criminal intimidation etc. and empowers the district magistrate or the SDM to take preventive measures against the same (salient features here).

It is high time that the state governments took note of the rising incidences of crimes committed on the orders of these Kangaroo courts and ruthlessly stamped them out to rid the society of their evil influence. The sooner such stringent measures are taken, the better it will be.