Some Rajya Sabha MP's recently demanded a special law on honour killings by caste panchayats. Although the Home Minister seems to have rejected such a demand, some women's groups think it is necessary. But why do we need a special law? The IPC has a crime of murder, which clearly covers all cases of honour killings (unlike 'sati', which was sometimes passed off as suicide). Individuals who are involved can be prosecuted as abettors.
The proposed law will probably do the following:
- make guilt communal, rather than individual. So, all members of the panchayat, by virtue of their association, will be deemed guilty, whether or not they supported the killing.
- contain a reverse onus clause, allowing the court to presume guilt until proven innocent.
We have seen this before, in a plethora of special laws dealing with violence against women and dalits. Mostly, they have managed to trample upon civil liberties without making any noticeable difference to conviction rates. If anecdotal evidence is anything to go by, conviction rate under these special laws is lower than that under the IPC. [A centre at the NLS was working on assessing the impact of special criminal laws protecting dalits - does anyone have access to the report? Statistics may prove anecdotal evidence wrong.] Their apparent failure is unsurprising, because they misdiagnose the problem. Honour killings are rampant not because current laws are insufficient, but because our criminal justice system is rotten. Make all the special laws you like, and do away with as many traditional liberties as you may, honour killings (and other atrocities against vulnerable groups) will go unpunished unless there is a professional, independent, efficient and unbiased police, prosecution and judicial service. We must resist the temptation to see draconian criminal laws as the panacea all our ills. Honour killings must stop, but we must insist on more than lip-service - which, experience shows, any special law is bound to become.
Addendum: perhaps one useful addition that can be made to the IPC is the criminalization of the use of force in order to get someone married against their will or to prevent them from marrying someone they are legally entitled to marry. There is no law which deals with this issue and a special legislation towards this goal can secure the right to marry.