By Nita Bhalla
NEW DELHI (TrustLaw) - India's Supreme Court has called for an end to customary practices which promote "honour killings", saying the brutal tradition of parents killing their children to protect their so-called reputation is "barbaric" and "shameful".
Khap Panchayats -- community groups comprising elderly men which set the rules in Indian villages in regions such as Haryana, Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan -- are often seen as instigating such murders in these highly traditional regions. Yet these village councils have no legal sanction.
Activists say cases of families lynching men and women,who engage in relationships with those of a different caste or religion, to salvage their perceived honour are widespread in India's conservative northwestern belt.
"We have in recent years heard of Khap Panchayats which often decree or encourage honour killings or other atrocities on men and women of different castes or religion, who wish to get married or have been married ..." said a bench comprising of Justices Markandeya Katju and Gyan Sudha Misra on Tuesday.
"We are of the opinion that this is wholly illegal and has to be ruthlessly stamped out," said the two judges who were hearing a case of caste discrimination.
Any opposition to Khap Panchayats diktats are met with harsh punishment, including public beatings or ostracism. Political parties rarely speak out against these councils which form a major vote bloc for many of them.
Despite India's rapid modernisation and growing cosmopolitanism, which has been driven by accelerated economic growth, discrimination against low-caste communities known as Dalits and minority faiths such as Muslims persists in this predominately Hindu country.
The intermingling of caste and religion remains a taboo -- not only for largely rural illiterate populations, who have lived under a system of feudalism for centuries, but even for educated, well-off families in urban India.
In May last year, India's media highlighted the case of 22-year-old journalist Nirupama Pathak who allegedly was killed by her mother in their home in the eastern state of Jharkhand, after she was found to be pregnant by her lower caste boyfriend.
India's top court judges have now directed all administrative and police departments to ensure that couples in such relationships are not harassed or subjected to violence, adding that inter-caste marriages are in the national interest and would help dismantle India's age-old caste system.
"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 punishment," said the judgement. "Only in this way can we stamp out such acts of barbarism."