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India: Supreme Court Takes Bull by the Horns, Castigates Honor Killings, Mandates Official Accountability

(Apr. 26, 2011) The Supreme Court of India took the opportunity, in a ruling issued on April 19, 2011, against two criminal appeals lodged in connection with a caste altercation, to condemn the caste system in general and the customary practice of honor killings in particular. The two-justice bench found that “[t]he appellants in the present case have behaved like uncivilized savages, and hence deserve no mercy. With these observations, the appeals are dismissed.” (Arumugam Servai v State of Tamil Nadu, Criminal Appeal No. 958 of 2011 (Apr. 19, 2011); Sarah Posner, India High Court Urges End to Practice of Honor Killing, PAPER CHASE NEWSBURST (Apr. 20, 2011).)

The case involved a disagreement that broke out over the method of tying bullocks in the Jallikattu (bull taming or baiting) contest that forms part of the Pongal festival of the harvest, held in villages in the State of Tamil Nadu. One of the appellants verbally insulted one of the complainants; the other appellants then proceeded to attack that complainant with sticks. When the other complainant intervened, he in turn was attacked by the appellants and sustained a head fracture. (Arumugam Servai v State of Tamil Nadu, supra; Mattu Pongal, Society for the Confluence of Festivals in India website, (last visited Apr. 21, 2011).) The Jallikattu contest itself has recently come under a legal challenge, lodged with the Supreme Court by an animal rights group. (J. Venkatesan, Petition Challenging Jallikattu Law Admitted, THE HINDU (Apr. 13, 2011).)

In reaching its verdict, the Court quoted Thomas Jefferson's words on all men being created equal and observed that “a large section of Indian society still regard a section of their own countrymen as inferior,” a mental attitude that “is simply unacceptable in the modern age” and “one of the main causes holding up the country's progress.” (Arumugam Servai v State of Tamil Nadu, supra.) It also held that it is an offense under the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities Act), 1989 (SC/ST Act), to call a member of a caste by a caste-indicating name, if used with intent to insult, and cited an earlier Court opinion in this connection. (Id.; J. Venkatesan, Stamp Out Khap Panchayats: Court, THE HINDU (Apr. 20, 2011).)

The Court further took aim at the “two tumbler system” found in many parts of Tamil Nadu, noting that the system is an offense under the SC/ST Act, and authorities who fail to take action against the culprits will be held accountable. The Court judgment states:

14. … This system is that in many tea shops and restaurants there are separate tumblers for serving tea or other drinks to Scheduled Caste persons and non-Scheduled Caste persons. In our opinion, this is highly objectionable, and is an offence under the SC/ST Act, and hence those practicing it must be criminally proceeded against and given harsh punishment if found guilty. All administrative and police officers will be accountable and departmentally proceeded against if, despite having knowledge of any such practice in the area under their jurisdiction they do not launch criminal proceedings against the culprits. (Arumugam Servai v State of Tamil Nadu, supra.)

The Court condemned in even stronger terms honor killings and the khap panchayats that call for them, citing the Supreme Court's observations in a 2006 criminal case involving an inter-caste marriage and honor killing. The khap panchayats are village councils, comprising elderly men, that set the rules for the locality, although they have no legal sanction. (Nita Bhalla, Supreme Court Cracks Down on Tradition of “Honour Killings,” REUTERS (Apr. 20, 2011).)

16. We have in recent years heard of 'Khap Panchayats' … 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. … [T]here 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. (Arumugam Servai v State of Tamil Nadu, supra.)

The Court also directed administrative and police officials “to take strong measures to prevent such atrocious acts,” and called for the state government not only to institute criminal proceedings against those responsible for the incidents, but to immediately suspend the district officials concerned

… and charge sheet them and proceed against them departmentally if they do not (1) prevent the incident if it has not already occurred but they have knowledge of it in advance, or (2) if it has occurred, they do not promptly apprehend the culprits and others involved and institute criminal proceedings against them, as in our opinion they will be deemed to be directly or indirectly accountable in this connection. (Id.)

Finally, the Court mandated that a copy of the judgment be sent to all Chief Secretaries, Home Secretaries, and Director Generals of Police in all States and Union Territories of India, for circulation to all officers up to the level of District Magistrates and senior superintendents and superintendents of police “for strict compliance,” as well as to the High Court registrars for circulation to all the court judges. (Id.)

In June 2010, in response to a petition filed by the human rights organization Shakti Vahini for stricter legal sanctions against honor killing perpetrators, the Court had ordered India's central government and seven state governments to explain the steps they had taken to reduce such killings. (Posner, supra.)