The Supreme Court, while deprecating the caste system in the country, has declared ‘Khap Panchayats' illegal which often decree or encourage honour killings or other institutionalised atrocities against boys and girls of different castes and religions who wish to get married or have married.
“This is wholly illegal and has to be ruthlessly stamped out. 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 the personal lives of people committed by brutal, feudal-minded persons deserve harsh punishment. Only 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,” a Bench of Justices Markandey Katju and Gyan Sudha Misra said on April19, 2011.
The court quoted Thomas Jefferson in the American Declaration of Independence, 1776 saying “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator by certain in alienable rights that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
The Bench said: “Over two centuries have passed since Thomas Jefferson wrote those memorable words, which are still ringing in history, but a large section of Indian society still regards a section of its own countrymen as inferior. This mental attitude is simply unacceptable in the modern age, and it is one of the main causes holding up the country's progress.”
The Bench upheld the sentence of two-year imprisonment, including six months' imprisonment under the SC/ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989, awarded by a trial court to Arumugam Servai, who called a member of a Scheduled Caste community by his caste name, ‘Pallan'. It dismissed his appeal against a Madras High Court judgment.
Writing the judgment, Justice Katju said: “The word ‘Pallan' no doubt denotes a specific caste, but it is also a word used in a derogatory sense to insult someone. Even calling a person ‘Pallan,' if used with intent to insult amember of the Scheduled Caste, is, in our opinion an offence under the SC/ST PoA Act.”
The Bench also expressed its anguish over the two-tumbler system prevalent in many parts of Tamil Nadu. “This system is that in many tea shops and restaurants there are separate tumblers for serving tea or other drinks to Scheduled Caste personsand non-Scheduled Caste persons. In our opinion, this is highly objectionable, and is an offence under the SC/ST Act, and hence those practising 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.”
Condemning honour killings and khap panchayats, the Bench directed the administrative and police officials to take strong measures to prevent such atrocious acts. “If any such incidents happen, apart from instituting criminal proceedings against those responsible for such atrocities, the State government concerned is directed to immediately suspend the District Magistrate/Collector and the SSP/SPs of the district as well as other officials concerned and chargesheet them and proceed against them departmentally if they do not prevent the incident if it has not already occurred but they have knowledge of it in advance, or 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 directly or indirectly accountable in this connection.”
The Bench directed that a copy of this judgment be sent to all Chief Secretaries, Home Secretaries and Directors-General of Police in all States and Union Territories, and circulated to all officers up to the level of District Magistrates and SSP/SP for strict compliance. A copy would also be sent to the Registrars-General/Registrars of all High Courts who would circulate it to all judges.