'No-phone' glare on khaps

New Delhi, Jan. 14: The Supreme Court today ticked off police in three northern states for claiming no khap (caste) panchayats existed, observing that restricting girls from carrying mobile phones or wearing clothes of their choice violated the law.

The apex court directed the khap panchayats of Punjab, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh to file their response on the legal validity of their functioning as "parallel courts".

"If a woman can't wear proper dress, if girls can't carry mobiles… it is also a violation of law. How can anyone say you cannot carry a mobile? It also violates the law," a bench of justices Aftab Alam and Ranjana Prakash Desai observed.

The court's questions came when senior police officers contended that there were no khap panchayats.

But the bench said: "You are trying to give a clean chit to khaps. You are trying to overcome the issue. This is the trial in which all the prosecution witnesses have turned hostile."

The court was hearing a public interest litigation petition filed by Shakti Vahini. The NGO had moved the apex court, seeking a ban on parallel courts that decide private matters like marriages, dress code and use of mobiles, besides encouraging honour killings.

Additional solicitor-general Indira Jaising, appearing for the Union government, said that khap panchayats were engaged in preventing same gothra (intra-caste or sub-caste) marriages, which was illegal.

Jasbir Singh Mallik, the counsel for some of the Haryana-based khaps, said the panchayats were basically opposed to Section 29 of the Hindu Marriages Act, which permitted marriages within the same gothra.

A senior police officer from Meerut said that although the khaps were perhaps restricting the use of mobiles and, in some case, enforcing the dress code, they were also carrying out positive work.

Asked by the bench to list the positive work, the officer said the khaps passed orders against female foeticide.

The officials from other two states said that there were no honour killings or other illegal activities as alleged by the petitioner.

Haryana's additional director-general of police said that during his last five years' tenure, he did not come across any incidents of khap panchayats being involved in honour killings.

He submitted that there were individual incidents of elopement and the girl being killed by her brother or father. But the vendetta was not part of any organised khap panchayats, he added.However, Raju Ramachandran, a senior counsel appointed as amicus curiae (friend of the court), said khap panchayats had a profound influence on the members of their community as they normally excommunicated people or censured them, which resulted in honour killings.

"The killings are only the tip of the iceberg. Tell us what is beyond the surface," the court had asked the superintendents of Rohtak and Jhind in Haryana, who insisted that there were no instances of honour killings.

Counsel for one of the khaps said the NGO was trying to portray them as the "Taliban". The court said: "It may have been a Freudian slip."

The khaps have time till February 18 to file written submissions and the matter has been posted for final disposal on March 5.

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