The Supreme Court's recent pronouncement that khap panchayats have no right to question individuals' choice of marital partners or to interfere in the lives of couples does not enunciate a new principle. But the court had to make the idea clear again because of the rising threats to the freedom of individuals to take decisions about their own lives. The court's observations were with special reference to khaps, traditional bodies of elders that wield power over the lives of villagers in many North Indian states. An NGO had raised before the court the issue of the role of khaps in the perpetuation of 'honour crimes'. Honour crimes are killings or other kinds of punishment of girls and boys who fall in love or get married, defying traditional do's and don'ts of caste and kinship or norms of family prestige. Khaps have had a major role in these crimes.
The court reiterated the supremacy of the Constitution, which gives adult citizens the right to choose their partners without interference from any outside agency. Though special mention was made of khaps as the agency which meddled in the affairs of individuals, the court made it clear that even parents, family or any other body also did not have any right to constrain the choices of individuals. It had only recently said this in the case of a Hindu woman from Kerala who had converted to Islam and married a Muslim man. This principle and position in law needs to be asserted again and again because the issue is being clouded by ideas like 'love jihad' and honour killings. Honour killings are more common in the northern states, but they are not rare in the south. The idea behind 'love jihad' is not very different from that behind honour killings. They place tradition, social sanction or religion above the rights of the individual. It is also not surprising that it is the women who more often become the victims, because the decisions are taken by men and they are guided by entrenched patriarchal values.
The court asked the government why it has not stopped the activities of khap panchayats through legislation and said that it is ready to put an end to them if the government failed to do so. But the issue is not just one of legislative, executive or judicial action. Social attitudes and power relations, too, need to change. Many politicians have close ties with khaps. Unfortunately, the environment is becoming more and more retrograde and illiberal, and the space for individual autonomy is shrinking. The court's words are important in this context.