In a recent judgement regarding death sentences for murder (Dilip Premnarayan Tiwari & Anr. v. State of Maharashtra), the Supreme Court has observed that courts will have to consider social issues like inter-caste marriage, community and religion and the circumstances in which a murder was committed while awarding punishment to an accused in a murder case. Needless to say, selected quotes from the judgement published in leading dailies have raised the hackles of civil society, so much so that some lawmakers demanded a separate law for honour killings!!
The judges while delivering the judgement were trying to look into any mitigating circumstances for the conduct of the accused. One such consideration in their mind was the role played by caste in society. Depending on one’s perspective, one may approve, or take issue with the eventual decision.
On one side would be a strictly legalistic, enlightened principle of objective neutrality which would treat a murder as murder, and a cold-blooded, pre-meditated one as particularly heinous. The natural tendency of such an approach, when confronted with the fact that the murder was in fact an honour-killing would be to be even more shocked by the depravity of the act. A harsh sentence is deserved in such cases, it would be argued.
On the other side is to take into consideration social factors which would lead a person to such a mental state that he would commit murder. Indeed, if mitigating factors are given due importance in ‘crimes of passion’, if the mental state of the accused is deliberated upon in almost all cases, why should the role of caste, a dogma as socially pervasive as religion, if not more, not be deliberated upon in determining a person’s mental state while committing a crime?
I do not for one moment support blatantly biased judgements of courts in numerous cases where members of the lower-castes have been victims and the accused have gotten away only too freely. Such instances have been blots on India’s attempt to secure equal and appropriate justice to those at the lower rung of society. My argument is instead that ‘caste’ be treated as an objective factor while evaluating the mental state of the accused especially in cases of honour killings.
Over the years, our judicial system has ostensibly followed a tailored methodology of ‘blindness’ towards social factors such as caste, race and religion. This ostensible blindness may have allowed many a biased judge to dispense justice on the basis of his or her own closely held beliefs while seemingly maintaining an objective neutrality grounded in law. This has not exactly endeared our legal system to the masses. Caste panchayats continue to thrive, social issues and their consequences continue to stifle individuals without effective recourse to law. I therefore welcome the Supreme Court’s boldness in acknowledging that social factors such as matters of honour, of social hierarchy do remain deep-rooted within Indian psyche. What the Court must remain wary about however is, that it does not unwittingly legitimise such factors.