Incidents of caste-motivated violence show that casteism has not been annihilated even after 75 years of independence and it is high time civil society reacts and responds with "strong disapproval" about the ghastly crimes committed in the name of caste, the Supreme Court has said.
The top court, which delivered its verdict on a batch of pleas in a 1991 Uttar Pradesh dishonour killing case, in which three persons, including a woman, were killed, said it had earlier issued several directions to the authorities to take strong measures to prevent dishonour killings.
Those directives should be carried out without any further delay, it said.
A bench headed by Justice L Nageswara Rao also said that to avert trials getting tainted and "truth becoming a casualty", the State has a definite role to play in protecting witnesses, to start with, at least in sensitive cases involving those in power who have political patronage and could wield muscle and money power.
It said that "bigotry" perpetuated by caste-based practices, which are prevalent even today, impedes the Constitution's objective of equality for all citizens.
"Two young men and a woman were physically assaulted for nearly 12 hours and killed by the accused of violating caste-ridden societal norms. These episodes of caste-motivated violence in the country demonstrate the fact that casteism has not been annihilated even after 75 years of independence," the bench, also comprising justices Sanjiv Khanna and BR Gavai, said.
The top court, while upholding the Allahabad High Court verdict convicting 23 accused in the case, acquitted three persons in view of ambiguity in their identity.
Referring to the aspect of witness protection, the bench noted that 12 prosecution witnesses in the case turned hostile.
"Even if the witnesses have turned hostile, their evidence can be accepted, if they are natural and independent witnesses and have no reason to falsely implicate the accused," it said.
The top court said the right to testify in courts in a free and fair manner, without any pressure and threat whatsoever, is "under serious attack today", and if one is unable to testify in courts due to threats or other pressures, then it is a clear violation of the rights under articles 19 (1) (a) and 21 of the Constitution.
"Right to life guaranteed to the people of this country also includes in its fold the right to live in a society which is free from crime and fear, and the right of witnesses to testify in courts without fear or pressure," it said.
The bench said one of the main reasons why witnesses turn hostile is that they are not accorded appropriate protection by the State. It is a "harsh reality", particularly, in cases where the accused are influential people and are tried for heinous offences and they make attempts to terrorise or intimidate witnesses, the bench said.
"This unfortunate situation prevails because of the reason that the State has not undertaken any protective measures to ensure the safety of these witnesses, commonly known as 'witness protection'," it noted while referring to an earlier judgment of the Supreme Court.
The bench said that as a protector of its citizens, the State has to ensure that during a trial a witness can safely depose the truth, without any fear of being haunted by those against whom he or she has deposed.
It noted that according to Dr BR Ambedkar, inter-caste marriage is one remedy to get rid of casteism in order to achieve equality.
"His vision for ensuring justice and equality to all sections of society, especially to the repressed segments, is well enshrined in the preamble of the Constitution," the bench said.
"Though the number is a tad less, (dis)honour killings have not stopped in this country and it is high time that the civil society reacts and responds with strong disapproval about the ghastly crimes committed in the name of caste," it said.
Referring to an earlier verdict of the Supreme Court, the bench said dishonour killings, pursuant to the decree of khap panchayats have been strongly criticised by the top court in its earlier verdict.
It said harsh punishment was recommended to those "brutal and feudal minded persons" who commit atrocities in the name of castes.
"The Law Commission of India in its 242nd report suggested the legal framework on prevention of interference with the freedom of matrimonial alliances in the name of honour and tradition," the bench noted.
The 'panchayatdars' or caste elders have no right to interfere with the life and liberty of young couples whose marriages are permitted by law. They cannot create a situation whereby such couples are placed in a hostile environment in the village or locality concerned and exposed to the risk of safety, it said
The bench said in the interest of "liberty and dignity" of young men and women in choosing their life partners and in the interest of peace, tranquillity and equality in society, it is imminently necessary that directions issued by the top court earlier should be carried out by states without any further delay.
In the 1991 Uttar Pradesh dishonour killing case, a trial court in November 2011 had convicted 35 accused. The high court had acquitted two while the conviction of the remaining persons was upheld by the high court. However, the high court had commuted the death sentence awarded to eight convicts to life term till the end of their natural lives.