NEW DELHI – India's top court recommended the death penalty for perpetrators of "honor killings," calling the practice barbaric and feudal in a ruling cheered Tuesday by activists who hope it will inspire opposition to a crime seen as anathema to a democratic nation.
Most victims were young adults who fell in love or married against their families' wishes. In some cases, village councils ordered couples killed who married inside their clan or outside their caste. While there are no official figures, an independent study found around 900 people were killed each year in India for defying their elders.
The Supreme Court on Monday affirmed a life sentence imposed for a man convicted of killing his daughter but added a warning: "People planning to perpetrate honor killings should know that the gallows await them."
The court said tough measures were needed to stamp out India's caste system and the violence and harassment young people faced as they tried to break out of the shackles of centuries-old social practices.
"It is time to stamp out these barbaric, feudal practices which are a slur on our nation," Justice Markandeya Katju said. "This is necessary as a deterrent for such outrageous, uncivilized behavior."
Kirti Singh, a women's rights lawyer in New Delhi, hailed the ruling as an important first step.
"The government should now speed up legislation to punish not just killings, but all forms of social and economic crimes ordered by village councils against young adults wanting to get married to a partner of their choice," she said.
In India the death penalty is only given in the "rarest of rare" cases. While it is not unprecedented for a lower court to give a death sentence in an honor killing case, the nation's top court had yet to weigh in on the issue.
Katju and Justice Gyan Sudha Misra wrote in their joint statement that honor killings fall within the "rarest of rare" category and deserve to be a capital crime.
The court's ruling rejected an appeal by Bhagwan Dass, who argued he was innocent of strangling his daughter, Seema, in 2006 after she walked out of a troubled marriage and had an affair with a cousin.
Honor killings have increased in recent years, especially in northern India. With young, educated and empowered Indians with fraying ties to caste or religious divisions demanding the right to choose their spouse, some village leaders and horrified relatives have fought back violently.
Often young couples who fall in love have to seek police protection to avoid the "wrath of kangaroo courts," said Katju.
Last month, the court directed police and district administrators across the country to offer protection to any couple marrying outside their caste or religion and to start criminal action against those who threaten or harass them.
A court in the state of Haryana handed down the first "honor killing" death sentence last year when it convicted five people in the gruesome murders of young newlyweds. The bride's family beat and strangled the groom, forced the bride to drink pesticide and dumped their bodies in a canal. The death sentence is being appealed and it was unclear how the Supreme Court recommendation would affect that case.
The Haryana murders led to national outrage, with lawmakers and civil rights activists demanding punishment for the local council that ordered the couple killed for "bringing dishonor to the village."
While women's rights groups welcomed the top court's ruling, they were skeptical about the government's ability to finally adopt legislation to tackle the practice.
"The Supreme Court's directive is a recognition of the gravity of such crimes," said Sudha Sundararaman, general secretary of the All India Democratic Women's Association. "But the judgment exposes the failure of the government to take appropriate action and bring the perpetrators of such crimes to justice."
(This version CORRECTS spelling of justice's last name to Misra, not Mishra.)