"Honour crimes are gender crimes. A girl's family feels as if they own their daughter's sexuality," said Supreme Court advocate Kirti Singh.
Singh was speaking at a seminar organised by the Indian Women's Press Corps to discuss the issue of the khap panchayats' clout over rural society in certain parts of northwestern India.
Khap panchayat's rulings violated the right to privacy and the family's dignity, she said, adding that cases of honour killing were escalating to a dangerous level.
Speaking strongly against the practice, National Human Rights Commission's Secretary General K S Money said, "Honour killings are most dishonourable. It is the worst form of discrimination against women. Honour killings are manifestations of a disease which can be seen in the form of dowry, discriminations, foeticide."
But the chief of Gathwala khap clan Baljit Singh Malik defended the khap panchayats, saying, "The khap panchayat does not conduct honour killings. Where is the proof of these murders being committed in the name of honour?"
He denied that the khap panchayat used 'fear factor' to influence and motivate people.
Ironically, member of Planning Commission Som Pal termed khap panchayats as progressive, claiming they actively promoted women's welfare, education and development.
Some participants argued that with the khap panchayat getting more assertive, politicians were being compelled to take a stand due to opportunistic vote bank politics. Congress leader and young Parliamentarian Naveen Jindal was one of them.
The khap panchayats are now demanding a change in the Hindu Marriage Act to disallow marriages within the same gothra (sub-caste).
Recently, a court in Karnal held seven persons guilty of murdering Manoj and Babli, who were victims of another case of honour killing. Ever since this milestone judgment, there has been a resurgence in the demand to amend the Hindu Marriage Act. This move is being interpreted by some as a way of validating and justifying the killings.
"Often, a group of families are simply decedents of the same ancestor and thus the concept of brotherly - sisterly relations is not factual or biological. Thus, the argument of genetic imperfections (in case of marriages within the same gothra) is reduced to a mere thought," said the panelists opposing the actions of the khap panchayat.
Kirti Singh believes that it is time for a campaign advocating the right to choice. "We have a long battle ahead since our society is in transition," he said.
Money complained, "It is reprehensible that state agencies fail to protect individuals. There is no justification for such extreme violation of human rights."
He added that the matter should be addressed in court and laws needed to be re-stated. Money sought legal action against those who obstruct an individual's right to choice and freedom of association.
The khap panchayat derives its political domination from the tremendous centrality of vote bank politics in India's political landscape, according to some panelists.
Haryana displays a perplexing paradox; it is amongst the richest states in India with one of the highest per capita income levels, but also has a shockingly adverse sex ratio.
Prem Chowdhry, senior academic fellow at Indian Council of Historical Research, believes that the khap panchayats are neglected and ignored.
"They are not as cohesive as they claim to be," he said. Due to their declining status, they are trying to assert their existence by taking the law in their own hands.
The panelists against khap panchayats said the Judiciary and State must play a significant role to ensure that every individual has the right to live with decency, dignity and without fear.