A court in India has sentenced eight men to death (and twenty other defendants to life imprisonment) in connection with three ‘honor killings’ that took place 20 years ago.

The case involves the gruesome murder of Vijander, a Dalit (Untouchable) boy in the state of Uttar Pradesh who had eloped with Roshni, a girl from a higher–caste Jaat community, in March 1991.

After they returned to their village of Mehrana, the local village elders ordered their deaths as well as the death of Ram Kishan, Vijander’s cousin, who was believed to have aided in their elopement.

All three set on fire and then hanged, according to court testimony.

According to reports, the sentences are the most severe ever imposed in such a case. Typically, convictions in similar murders lead to life sentences.

However, the tough punishment comes a few months after India’s Supreme Court urged state judges to stamp out honor killings by imposing death sentences on perpetrators of such crimes.

In the Uttar Pradesh case, the killings only came under investigation after the parents of Vijander and Ram lodged a formal complaint.

As in Pakistan and Muslim countries, honor killings occur in India, especially in the north and northwest and involve Hindus, Sikhs and well as Muslims. Falling in love with and/or marrying someone outside of one’s caste or religion can sometimes lead to death for the people involved, particularly in rural areas where traditional mores still hold sway.

Indeed, such killings are often ordered and condones by local village councils called “khap panchayats.”

The number of honor killings in India is unknown since many of these deaths are masqueraded as “suicides” or “accidents.” One study suggested that 900 such murders occur in the northern states of Haryana, Punjab, and Uttar Pradesh alone – but that figure is likely a gross underestimation.

Reports of honor killings are awash in Indian media.

Just last month, in the central state of Madhya Pradesh, a married woman who had run away with her Dalit lover was later caught by her husband and in-laws and set on fire and hung.

In June 2010, in the state of Haryana, a young couple was hung from a tree for having an illicit relationship. Later, six family members were arrested for their murders.

Even in modern, cosmopolitan Delhi, honor killings have been recorded

In one extreme case, in July 2010, elders in an Uttar Pradesh village ordered upper-caste residents to kidnap all young women from local Untouchable families as hostages unless an upper-caste Brahmin woman who eloped with her Dalit boyfriend returned home.

David Chaplin, of Impunity Watch Asia, recently wrote: “In traditional Indian societies, women are often regarded as family property. Marriages are carefully arranged by parents and elders and relationships outside of caste are frowned upon. Many victims incite their families by marrying outside their caste.”