Khap panchayats: No room for a parallel justice system (Comment)

May 12th, 2010 - 12:44 pm ICT by IANS  

Taliban By Ranjana Kumari
The khap has been a system of social administration and organisation in the northwestern states of India since ancient times. Written references are found as far back as 2500 BCE. During and since that time, there has been a shift from the nomadic way of life to settled agricultural practices. From this time on, the Indian social fabric was organised around the village unit and the mode of governing was often that of a council of five, which is called a panchayat.

Khap is a term for a social-political grouping and used in a geographical sense. A khap originally consisted of 84 villages. However, there are also khaps of 12 and 24 villages.

Their elected leaders would determine which units would be represented at the khap level. These khaps are spread all the way from northwestern India down to Madhya Pradesh, Malwa, Rajasthan, Sindh, Multan, Punjab, Haryana, and modern Uttar Pradesh. The sarv khap panchayat represented all the khaps. It was a political organisation, composed of all the clans, communities, and castes in the region.

In the 14th century the upper caste jats used this system to consolidate their power and position. The khap panchayats oppose and annul marriages within the same ‘gotra’ (lineage) and administer cruel and inhuman punishments to ‘erring’ couples and their families.

The term gotra is a Hindi word for lineage which means the descendants of one individual. Originally, there were seven gotras - Vishvâmitra, Jamadagni, Bharadvâja, Gautama, Atri, Vasishtha, and Kashyapa - and Agasthya was later included in the list.

In Hinduism, one cannot marry into one’s own gotra as people of the same gotra are considered to be brothers and sisters. However, this rule is not enforced in southern India and one can marry into his/her mother’s gotra. This is not allowed in northern India. The system which is fast losing its value in metropolitan and urban areas due to modernisation is still prevalent in many rural areas.

Violation of the gotra rule usually invites death for the offending couple, while family members are ostracised. A mahapanchayat recently justified their actions by sending a message to the government and courts saying the khap panchayats were independent of the laws of the land.

These medieval village-level panchayats function as parallel courts. They govern social norms and pronounce verdicts, which are in contravention of the modern, equitable laws that post-independence India adopted as a democracy.

There are multiple other examples of the effect of the ruling of the khap panchayats in daily life. One, for instance, is that in March 2007, the Ruhal khap banned DJs from playing at marriage parties in Rohtak, citing the “disturbance to milch animals” as the reason. The real reason for the prohibition was the determination to stop girls from entering dance floors. Soon, three other khaps joined in, spreading the ban to at least 83 villages around Rohtak. Says Pankaj Ruhal, an activist of Ruhal Khap, “Women who used to stay indoors started dancing publicly. This is against our tradition.”

Similarly, in May 2001, the Taliban stated that cricket should be banned in Muslim countries. Six years later, in April 2007, Tewa Singh, head of the Daadan khap banned cricket and watching cricket matches on television in 28 villages in Jind district as “young boys were going astray”.

In some other parts of India where there are khap panchayats, women are considered by them as a commodity. The reproductive roles of women are highlighted under this fold. They are not given any rights and are expected to obey their fathers before they are married and fulfil their duties as a wife and as a homemaker after they get married. Women are not even allowed to enter, forget participate, in these khap meetings.

Ironically enough, Haryana and Punjab khap leaders who violently prohibit same gotra marriages are from areas in which there is a shortage of girls to marry their sons and they are therefore secretly sourcing brides from Jharkhand and other areas.

As a result of the power of the khap panchayat, Haryana remains completely feudal and patriarchal in terms of attitudes to labour, marriage, inheritance, caste and gender relations. The predominant Jats, as a wealthy farming community, zealously guard their land, females and customs.

Ranbir Singh, a sociologist who has worked extensively on castes in Haryana, points out how holding on to ancient customs slows down economic progress.

In a research paper he has authored he states, “Jats, being marginal farmers, have not only been bypassed by the process of economic development but have been further marginalised by it. This is because they could not take advantage of the Green Revolution due to their tiny and uneconomic land holdings, could not enter modern professions due to a lack of academic qualifications and could not take up some other occupations due to caste pride. Their lot has been made even more difficult by the processes of liberalisation, privatisation and globalisation. Their disenchantment with political leadership has made these pauperized peasants look backwards instead of forward.”

Although their rulings have no legal validity, there is a long list of uncivilized ‘punishments’ meted out by khap panchayats to those couples that ‘offended’ the khap traditions. A couple of examples are:

- In June 2009, another couple, Anita and Sonu, who had ‘violated’ the khap propriety, was tricked to return to their village only to be stabbed to death in public.

- In April 2010, the khaps imposed such a heavy financial penalty on a family of Rajasthan that there was no other alternative for them than to commit suicide. Five members of the family jumped before a running train and took their lives.

Why has so little been done to stop them and, importantly, why are these terrible things still happening?

First of all, it is due to the inherent weakness of democratically elected Panchayati Raj (elected village council) institutions. Even the government has not done much to control their power because they believe that for any administration to take stern action against khap panchayats would be akin to political suicide. Therefore, indirectly, khap panchayats influence politicians to a great extent. The ground reality is that both the police and the gram panchayats either remain silent spectators or provide passive consent to the inhuman acts.

To make matter worse: families who do try to break free from such abominable acts and rules are helpless as they have to resort to khaps in case of a dispute. This makes it even more difficult for villagers to liberate themselves from khaps.

Emerging since medieval times, the khap system is much need of legal reform. In recent times, the khap system has attracted criticism from groups, citing the stark prejudice that such groups hold against others. The intolerance and anti locution that follows the hate campaign against another group of perhaps lower caste position, lower financial position, as well as sexist attitudes, have led to calls for reform and legal action.

In modern times where the societal norms are constantly changing, there is always a tiff between the ancient practices being followed and the modern liberal opinion of the youth. This has obviously resulted in a revolt by the practitioners of these ancient customs who believe in restoring it at any cost.

The khap leaders want to take the matter of non-similar surname marriages to each and every home of India. They believe that: “If the marriages with same surnames were allowed then society will become selfish as smart people will marry within and the charm of relations will be no more.” The khap panchayats want to achieve all of this even at the cost of lives and they want every household to contribute financially so that they can reach their goals.

The courts and government need to speedily curtail their powers. India cannot afford to have a parallel justice system, which undoes all the good that was ushered in by its founding fathers.

Sadly, consistent genuflection by political parties before people, whose concerns may be contrary to the Indian constitution, laws and democratic ideal of equality, is to blame for this situation. There are limits to appeasement, and the khap panchayats must be expeditiously cut down to size. Also, the tyranny unleashed by khap panchayats on the pretext of safeguarding tradition needs to be quelled under the threat of severe punishment.

(12.05.2010 - The author is director, Centre for Social Research. She can be contacted ranjanakumari@hotmail.com)

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