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India: Panchayats turn into kangaroo courts

by Neelam Raaj , Rohit Mullick, 9 September 2008

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The Times of India, 9 September 2007

Times have changed and so have sexual mores but in prosperous Haryana, there’s one regressive institution that refuses to embrace modernity. Passing by a gathering of one such band of men - women are never part of this all-male club - you’d think this was an innocuous gathering of village elders. But these are the all-powerful khap panchayats - village elders grouped along caste or community lines and motivated by the need to perpetuate a feudal and patriarchial order. Usually upper caste with land as well as muscle power, these self-styled guardians of a medieval morality dole out ’’justice’’ at will. They issue fatwas to ostracise families, declare marriages void, make man and wife brother and sister and order abortions. In their outmoded system of beliefs, a woman falling in love with a man from the same gotra is the worst transgression and this crime translates into immediate punishment. The guilty can be ostracised, banished from the village, made to drink urine, paraded naked, beaten up or killed.

Four months ago, one such khap panchayat in Karora village in Kaithal district came down on Manoj and Babli. Just 23 and 19 years old, it was a tale of young love uniting in the face of opposition. But instead of living happily ever after, they ended up dead. Their decomposed bodies were fished out from a canal in Narnound town in Hisar district just two months after they tied the knot in Chandigarh. Both were kidnapped and brutally murdered, allegedly by family members, on the orders of their village khap panchayat which justified the killing on the ground that it was incest as the couple belonged to the same Banwala gotra.

Khap is an old system of social administration followed mainly in the north-western states of Haryana, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh. Not to be mistaken for elected gram panchayats, these are extra-constitutional bodies that began as clannish organisations in the tribal era but have literally transformed into kangaroo courts. In Haryana’s villages, they run a largely retrogressive and parallel law-enforcement agency.

Khap panchayats in Haryana are mainly based on gotras (a system of lineage) but there are also khaps for up to 100 villages put together largely with the same set of medieval rules. Prominent panchayats, which have been hitting the headlines for all the wrong reasons, are basically upper caste khaps of Hoodas, Sheorans, Ruhals, Punias and Sangwans. Now, lower castes, too, have their own separate khaps.

So bizarre and frequent are the fatwas issued by these panchayats that a bunch of writ petitions against their diktats have been filed in Punjab and Haryana high courts.

One of the first cases to hit the headlines was in October 2004 when the Rathi khap panchayat in Asanda village of Jhajjar district ordered Sonia, who had already been married a year by then, to dissolve her marriage with Ram Pal, abort her unborn child and accept her husband as a brother if she wanted to stay in the village. Their fault: sharing the same gotra even though the Hindu Marriage Act recognises such unions. Sonia and Ram Pal could live together again only after the High Court directed the Haryana government to provide security.

Ram Swaroop Singh, leader of the Sheoran khap which covers 84 villages, is unapologetic about their intolerance of deviance. "You can think whatever you like but same-gotra marriages are unacceptable to us. A marriage within a gotra is incest and that is a crime to be punished."

Recently, a 10-day-old baby, Ankush, was snatched from his parents Pawan and Kavita in Katlaheri village of Karnal district. Katlaheri panchayat head Rajesh Kumar justified the act, saying that the infant was separated from his parents as their marriage was illegal and against tradition.

So strong is the influence of these panchayats among villagers and educated class alike that the state machinery fails to react in time to their diktats. Even politicians in Haryana tread carefully while handling khap issues for fear of losing their votebanks. Some of those who do take a stand are the likes of Haryana archaeology minister Meena Mandal, who recently shocked everybody by justifying the snatching of the infant when she stated that "the couple was at fault for marrying against social norms".

With the kind of support khaps enjoy in villages and even urban areas and with little opposition, it isn’t surprising that panchayat leaders don’t hesitate to provide their brand of instant justice.

From rulings on gotra, they have moved to ridiculous orders like stopping DJs from performing at weddings as "it becomes difficult to milk buffaloes who can’t sleep after listening to high-voltage music". Daddan khap panchayat in Jind banned youngsters from playing cricket following India’s dismal performance in the World Cup, labelling the game "meaningless".

It’s this over-activism that is also causing many disillusioned youths to move away from these moribund institutions and into the reassuring anonymity and safety of metros. Now that their baby has been restored to them, Pawan and Kavita have decided to settle down in Mumbai. ’’We have decided never to return to our village," says Kavita.

Ajit Singh, a sociologist who has researched khap panchayats, says, "The rise in number of Khap pronouncements means that more and more young people are revolting against the norms fixed by these panchayats." Sociologists believe that Haryana is witnessing a conflict between traditional and urban mindsets and only a revolutionary social change can get rid of feudal customs and laws. "Haryana is still not ready for that. It will have to wait a while longer," adds Singh.

But why the sudden increase in fatwas? Researcher Prem Chaudhry says there has been a resurgence of caste panchayats. ’’The official gram panchayat includes people from all ages and castes so the village elders, mostly upper castes, feel they are being marginalised. This is their way of reasserting themselves,’’ she points out. By preying on fears of a western cultural invasion, these khap panchayats have increased the scope of collective action. She cites a common refrain: ’Ladke haath se nikal gaye, chhoriyan ne bacha lo’.

So the male gets away, but the female never does. A woman’s chastity is the ’’honour’’ of the community and she has no sovereign right over her body. Retribution is swift and brutal and many live - and die - by these kangaroo courts.

rohit.mullick@timesgroup.com
- neelam.raaj@timesgroup.com

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