Khap panchayat representatives are peeved that their judgments are being likened to those of the Taliban and they are being held responsible for the recent spurt in “honour killings” instigated by societal norms against same-caste marriages.
At a discussion here on Wednesday, a collective of khap panchayat representatives tried hard to dispel the negative public perception about their work and explained their relevance as a “de-centralised” form of democracy that best suits the ordinary man.
They were vehement that the dictat of “honour killing” had nothing to with khap panchayats. “No khap panchayats have ever ordered death for people for solemnising a same-gotra wedding. If there have been killings, those have been carried out by the families on their own. Those families could not bear the shame that their children inflicted on the family name,” said Master Rampal Dahiya, head of the Dahiya Khap.
Citing instances, he said: “In one case the couple (same-gotra wedding) were ordered to stay out of the village and since the father of one of them was seen as an accomplice in the forbidden match, he too was ordered to stay away for a couple of months. But the khaps do not prescribe death.”
Blaming the lack of knowledge and the incorrect inference about the working of the khap system, the representatives said the system is similar to the administrative and judicial system prevalent in the country.
“It is a parallel government, based on principles of truth, justice and fair play. There is no attention focused on the good work that the panchayats do,” said Chaudhary Ranjit Singh, secretary of the Dalal Khap.
Hawa Singh Sangwan, another khap representative, said: “Five or ten people coming together does not make a khap, nor does the khap assemble on its own. A khap has to be invited, they are like lawyers who deal with civil, criminal, judicial and social norms.”
Even as they tried hard to portray their image as that of a “democratic set-up” their condemnation of same-gotra weddings was severe and constant. “Anthropological as well as biological research has shed light on the disadvantages of same-gotra weddings,” said Diwan Singh, a social activist and environmentalist.
“A khap is an institution of local self-governance, there are secular khaps and caste khaps. It is not a formal set-up but an informal institution in the mind of people where everyone has the right to speak and take part in decision-making – unlike modern democracy where we can speak but not decide; so khaps enjoy confidence of people…that's why they are resilient,” explained Mr. Singh
He said the association of khap panchayats with honour killings has taken the attention away from the work that they do, including work like de-silting of ponds, digging wells or canals, building temples and schools.
“Social boycott and fines are the only methods used to enforce the decision or punish the violators. Decisions were generally enforced because they drew strength from participation of people in the process. There is no army or police for law enforcement,” said Mr. Singh.
In a bid to redefine their image as a catalyst for social change, he said: “Khaps show some social characteristics like they do not encourage sati, allow widow remarriage, there are no caste barriers and no atrocities on Dalits and other castes. It is ironic that while countries like Switzerland and the US are experimenting with decentralising authority and power, we are encouraging bureaucracy, where one man at the top has more powers than a collective of people.”