The number of cases in which the totally unconstitutional caste panchayats have openly defied the law of the land by issuing illegal diktats has increased manifold.

In Haryana today, rapid capitalist transformation is accompanied by a regressive feudal consciousness. As education and political awareness spread among Dalits, women and backward sections, alongside there is a massive consolidation of caste (khap) panchayats in defence of the status quo. The number of cases in which the totally unconstitutional caste panchayats have openly defied the law of the land by issuing illegal diktats has increased manifold. Attacks on young couples, Dalits and progressive-minded people have become frequent.

A recent landmark judgment by the Additional Sessions Court at Karnal in the Manoj-Babli “honour” killing case, in which five accused were given the death sentence, sent shock waves among caste panchayat leaders, as it reminded them that they were not above the Constitution. The court took serious note of the fact that the policemen deployed for the security of Manoj and Babli actually facilitated the accused in perpetrating the crime.

Though geographically small, Haryana is socially and culturally heterogeneous. For example, in some areas and among certain castes, marriages within the village and even intra-gotra marriages are not uncommon. At the same time, such marriages are treated as incest in certain other areas, and among other castes. Even the caste or khap panchayat is not a feature prevalent throughout the State, as many believe, but is confined to a particular region. Thus, a section of people of one particular caste proclaims itself as the cultural representative of Haryana, refusing to acknowledge the customs and traditions practised by others in their own neighbourhood.

A look at the demography of the State and its development statistics would help to contextualise the problem. The State that stood second in per capita income in the country has one of the lowest sex ratios (821 in the 0-6 age group). Female foeticide is rampant, and the situation is so bad that wives are being brought from far off States. Not once have these panchayats called a maha-panchayat to pass a resolution against female foeticide or dowry or even in connection with the crisis in agriculture — problems staring the people of Haryana in the face.

After the judgment in the Manoj-Babli case, however, a congregation of caste panchayats representing the Jat neighbourhoods from Haryana, Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan was called at Kurukshetra on April 13. It was decided that panchayats would now fight for legal status to legitimately maintain the “social order.” One of the main agendas of this sarv-khap panchayat was to push for amendments to the Hindu Marriage Act, 1955 that would ban marriages within the same gotra (clan within which men and women are considered siblings and hence cannot marry). Under this Act, marriages between certain lineages from the paternal and maternal sides are already barred.

Most of the khap panchayat diktats are against couples who are not from the same gotra. In fact, not more than one case of honour killing has been of a couple within the same gotra. By creating the false impression that all marriages of choice between young couples are incestuous, what the khaps are actually opposing is the right to choose a marriage partner. Among the several instances of khaps issuing fatwas in Jaundhi, Asanda, Dharana, Singhwal, Hadaudi, Maham-kheri, Ludana and other villages, not a single one was an intra-gotra marriage, yet the married couples were declared siblings, and families made to suffer boycotts and excommunication from their villages.

A sad example of the gotra row is that of Ved Pal Moan, brutally beaten to death last year when he tried to secure his wife who was confined by her parents at Singhwal village in Jind district. He was escorted by a police party and a warrant officer of the High Court. Ved Pal had married neither within his gotra nor within the same village. In this case, another absurd code was invoked by the khap: that the couple violated the custom of not marrying in the neighbouring village as it forms part of bhaichara (brotherhood). A khap congregation held in March 2009 publicly pronounced the death sentence for Ved Pal, and it succeeded in executing it in June. As couples are selectively targeted, it is clear the real motive is to control women's sexuality to ensure that property remains within the patriarchal caste domain (mainly Jats in Haryana).

The sarv khap panchayat also called for social boycott of individuals who raised their voice against the caste panchayats. A former police chief of Haryana, himself a self-styled caste leader, went on record threatening khap-critics. How can a former DGP publicly threaten law-abiding citizens, and yet continue to enjoy the hefty perks and pension out of the public exchequer?

The caste panchayat leaders have decided to stifle any voice of assertion from the backward sections. On April 21 more than 20 houses of Dalits were burnt down at Mirchpur village, in the presence of a police force, allegedly by thugs belonging to a dominant caste, resulting in the death of an 18-year-old handicapped girl and her ailing father. A panchayat of khaps convened at Mirchpur three days after the carnage not only declared all arrested persons innocent but also issued an ultimatum to the government for their release! This was exactly the pattern adopted by caste panchayats in the Gohana (2005) and Duleena (2002) incidents, where brutal attacks on Dalits took place.

Even elders from socially and economically weaker families are not spared. At Khedi Meham in December 2009, the father of a newly wed groom was forced to hold a shoe in his mouth in front of the whole village by the panchayatis. Ordinary citizens are caught in the contradiction between two sets of values — the blind consumerism of the neo-liberal dispensation, and the outdated feudal values represented by the khaps. The first is no replacement for the second, and indeed, pseudo-modernism only strengthens the forces of revivalism. The alternative to both types of distortions lies in the spread of healthy and progressive values that can be unleashed through only a new social reform movement in the entire Hindi belt.

Limited but crucial role

The judiciary does have a crucial role to play but has its limitations too. On June 23, 2008 Justice K.S. Ahluwalia of the Punjab and Haryana High Court made a revealing observation while simultaneously hearing 10 cases pertaining to marriages between young couples aged 18 - 21: “The High Court is flooded with petitions where … judges of this Court have to answer for the right of life and liberty to married couples. The State is a mute spectator. When shall the State awake from its slumber [and] for how long can Courts provide solace and balm by disposing of such cases?” A legislature with little political will and a pliant executive will have to be made responsive under pressure of a mass movement.

The voices of dissent are also getting consolidated under the umbrella of organisations like the AIDWA and other democratic forces. The younger generation must stand forth as responsible social activists and lead the struggle for change in an otherwise feudal society that lives by the dictum “Jiski lathi uski bhains” (the powerful call the shots). In Haryana each passing day is costing the lives of innocent women and men.

(The author is Director, Women's Study Centre, Maharishi Dayanand University, Rohtak, and State President of AIDWA, Haryana.)

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