Political patronage and vote bank politics have revived khap panchayats, termed illegal and unconstitutional by the Supreme Court

Each time a political leader makes a benign comment on North India’s infamous khap panchayats, it gives these archaic residues of community-based justice systems a life-saving booster shot. This time it is the turn of the party with a difference. The Aam Admi Party (AAP) turned a soft gaze on them when its leader, Arvind Kejriwal, said recently that there is no need to ban these bodies because they serve a cultural purpose.

He was countered by Union Finance Minister P. Chidambaram, who, while speaking to students of the Shriram College of Commerce said that khap panchayats are retrograde organisations that cannot be a part of India’s culture. “I am appalled to see somebody say it is a part of India’s culture,” he said. But his fellow Congressman and the Chief Minister of Haryana, Bhupinder Singh Hooda, was quick to defend these bodies that have drawn adverse national attention on his State time and again through their approval of honour killings and misogynistic diktats. Mr. Hooda told reporters at a function in Haryana that khap panchayats “are like NGOs” who work in the social sphere, and are certainly a part of our culture.

Political indulgence

Both Mr. Kejriwal and Mr. Hooda, who hail from Haryana — the State that has the largest and most belligerent concentration of khaps — know what they are talking about because khap panchayats have certainly been around since the Seventh century and perhaps even earlier. They are said to have coronated the 12-year-old Harshavardhan, who in turn gave them their saffron flag with a deep red sun in the middle. In the 13th century, khap panchayats came to the aid of Raziya Sultan and helped her fight off an attack from her rebellious Turkish nobles. She rewarded them with 60,000 buffaloes. Her tomb lies on the outskirts of Kaithal, deep in Haryana’s khap country. Khaps are also believed to have given men and materials to the Marathas against Ahmed Shah Abdali, during the third battle of Panipat. They came up as dispute resolving, village-based bodies, dispensing cheap and quick justice in matters relating to debts, contracts, adultery and inheritance of property. Their decisions were taken as the “voice of god,” but all that changed when, in the second half of the 19th century, the British displaced them by establishing statutory, local, self-governing bodies at the village level and judicial courts for legal relief.

In the olden days, khap panchayats were more inclusive and Sarvkhaps comprised people of all castes and communities. Today, with their clout diminished to the realm of social traditions, marriage practices and customs, khap panchayats represent the dominant Jat community in Haryana and parts of Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan. They have become undemocratic, oppressive and in conflict with the law. But because Jats comprise almost 25 per cent of the population in Haryana, political parties are indulgent towards them. The AAP — which aims to form a government in Haryana later this year — it turns out is no different from the other parties in this respect.

To say that they serve a “cultural purpose” is debatable in the modern, liberal democratic country that India now is. The politicians who are soft on khap panchayats with an eye on Jat votes have perhaps forgotten the 2011 judgment of the Supreme Court that declared these bodies as “illegal” and unconstitutional.

Besides approving honour killings, in recent years, khap panchayats have mounted a campaign against the Hindu Succession (Amendment) Act 2005 that gives equal inheritance rights to women. Last July, a khap in Jhajjar forbade a farmer from giving his daughter some money in return for withdrawing a legal case that she had filed to get her share of the family’s ancestral land. The reasoning being that it would embolden other girls to follow suit. Activists in Haryana have for long been saying that the opposition to same gotra or inter caste marriages by khaps is actually aimed at preventing the economic empowerment of girls because those who choose their own marriage partners are more likely to go on and demand their share of ancestral land.

Against the marginalised

At the height of the Manoj and Babli honour killing case, when the khaps threatened to disrupt law and order in Haryana if the mastermind behind the killings was arrested (he was honoured with the award of “Jat Gaurav”) they got their first taste of the political clout they have come to wield. A helpless administration watched a succession of khap panchayats being held in support of the killers. But the adverse publicity that the khaps got as a result of their support for honour killings, triggered some course correction and there is now, a conscious effort to refurbish their much dented image by projecting a socially responsible facade. But this change is more cosmetic than fundamental.

One such effort was undertaken last June in Bibipur village in Jind district where the local sarpanch held a women driven sarvkhap panchayat comprising several major khaps of Haryana. The agenda was to combat female foeticide and scores of women were invited to participate. But as soon as some women activists tried to raise the issue of equal share of girls in ancestral property and how women are being denied this right, they were shooed off the stage. It is another matter that Mr. Hooda presented the Bibipur panchayat with Rs. one crore for its efforts. A spate of similar panchayats on female foeticide followed, prompting Dada Baljeet Malik, head of the Malik khap to say, “We hope that now none will term us as Talibanic or kangaroo courts.” Some khaps have also decreed against extravagant marriages and alcoholism.

But when it comes to substantial issues of women’s rights, or to supporting the case of an oppressed woman against her husband and family members, khap panchayats almost always take the patriarchal view. Neither does a khap panchayat ever oppose Dalit oppression or atrocities against the marginalised. On the contrary, khaps have stood against Dalits in the couple of incidents of violence against Dalits that took place in Haryana in the last few years. Says D.R. Chaudhary, academic and prominent crusader against khaps, “Mere passing of resolutions against social evils will not make a difference. Instead of imposing restrictions on girls, khap panchayats should fight the anti-social elements responsible for crime against women and support the right of girls to choose their life partner and ensure them a share in their parental property.”

Last year, after a couple was brutally hacked to death in Rohtak for defying marriage norms, a large khap panchayat banned girls in their area from using mobile phones and wearing jeans. The khap heads decided that such a restriction will end honour killings as it will prevent young girls from interacting with boys. No such restrictions are imposed on the boys.

So, whenever a politician justifies their activities by terming them as cultural institutions rooted in the past, s/he gives them a new lease of life. What was a dying institution a decade ago, has been revived and given some legitimacy by vote bank politics to enable it to emerge in a retrograde avatar. Now, Mr. Kejriwal too has a hand in this endeavour.

chander.dogra@thehindu.co.in

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