Crude justice

It is time the government acted to rein in ‘khap’ or ‘caste panchayats’. These caste panchayats — distinct from the panchayats set up under the Indian Constitution — are illegal bodies active in rural north India. They are running amok delivering verdicts that are barbaric and medieval, which are audaciously being passed off as ‘justice.’

Not only are these caste panchayats not constitutionally empowered to dispense justice but also, their verdicts are downright reactionary. And these verdicts are provoking victims to take the law into their own hands. This is what happened in a recent incident in Bijnore in Uttar Pradesh, where a woman and her father opened fire upon and killed two members of a panchayat that had wrongly declared them guilty of incest and punished them with social ostracism.

The incident in Bijnore is not an isolated one. There have been countless instances of such panchayats across Haryana, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh delivering verdicts on issues ranging from marriage to crime. They draw on caste rules and outdated social norms and traditions to reach a verdict and they mete out punishments that include public stripping of women, lashings, social ostracism and so on. And it is women that are usually at the receiving end of their often brutal verdicts.

The State has been a mute spectator to the atrocities committed by these caste panchayats. This is worrying. They constitute an illegal, parallel justice system that is undermining the state’s judicial institutions and processes. Besides, the positions they take on issues are extremely regressive. They uphold the feudal order, patriarchy and caste norms. They endorse child marriage and honour killings that have no place in modern society. These caste panchayats are standing in the way of social change in rural India.

The response of the father-daughter duo in Bijnore is a warning signal that the government must heed. The victims are not going to endure injustice forever. They can be expected to seek justice by settling scores through violent means. The government must take stern action against the caste panchayats. They cannot be allowed to exist.

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