Old order changing for regressive khaps of Haryana

It has taken the guts and courage of a 55-year-old widow to take on the unspoken fear and awe that the seemingly unbridled powers of the khap panchayats have instilled in the consciousness of rural communities in Haryana.

Threats, ostracisation and coercion failed to deter a brave peasant woman Chandrapati, mother of 23-year-old Manoj who was brutally killed along with his 19-year-old bride, Babli, for committing the crime of marrying in the same ‘gotra’ (sub-caste). Her sustained battle for justice for her slain son and daughter-in-law culminated in the award of death sentence to five relatives of Babli and life sentence for the member of the khap panchayat which had issued the diktat to kill the couple.

Chandrapati treaded the path consciously eschewed by the high and mighty of the land for centuries. Long tolerated by the political class and rural society in Haryana as vanguards for protecting brotherhood and honour in rural communities and as symbol of upholding societal norms, the transgressions of khap panchayats in the love and marital affairs of Jat communities have increasingly grown bolder and insaner in recent years.

The odds facing the gutsy woman in challenging the might of khaps could be gauged from the fact that no local lawyer was ready to fight her case. She had to hire lawyers from far-away Hisar to wage her battle in a Karnal court.

The first-ever convictions in Haryana in honour killings inspired by khap panchayats could go a long way in curbing the influence of khaps — a mediaeval institution that has astonishingly survived in the modernised and globalised world.

Operation of kangaroo courts of khap panchayats in the vicinity of the national capital, Delhi, which routinely challenge the law of the land through their savage diktats, has been a source of constant embarrassment.

Much of the ire of these khaps has been reserved for recalcitrant lovers who fail to adhere to the cast-iron hierarchy of castes and sub-castes within the Jat community.

There have been several cases where the khaps have pronounced death sentence on couples who marry within the same village community or the same lineage of caste.

In other cases where khaps have been more benevolent, married couples have been asked to consider themselves as brother and sister by dissolving their marriage. Khap members have displayed no moral or humanitarian compunctions while dissolving the marriage of couples having a child. The child is asked to pronounce his father as maternal uncle. The families of such couples are often exiled from villages after forcing them to sell their houses and land.

Misuse

In several recent instances of khap-inspired mediaeval justice, it has come to light that behind the veneer of disciplining couples and families as per societal norms, khap members who constitute elders in the village often settle personal scores due to jealousies emanating from family feuds, relative prosperity of the ‘culprits’ or even defeat in panchayat elections.

However, even before this stunning verdict against the khaps, intense media scrutiny into cases of honour killing and increasing pressure from the intelligentsia has forced the state government and the district administrations to intervene in their affairs — a welcome change from the earlier hands-off approach.

The district magistrates in Rohtak and Bhiwani recently suspended two members of village panchayat and local revenue officials respectively after their role in organising and facilitating the decisions of khap panchayats came to light. In both cases, the khaps had taken the decision to annul marriage of newly-wed couples.

The judge who awarded sentences to the accused in the honour killing advocated a separate legislation to curb the reprehensible practice of honour killing. “The present case reflects the long standing tradition of oppression of women, and it has to be curbed by a legislation categorising such honour killings as a separate offence,” she said in her judgment.

Union Home Minister P Chidambaram has recently pressed the need to amend IPC and the CrPC for ensuring strictest possible punishment in cases of honour killing. The ministry is reportedly proposing a law that would hold the entire panchayat responsible in cases where illegal acts of panchayat lead to the death of any person.

As the law of the land catches up with the feudalistic order of the khap panchayats, young couples in Haryana could afford a sense of relief. However, the regressive institution and its proponents will not go down without a fight. As Chandrapati observed after the judgment, “Khap panchayat members behave like ruffians. There are still hundreds of them lurking around. This judgment is not the end; it is the beginning.”

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