Khap Panchayats

 

Khap Panchayats

 

Since
ancient times, Indian society has been divided into a number of castes,
each of which has its own code of social customs and traditions. This
code was enforced through a body of caste elders just as the social
behavior in respect of a village was controlled by village bodies or
panchayats. In earlier times, the legal authority i.e. the King had
neither the resources nor the inclination to interfere in internal
matters of castes due to which these caste panchayats attained a sort of
independence and authority. However, with the advent of modernity and
penetration of legal system in the rural society, these caste panchayats
lost their prominence in most of the castes. However, in some cases it
has survived to this day. Jats of Haryana and Western Uttar Pradesh are
one such community where such caste panchayats, known as “khaps” hold
considerable influence.

Some Important facts about Khaps

Jat
community has organized into clans based on their gotras. These are
known as Khaps. Some of the important Khaps are Baliyan, Ahlawat, Tomar,
Rathi and Kalsiyan Chauhan. An umbrella organization of all the Khaps
is known as Sarv Khap. Khaps have existed since ancient times and their
tradition claims that they fought a number of invaders to protect the
country. Presently, the Khaps do not have any legal status but exercise
immense influence because of the community’s strong belief in
traditions. The Khaps have positioned themselves as defenders of the
traditional social system particularly with respect to the choices of
marriage.

Institution of marriage in rural Hindu communities

Almost
all the upper and middle caste rural Hindu communities follow three
basic rules in marriage. First is the caste endogamy, meaning everyone
will marry in his own caste. Second is the gotra exogamy, meaning one
will not marry within his gotras for the reason that members of a common
gotra are descendants from a common ancestor and hence are therefore,
brothers and sisters. Hence, in traditional sense, same gotra or sagotra
marriages are treated as incest and not accepted by the society. Third
one is the village exogamy as in rural societies of Hindi heartland,
inhabitants of a village are treated as brothers and sisters. There is
common saying in these areas that “daughter of any person in the village
irrespective of his caste is the daughter of whole village”. This
concept has also been extended to adjacent villages whose boundaries
touch the village.  Hence, marriages between boy and girl of same
village or adjacent villages is again considered incest and not
acceptable to the society.
Legally,
these restrictions do not find any place in the Hindu Marriage Act,
1955. However, most of marriages in our country are arranged one, in
which these rules are generally followed primarily for the sake of
tradition and also due to the fact that these do not bring any harm to
anyone.  In fact, the third restriction i.e. village exogamy has to a
certain extent helped in protecting girls in villages from sex-related
crimes. However, as these restrictions do not have legal sanctions,
individuals tend to violate these restrictions which brings adverse
reactions from the rural society and as some of these violations, border
on incest in traditional terms, the reactions from the family are also
not favorable.

Position of Khaps on marriage     

Khaps
have pitched themselves as defenders of tradition and have taken strong
position against the violation of these restrictions. They have also
demanded amendment in the Hindu Marriage Act, 1955 to bring such
relationships in the category of prohibited relationships. However,
society is a dynamic concept and not a static one; hence ancient
practices of a particular social group have to seen in relation to the
present reality and future trends. Ideally, a society should move from
inequality to equality and from societal control to individual freedom
along with a realization on part of the individual that freedom does not
harm the social fabric.
If
these restrictions are seen in this context than it would be evident
that restriction on inter caste marriages would be against the concept
of equality as well as individual freedom, and hence any such
restriction may not be in overall interest of the society. However, as
far as sagotra marriages are concerned there is no question of social
inequality as matter pertains to the same caste. Individual freedom can
be said to an issue, but then it can be argued that no society gives
absolute freedom in conjugal relations. In every society, certain
relations are prohibited from conjugal relationship on the basis of
customary traditions. In the instant case these groups demand that this
prohibition be extended to cover gotra and village. As regards the
village exogamy, the concept has nothing negative and in fact places all
the girls of the village irrespective of their caste at the same level
and provides the only aspect of equality in an otherwise unequal
society.
However,
the Khaps have taken up the issue in the wrong way. Instead of taking
up their demands in a democratic and legal way, bullying and crime have
been resorted to and in some cases, boys and girls who have violated
these restrictions have been tortured and killed. In some cases,
families of these young people have themselves participated in the
crime. This is a worrisome and condemnable aspect. The Supreme Court has
taken a note of the situation and in a recent case has taken a view
that such killings come under the category of rarest of the rare and
hence attract death penalty. As, view of the Supreme Court is the law of
the land, some other courts have also awarded death penalties in a
number of such cases.  The negativity on behalf of Khaps has given them a
very bad image and has made any fruitful discussion on their demands
impossible.

Position of Khaps on other issues

 The
mentality of present Khap leaders is feudal and patriarchal and is
specifically discriminating against women. Areas under influence of
these khaps have been notorious for female feticide and are
characterized by low sex ratio.  As per Census, 2011, sex ratio in
Haryana is 877 which is much below the national average of 940. However,
some elements of change have started appearing. Recently, in July this
year, representatives of about 100 khaps joined in a mahapanchayat held
at Bibipur village of Jind district to condemn female feticide and
demanded that this be treated as murder. One more welcome step at this
Panchayat was the participation of women, some of whom shared dais with
other Khap leaders.

Recently,
khaps have been in news due to reaction of one of its leaders on the
recent incidents of rape in Haryana. One of the Khap leaders, Sube Singh
Samain, President of Samain Khap, suggested that marriageable age of
girls should be lowered to 16 years to avoid such incidents. This has
been condemned by all as it should have been without doubt. The issue
was considered in the Khap mahapanchayat held on 13th October, 2012 in
Sonepat, in which the proposal to reduce marraigeable age did not find
favor, though the concerned leader stuck to his stand saying that this
was his personal opinion. In this meeting the Khaps again reiterated
their demands for amendments in the Hindu Marriage Act, 1955.

Conclusion

Over
the years the Khaps have been demonized for their patriarchal and
feudal attitude and it is not entirely wrong. However, mere criticism of
Khaps is not sufficient. More importantly, the intention should be to
find a solution. For, this we need to understand that Khap is not about a
few individuals. It is about a mindset deep rooted in the traditions of
the society. In order to change this mindset for good it is necessary
to understand the mindset as well as those traditions which have
generated such a strong commitment that people kill their own children
to protect the tradition. It needs to be considered whether there is a
gap between the thinking of common man and the policy makers and
intellectuals, and if yes what are the ways of bridging the gap. This
requires an objective assessment of social aspects of Khap dominated
areas, which unfortunately has since been lacking as the discussion
about Khaps takes place only in emotionally charged atmosphere.
Panchayat
held at Bibipur in July and more recently at Sonepat gives us some hope
as it indicates that a section among the Khaps wants to more justified
and humane. The incidents may be just a small step, but it shows us the
path. Unfortunately, the media and the intellectuals have not been able
to capitalize on this starting as the primary interest has been in
criticizing the Khaps and not in finding a solution. This negativity
needs to be shed and efforts should be made by the Government, media and
intelligentsia to support these progressive elements and to initiate a
sensible discussion on the demands of the Khaps. 


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