28 Apr

Khap Panchayats: Applauding the break in a 700 year old tradition

For the last 10 years I have lived in the state of Haryana, about 18 kilometres from the centre of New Delhi. It is one of the wealthier states of India and in 2011-2012 had the second highest per capita income in the country at Rs. 138,859. It also had the largest number of rural crorepatis (a crore is 10 million Rupees or about $165,000) – mainly Ahirs and Jats – in India.

Haryana has a large percentage of Gujjars and Jats, communities that were originally nomadic but now are in more settled communities and are recognised as Other Backward Communities (OBCs), a status given to them by the government.

Haryana also has the worst sex ratio in the country: 877 girls for 1000 boys. Much of this could be attributed to male child preference and female foeticide which has created a shortage of marriageable age women has resulted in brides being imported from the eastern states of India.

The state, like many Indian states, is a mixture of tradition and modernity. It is dominated by Khap Panchayats, or groups that are informal system of justice.

In the last few years Haryana and Uttar Pradesh (the adjoining state) have been in the news as young couples have flouted Khap Panchayat rules and married. They have been banished from their villages, their families humiliated, socially boycotted and even killed.

Khap Panchayats originated in times – almost 7 centuries agowhen there were no formal systems of governance or law as we know it now. Society organised itself into clans which were based on one large gotra(clan) or a number of closely related gotra (clans). Decisions were made by a Council of five elected members (Panchayat), by consensus.

In 2011 the Supreme Court declared illegal those Khap Panchayats that decreed or encouraged honour killings or other institutionalised atrocities against boys and girls of different castes and religions who wished to get married or had married. While this illegality was impossible to implement, it did harden the stand of some Khap Panchayats.

But this week, history was created when the five-member committee of the Satrol Khap Panchayat in Narnid village in Haryana ruled to allow inter-caste marriages. It also allowed marriages within 42 villages under its jurisdiction, which till now was banned. The Khap, however, continued to ban inter-caste marriages in the same and bordering villages and same clan marriages.

This decision is significant as it suggests a shift in how Khaps view society.

Satrol Khap Panchayat leader Indra Singh says that the decision was made due to the declining male-female sex ratio in the state and the changing social fabric of society. He admitted that the increased interaction between men and women could not keep them apart. Love relationships were common, he admitted.

For the first time, a woman was been appointed as a Khap member and there is a plan to have more of women’s concerns and points of view in the Khap meetings. There is talk of a youth brigade too.

This shift must be applauded by rights activists who came down heavily on the Khap Panchayats treatment towards love, marriage and treatment of women. The Panchayats were called many derogatory names. However, in a fast changing world, making sense of social norms takes time and patience. And it needs engagement.

The Khap announcement needs to be recognised and applauded. It would give an incentive for the Khaps to make more changes that reflect the changing reality of society.

I for one am applauding.

By Anita Anand

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