Rohtak/Bhiwani: Ravinder Gehlawat and his wife Shilpa had been married for less than four months when they were marched out of their village—Dharana in Jhajjar district of Haryana—by men of the local community and warned never to return.
Their fate was sealed on 24 April 2009 when the local khap panchayat, which translates roughly as community or clan council, ruled that they had violated the local tradition that bars men and women from marrying if the bride belongs to the same gotra, or clan, as the groom or to the dominant gotra of the larger community. The couple were expelled from the village.
In the past four years, the couple haven’t dared to think of returning to the village. “They will kill us if we go back,” said Gehlawat. He has purchased a licensed pistol for the protection of his wife and their 10-month-old daughter—in case he were to ever need it.
The khap panchayat is an assembly of elders in Haryana who belong to the same clan or caste, overseeing community affairs across villages, from settling disputes over water sources to deciding on the sanctity of marital unions. The smallest khap panchayat could be presiding over half-a-dozen neighbouring hamlets and the largest over 360 villages.
The khap panchayats have been declared illegal and unconstitutional bodies by the Supreme Court for their alleged encouragement of honour killings, but they continue to hold sway in parallel with the state machinery and are perhaps more powerful than the elected panchayats.
Gehlawat’s wife Shilpa is from another village, but she belonged to the the Kadyan gotra, the dominant clan in Dharana. Gehlawat said his family had consulted the local sarpanch before the marriage.
“After three months of our marriage, the sarpanch turned hostile after people from Kadyan community mounted pressure on him,” he said. “They protested that how can I marry and bring daughter of their gotra into the village… Suddenly, it became issue of dominance of clans.”
In other cases elsewhere in Haryana, same-gotra marriages have been controversial. People of the same clan are regarded as cousins and same-gotra marriages are taboo under the unwritten community law, which has been in existence for hundreds of years.
The case of Gehlawat and Shilpa is different because they do not belong to the same gotra. Here, the local community was incensed that he had married a woman from another village who belonged to the Kadyan gotra.
“They said they did not know whether to treat Shilpa as their daughter or daughter-in-law. Hence, the village panchayat was called and we were ordered to sell our property and leave the village within 15 days. We plainly refused, so they brought the khap panchayat into the picture,” Gehlawat said.
In between the decisions of the village panchayat and khap panchayat, Gehlawat attempted suicide, went to court seeking police protection, their house was repeatedly stoned and their water connection cut off. Locals attacked policemen protecting the family with guns and knives. Five police cases were registered and over 50 villagers charged with disturbing the peace. To this date, the cases are being heard in a local court.
“They (khap panchayats) are very powerful and usually have the last word in matters concerning village and their inhabitants,” said research scholar and social scientist Prem Chowdhry. “No one has the audacity to challenge them; it’s partially because of fear of life and partially because of fear of social boycott.”
The khaps have overshadowed the panchayat system, he said. “Village headmen side with them because without their support it is difficult to get elected… The basic idea of decentralization and empowering people at ground level has failed,” Chowdhry said.
When khap panchayats came into existence centuries ago, they were meant to keep the flock together and protect the local community and customs. According to local legend, khaps belonging to the warrior-like Jat community fought against Mughal invaders and the British.
These councils have been held in high regard, and the reason why they have proved to be such an enduring phenomenon is that they command moral authority, said M.S. Malik, a retired director general of Haryana Police.
“Their system as such is not bad but has been corrupted in last two-three decades due to vested interests,” he said. “Firstly there is a lot of politics and at the same time village sarpanchs are often accused of embezzlement of funds. Since khap doesn’t handle money and also is not an official body, it commands respect from people who have faith in them.”
Besides, the “khaps can solve even those problems which can’t be solved under the law. In a semi-literate society they still play a significant role,” he said.
Jagmati Sangwan, vice-president of the Left-oriented All India Democratic Women’s Association and a former director general of the Maharshi Dayanand University in Rohtak, says the khaps have become redundant and should have been disbanded after the Panchayati Raj system was instituted.
“They have perpetuated because elected panchayats have failed to deliver effectively on the issues related to society at large,” Sangwan said. “This left-out space has been occupied by the khaps. They may have been reformist in past but instead of focusing on issues related to female foeticide, dowry and alcoholism in the society today, their sole concentration now is only on caste marriages.”
Because men have dominated the societies of northern India, the khap panchayats do not permit women representation in the decision-making process. Sangwan was perhaps the first woman who, disregarding threats, gate-crashed a gathering of khaps and spoke her mind.
Critics liken the khap panchayats to the Taliban, accusing them of being unmindful of the rights of the individual, enforcing local customs, dictating marriage terms, forcibly separating married couples and encouraging killings in the name of protecting traditions.
Some khaps have ordered women not to wear jeans or carry mobile phones. Some have been demanding changes in the Hindu Marriage Act to ban same-caste marriages and the repeal of legislation that gives women the right to paternal property.
“This has started creating rifts in the sacred relationship between brothers and sisters,” Inder Singh, coordinator of the 24-village Hooda khap, said about the legislation. “A brother fulfils his duties by organizing her marriage with full honour and dignity. He gives everything to her so obviously he would be pained when the sister also takes the property and land. This is not right.”
Haryana chief minister Bhupinder Singh Hoodabelongs to the same khap.
The state has a gender ratio of 877 women for every 1,000 men, which is below the national average of 940, as per the 2011 Census. The phenomenon of female foetuses being aborted is cited by critics as contributing to the low ratio.
A study commissioned by the National Commission for Women has suggested that around 600 people may have fallen victim to honour killings between 2005 and 2010. Honour killing is the practice of murdering a person in the belief that he or she has brought shame upon the family or clan.
In 2011, the Supreme Court said the khap panchayat system was illegal and had to be “ruthlessly stamped out”.
“There is nothing honourable in honour killing or other atrocities and, in fact, it is nothing but barbaric and shameful murder. Other atrocities in respect of the personal lives of people committed by brutal, feudal-minded persons deserve harsh punishment. Only this way can we stamp out such acts of barbarism and feudal mentality,” it said.
Despite the apex court’s order, no action has been taken to rein in or disband the khaps.
Ravi Kant, a lawyer who along with his two brothers received the Vital Voices Global leadership award in April from US vice-president Joe Biden for his efforts to promote women’s empowerment, said governments in India are reluctant to take strong action against the khaps because of a lack of political will.
The Union government (in July 2010) formed a group of ministers to draft a law to tackle honour killings. The law commission has, in August 2012, called the practice of khap panchayats punishing couples for same-gotra marriage illegal, and published a consultation paper on the clan councils and honour killings.
“I think the government is waiting for the apex court order before drafting the law,” Ravi Kant said. An order is likely to be handed down in July.
Kidar Singh Kadyan, former president of Beri Municipal Corporation and president of the 12-village Kadyan khap, accepted the system has lost credibility in the last few years.
“It is mainly because of uneducated people becoming heads of the khaps. We don’t deny that there are khap leaders who have a Tailban mindset and want to wield their influence,” he said.
Still, the khap panchayat system has come under tremendous pressure from civil society, the courts and even educated members of the clans they claim to represent, conceded Vishal Singh, 96, a retired lieutenant colonel who has headed the Sangwan khap since 1975. “It is on its way out,” he said.
To be sure, the khaps have their sympathisers.
Om Praskash Dhankar, president of the Bharatiya Janata Party’s farmers wing and a resident of Rohtak, said the khap panchayat system represented the society’s mindset.
“Till the time caste system is prevailing in the country, khaps are going to stay. And unless the village heads start exercising their powers authoritatively, people will continue to consult khaps,” he said.
Dhankar said khap panchayats had acquired a new dimension as a political pressure group in addition to their role as a social force. “They are a deciding factor in the electoral success of a candidate,” he said.
Singh of the Hooda khap said the khaps have been misunderstood, even by the Supreme Court.
“It is media’s fault. Khap s do not encourage or abet honour killings. It is the family which feels ashamed and resorts to such extreme actions. At best, we expel the couple from community and village. We try to create social balance in the society,” said Singh.
This is the seventh in a series of reports on panchayati raj 20 years after it was given a new constitutional framework.