Feudal roots

Print edition : August 28, 2009

Dalits of Kila Jafargarh village in Jind district prepare to leave the village in the face of threats from their landlords of a 'higher' caste. A 2006 picture.-ANU PUSHKARNA

THE persistent hold of the khap panchayat, a traditional institution of Jats, in Haryana in a modern, democratic and secular political system remains an enigma to social scientists, mediapersons and other enlightened sections of society. Some of the rverage in 2004. A khap panchayat was blamed for provoking the burning of more than 50 houses of Dalits at Gohana, a town not far from Delhi, in retaliation for the murder of a Jat youth by some Dalits in 2005. It was reported that a gathering of Sarva Khap Panchayat (a loose federation of khap panchayats) had demanded that the Haryana government withdraw the cases against those accused of participating in the carnage.

The khap panchayats of Haryana were once again in the news for the wrong reasons in 2006 when the Sheoran Khap expelled a Punia couple from Jevali village in Bhiwani district for violating the traditional norms for marriage. Earlier, the panchayat had decided to boycott the 36-odd Punia families on the same grounds. The khap panchayat agreed to revoke its boycott after the families, including the parents of the bridegroom, gave an undertaking that the couple would not be allowed to enter the village.

It may be recalled that a senior officer of the Home Department of the Haryana government in an affidavit before a Division Bench of the Punjab and Haryana High Court had submitted that the government did not recognise khap panchayats and would not allow their illegal activities. He made the submission during a hearing of a public interest petition filed by the Peoples Union for Civil Liberties, Panchkula Chapter, challenging the illegal action of a khap panchayat in annulling an inter-caste marriage.

It may also be recalled that in 2006 the Haryana Institute of Rural Development (HIRD) had organised awareness workshops at various district headquarters for sensitising the elected representatives of panchayati raj institutions (PRIs) on the issue on the directions of the State government following a letter sent by Union Minister for Social Justice Meira Kumar to Union Home Minister Shivraj K. Patil demanding strict curbs on the illegal activities of khap panchayats.

The elected representatives of the PRIs were told at the workshops, organised between July 7 and July 26, 2006, in the Jat-dominated districts of Kaithal, Jind, Sonepat, Rohtak, Jhajjar, Hisar and Bhiwani, that khap panchayats were relevant in the absence of a constitution, a government, administration, judiciary, the police and elected PRIs and that they had been obsolete in the present constitutional, political, administrative and judicial context, more so on account of the establishment of the democratically elected PRIs. Simultaneously, they were warned that their participation in the illegal activities of khap panchayats was punishable under the various provisions of law.

It appears that the undertaking given by the State government in the High Court and the HIRDs workshops has not made any appreciable difference in the activities of khap panchayats. This glaring indifference was discernible in the Jevali episode.

Khap panchayats of rural Haryana are once again in the news. A khap panchayat of Jhajjar district, Kadian Barah, took the controversial decision to eject a family of Gahlot Jats of Dharana village for allowing the marriage of a young male member to a Kadian girl of Siwah village in Panipat district by violating the custom that prohibits marriages between clans that have ties of brotherhood. The controversial decision evoked strong reactions in the media and the progressive sections of Haryanvi society. The Tribune (July 21, 2009) published a hard-hitting editorial titled Punish the Khaps, Haryana Govt. is not acting tough.

Khap panchayats once again made news when tension gripped Jind district on July 23, following the lynching of Ved Pal by the residents of Singhwal village, in the presence of the police and court warrant officers, for marrying a girl of the same clan in March. On July 22, Ved Pal had gone to Singhwal to bring back his wife. The Tribunes July 25 editorial titled Who rules Haryana? The law or the khaps?, was hard-hitting.

It becomes essential, therefore, to describe the nature of these khap panchayats and discuss the reasons that account for their strong hold on rural Haryana. In this context it may be submitted that according to the social scientist Prem Choudhary, khap panchayats are caste panchayats. But the anthropologist M.C. Pradhan regards them as clan councils and the sociologist Khajan Singh Sangwan considers them to be multi-village panchayats. However, all of them agree that they are traditional panchayats. It is also essential to distinguish them from caste associations. While the membership of a khap panchayat is obligatory, that of caste associations is voluntary. Besides, while khap panchayats are local community-based organisations, caste associations are found at State and national levels. Another peculiar feature of khap panchayats is that they are Jat institutions. That is why Pradhan has conceptualised khap panchayats as the political system of the Jats of northern India.

However, according to Surat Singh, president of the Chaubisi Sarva Khap Panchayat of Meham (Rohtak district), khap panchayat is not confined to a caste or to a gotra. It includes all the castes (Chattis Biradari) residing in a particular area and is known by the name of the gotra that is the most numerous there. Some of the khap panchayats are also known by the name of the locality, such as Satrod Chaurasi Khap Panchayat (Hisar).

He has argued that khap panchayats have evolved festivals that promote love in society. They have also fought against injustice and oppression from within and aggression from outside. They are neither anti-women nor anti-Dalit, he says. However, it is difficult to accept his perception of khap panchayats on the basis of the empirical reality as some of their decisions have certainly been anti-women and anti-Dalit.

Khap panchayats remain strong for the following reasons:

A Jat Mahapanchayat in progress at Gohana subdivision of Sonepat district in Haryana on September 2, 2005. More than 30 Dalit homes were ransacked or torched at Balmiki Basti in the district on that day.-RAJEEV BHATT

In the first instance, despite modernisation during the colonial and post-colonial periods as a result of the introduction of the Western system of education, development of communication, urbanisation and industrialisation of the Haryana region, the bulk of Jats remain highly traditional owing to their predominantly conservative culture. Consequently, the kinship ties based on the belief of descent of the clan from a common ancestor keeps them tied to this traditional institution.

Secondly, these relics of the medieval period have been able to survive because of the failure of the statutory panchayats to capture the space occupied by them as repositories of the social capital by performing the functions of conflict resolution and system maintenance and by consistently taking up cudgels against state oppression on the one hand and social evils on the other. The statutory panchayats had remained weak during the colonial period following the hostility of the bureaucracy and the apathy of the rural masses, and in the post-colonial period owing to the fact that the functions, finances and functionaries had not been devolved on them on account of the opposition from the political leaderships and the administrators. Even the constitutionalisation of the panchayats by the 73rd Amendment has failed to bring about any difference in this context because of the lack of political will in the successive ruling dispensations in Haryana. Besides, how could the leaderships of the statutory panchayats, which have been interested only in the construction of streets and drains and have never been bothered about social development, replace the leadership of khap panchayats?

Thirdly, the strength of khap panchayats and their unreasonable decisions may be traced to the identity crises suffered by a large section of Jats owing to the fragmentation of landholdings and the breakdown of the joint family system in the process of modernisation. As a result, most of the Jat landowners have become marginal farmers and find agriculture non-profitable. They are pursuing agriculture because they have neither the skill nor the capital to switch over to non-agricultural vocations. Indebtedness has further added to their woes. Hence, they fear that they will have to, sooner or later, sell their land or that their lands may be acquired by the government. This would mean not only loss of land but also loss of status as zamindars (landowners), which means losing their proud caste identity and joining the ranks of the landless from the backward castes and the Scheduled Castes. It is this psychological state that is being exploited by the traditional leadership of khap panchayats.

Fourthly, khap panchayats remain strong because the major political parties do not take up the cause of marginal farmers owing to their class character, and the leftists could not do so as they are not politically strong in Haryana. The lot of the Jats has been made all the more difficult by the processes of liberalisation, privatisation and globalisation since the last decade of the 20th century. Their disenchantment with the leaderships of political parties and conventional politics has made these poor peasants look backward and throw their lot behind the anachronistic institution of khap panchayats.

Lastly, the strength of khap panchayats lies in the weakness of the political parties. The personality- and family-based, faction-ridden, power-oriented and ideologically bankrupt political parties of Haryana the Congress, the Indian National Lok Dal (INLD) and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) do not have strong organisational structures and dedicated cadre. Consequently, some of their leaders have no hesitation in wooing khap panchayats, which has influence over the Jat voters. Besides, even politicians who do not seek their support for winning the elections lack the political will to curb these extra-constitutional institutions.

This leads us to the question how khap panhayats have been able to retain their hold in the present times. Here it may be argued that their strength lies in the weakness of the PRIs. Despite the enactment and implementation of the Haryana Panchayati Raj Act (1994), devolution of the powers of 16 departments to the PRIs through the Notification of 1995, the extension of powers pertaining to 12 departments through the instructions of 2000-2001 and the release of the Document on Activity Mapping on February 17, 2006, for the devolution of functions, functionaries and finances of 10 departments, the constitution of the District Planning Committee on December 4, 2007, and the grant of enhanced honorarium to the office-bearers and members of the PRIs to institutionalise the 73rd and 74th Constitutional Amendment (1992), the PRIs remain unempowered. They are in no position to challenge the authority of khap panchayats.

Moreover, the leaderships of these institutions of grassroots governance have not at all cared to take up the role of social development. This has left the field of control over social intercourse to khap panchayats. Moreover, the politicisation of these panchayats in the post-Independence period has made them indispensable vote banks. The caste-based power struggle that acquired commanding heights after Haryana attained statehood has further enhanced their value. This explains why all political parties, with the exception of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), have not cared to raise their voice against this menace.

The solution to the problem lies in further modernising the rural society through reforms in the rural education system, in resolving the crises in agriculture by giving new sources of livelihood to the marginal farmers through the development of their skills, by strengthening the PRIs and by invigorating the organisational structures of political parties.

Last, but not the least, the media can play a meaningful role by building pressure on the State government to prevent the illegal activities of khap panchayats.

Ranbir Singh was formerly Professor of Political Science, Kurukshetra University. He is at present Consultant, Haryana Institute of Rural Development, Nilokheri.

REFERENCES

1. "Caste panchayats and the policing of marriage in Haryana: Enforcing kinship and territorial exogamy" by Prem Choudhary; Contribution to Indian Sociology (n.s.) 38, 1&2, 2004. 2. The Political System of the Jats of Northern India by M.C. Pradhan; Oxford University Press, Delhi, 1996. 3. "The Rural Elites and Multi Village Panchayats in Haryana - The Case of Chaubisi in District Rohtak" by Khajan Singh Sangwan; PhD thesis (unpublished); Department of Sociology, Panjab University, Chandigarh, 1996. 4. Letter dated December 12, 2006, by Surat Singh addressed to Prof. Ranbir Singh, HIRD, Nilokheri. 5. "Khap Panchayaton ki Badalti Bhumika" by Ranbir Singh; Dainik Bhaskar, Chandigarh, December 15, 2004.

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