Caste injustice

Published : May 06, 2005 00:00 IST

Caste panchayats throw several lives into turmoil in Haryana, often by declaring marriages invalid, and invariably their victims belong to the weakest sections of society.


RENU and Sunil Malik are married with a child, but they do not live together any more. Community elders of Ahulana village in Haryana's Gohana district have pronounced their marriage of 2004 invalid. They were neighbours before marriage and belong to the same gotra, with the same surname `Malik'. Therefore, said the elders, they could only be brother and sister.

The couple fled to Gujarat, but the police tracked them down and brought them back. Renu and her child were sent to Nari Niketan, a State-run women's welfare home in Karnal district. Sunil found himself behind bars, with Renu's family slapping a case of kidnapping against him. Renu, they said, was a minor. Renu and Sunil, however, still insist that they are man and wife.

Their's is not an uncommon story in Haryana, or in the rest of north and northwestern India. It is a story of the newly revived social power of khap panchayats, organisations representing one or more castes, usually the dominant ones. Khap panchayats do not have much use for the law of the land and hand out diktats according to a `traditional' code of morality. In the recent past, they passed a series of `judgments' declaring marriages null and void because the couples belonged to the same gotra.

The recent case of Sonia and Rampal from Asanda village in Jhajjar district has been widely reported. They were married for more than a year when they were told that their marriage was not valid. Sonia could continue to live in the village only if she aborted her unborn child and accepted her husband as a "brother", the Rathi khap panchayat said.

Sonia and Rampal fought back, with help from the All India Democratic Women's Association (AIDWA). A timely petition filed by the People's Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL) in the Punjab and Haryana High Court drew a prompt response; the court directed the State government to rehabilitate the couple in their village and provide them security. The government, initially reluctant to meddle with village hierarchies, had no choice but to carry out the court order. So Rampal and Sonia had their way, but they still do not venture out without security guards in tow.

Another couple, Ashish and Darshana at Jaundhi village, were excommunicated for a long time. They live together now, but under a veil of security.

Rajo Devi of Sasrauli village in Rohtak district belongs to a community of ironsmiths. When her son eloped with a girl from a higher caste, the village elders, along with the elected sarpanch, a Brahmin, decreed that she and her family must leave the village. They have been living in Rohtak city for a year and a half, in a rented accommodation they can scarcely afford. Rajo Devi now sells vegetables to feed her family of six. She wonders why the girl's family was not asked to leave the village too.

The district administration has made little effort to resettle the family in the village. "I did not even get to vote. If the sarkaar wanted my vote, they would have come to take us. We have six votes in our family," Rajo Devi said. The elected sarpanch, she told Frontline, had said he was unable to help and suggested that she could "beg for a living" if things got worse.

The Sociology Department of the Maharshi Dayanand University recently got khap panchayat chiefs and the `victims' of their diktats together at a two-day seminar in Rohtak, along with academics and women activists, to discuss "Khap Panchayats: Challenges and Prospects". Should the khap panchayats be allowed to function in the way they do? Is there scope for reform in these social institutions? These were some of the questions debated at the seminar, the first of its kind organised by any university. The speakers were sharply polarised, with the panchayat chiefs reacting strongly to criticism.

Khap panchayats are known to have existed from the medieval times, with `khap bhaichara' or solidarity around the khap and the gotra evolving gradually. There was little interference in their activities from the state before Independence. Khazan Singh Sangwan, Professor of Sociology and organising secretary of the seminar, said the situation was expected to change after the Constitution was framed and the Indian government became a signatory to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Unfortunately, not much has changed.

The historian Prem Chaudhary, who delivered the key-note address, was critical of the media for not highlighting the legal status of marriages within a gotra. The Hindu Marriage Act of 1955 recognises such marriages, as it does inter-caste unions. She explained how the introduction of adult franchise and statutory panchayats had pushed the traditional systems of authority into the background. It was this diminishing power that was being resurrected. The official panchayat and `khap' or `caste' panchayat of a village are often found to be supportive of each other. For instance, the elected sarpanch of Jaundhi village backed the decision to excommunicate Ashish and Darshana.

Khap panchayats are so powerful because of their ability to mobilise a large number of people, Prem Chaudhary said. They appear to be democratic from outside, but they exclude women, the youth as well as the groups lower down in the caste hierarchy. Prem Chaudhary explained that the scope for collective action had increased because of the way fears of a Western cultural invasion were played upon. A frequent refrain was: Ladke haath se nikal gaye; ladke ka naash ho gaya; choriyan ne bacha lo. (The boys have slipped away; they have been ruined; let us at least save the girls.) "While the male gets away, the female almost never does," Prem Chaudhary said.

The state rarely interferes, and its agents do not even always acknowledge that the problem exists. Surjit Singh Deshwal, former Inspector-General of Police, Rohtak range, who was recently transferred to Panipat, accused the media of blowing caste panchayat interventions out of proportion. There have been hardly eight or 10 incidents, he said, where khap panchayats had passed rulings, and these he dismissed as insignificant "aberrations". He stressed that caste played an important role in village life and criticised the caste panchayats for not doing enough to curb social evils. But he did not think the state had any business meddling in their activities, for democracy "essentially means minimal state intervention". He also spoke of the limitations of a "legal" approach to social issues and said that as an "agent of law" he would act in the social sphere only when it was absolutely necessary.

Social activist D.R. Chaudhary disagreed with the officer, warning of the grave consequences of ignoring the implications of khap panchayat interventions. Dr. R.S. Dahiya of the Post-Graduate Institute of Medical Sciences, Rohtak, commented on how the problem of a lopsided sex ratio in the State never seemed to bother the khap panchayats which are so intent on breaking up marriages. The insistence on marrying outside the gotra was making it difficult for people to find partners, he said.

Among the speakers who had been targeted by khap panchayats was Rohtash Kumar of Talao village in Jhajjar district, who was humiliated and fined because he objected to the harassment of the Dalit families in the village after one of their boys ran away with two Jat girls. "I knew the way to the Jhajjar police post. But I knew the police would not take any action," he said. The elected sarpanch of the village, himself a Dalit, was unable to help. The Communist Party of India (Marxist) drew the attention of the National Human Rights Commission to the matter and cases against the accused were registered under the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act. But Rohtash has not gone back to Talao, just as Rajo Devi has not returned to Sasrauli.

Some of the academics who spoke at the seminar felt there was scope for reform in the khap organisations. Prof. Sangwan, for instance, felt it was important to have a dialogue with the khap pradhans, though he had no doubt that some of their recent decisions were controversial. "The idea is to create a constructive discourse between social scientists and the people at large," he said. However, activists of the literacy movement in the State and members of the AIDWA disagreed. They said that because the values of equality and democracy were not built into the structure of the khap panchayats, reforms would necessarily be limited and self-defeating.

Pramod Gouri, a member of the Bharat Gyan Vigyan Samiti, said that the khap bodies did not address the issues of gender and caste inequality and differentiated between the poor and the rich. "When we have sophisticated institutional and constitutional bodies, what do we need khaps for?" Gouri asked. "They do not even look beyond caste. Where is the scope for reform?" He questioned the practice of declaring a married couple brother and sister. "Does this mean that the only relationship that a man and a woman can have is the sexual one? Are these relationships interchangeable?"

The AIDWA has taken a leading role in challenging the khap diktats. Jagmati Sangwan, president of the AIDWA's State unit, said that these panchayats never consulted women while taking drastic decisions. She also wondered why they never did anything about the declining sex ratio in Haryana though brides had become scarce in the State. "Even if they are not concerned about the girl child, they should at least think how they will perpetuate the blood line if there are no girls to marry," she said.

The khap pradhans present at the seminar reacted strongly to the criticism. Sooraj Singh, the pradhan of the Hooda khap, said that khaps were necessary to unite society. He said that khaps had played a historic role and "fought against the British and the Muslims".

Sooraj Singh, Pradhan of the Meham Chaubisi khap (of 24 villages in Meham), thought the khap panchayats had a "divine right" and said that it was the "intellectuals and the Musims" who committed infanticide. "We cannot allow love marriages. Sarvakhaps do not recognise court marriages either," he said.

Another Pradhan, Pritam Singh of Adhgama, representing eight villages in Rohtak, insisted that the khaps were democratic and that they elected their leaders. But D.R. Chaudhary dismissed the claim, saying that the chiefs of the caste panchayats always belonged to the Jat community. "There is not one example where, in a Jat-dominated panchayat, the pradhan belonged to any other caste. Khap identities have become reduced to one of Jat assertiveness and identity only," he said.

Is it only a coincidence that it is always the poorest and the weakest sections of society who find themselves at the receiving end of khap panchayats' fiats?

Suraj Bhan, historian of ancient India, said khap panchayats had become synonymous with the landed class, no matter what their caste. "Those sections who have no position in society do not have an entry point in the khap panchayat. It is by no means a divine organisation," he said.

Those who have found their lives thrown into turmoil by khap decisions could not agree more - people such as Sonia, who overcame her initial diffidence at the seminar to assert that she would never give in. She could not understand why the Rathi khap chiefs tried to break up her marriage despite her refusal to sign on a paper annulling it. "Why are such people made pradhans?" she asked. She still does not feel safe, though she now has security cover provided by the government. "I feel that they still might do something, despite the court order. They pass sarcastic remarks at our family. But I am ready to fight it out. I will also support other women who face the kind of situation I was put through," she said.

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