Caste injustice

Published : Nov 19, 2004 00:00 IST

The court stops a Haryana caste panchayat from separating a married couple, but the family fears that powerful caste forces may organise a social boycott against it.

in Jhajjar

IN an incident reminiscent of medieval justice, a Rathi khap (caste) panchayat consisting of prominent Rathi elders from three villages, Asanda, Bhabroda and Kharhar, in Jhajjar district of Haryana declared on October 10 a married couple brother and sister, although the woman was three months pregnant, and ordered the termination of the marriage. In the khap's opinion, Sonia and Rampal of Asanda had violated the principle of village exogamy.

The convoluted principles of caste endogamy and village and gotra exogamy were pressed upon to decree the marriage unacceptable on social grounds even though the khap had no legal powers to do so. The khap, however, suffered a setback on October 15, when the Punjab and Haryana High Court directed it and the government and the panchayat not to meddle with the lives of the couple.

The incident has brought to the fore the unrestrained extrajudicial power caste panchayats have come to exercise in the State with the administration and the political parties maintaining silence.

Jhajjar's Deputy Commissioner Mohinder Kumar and Superintendent of Police Mohammad Akil made themselves unavailable for comment on one pretext or the other. In fact, Mohinder Kumar told sections of the media that as he had not received a formal complaint, he was unable to act on the matter. This was after the issue had been highlighted in the media.

Barring the Left parties, women's organisations and a vigilant section of the media, few sections of society spoke up against the khap's writ. When the custodians of law take a back seat, it is the stand of individuals that sometimes prevails. In a rare show of courage, Sonia refused to accept the panchayat's fiat, saying that she preferred death to accepting Rampal as her brother. She received support from Rampal's married sisters. "How could they think of something so disgusting? There was the unborn child to think about," said Sheela, one of them. Sheela had arranged the marriage of the couple in a Sonepat court a year and a half ago.

An eerie calm prevailed in Asanda, situated just 60 kilometres from the national capital. When this correspondent visited the village, visitors were reluctantly directed to Rampal's residence where three constables of the Jhajjar police were providing security to the family following the court's directions. Asanda, like any other village in Haryana, has a multi-caste character although Jats form the dominant caste.

The case of Sonia and Rampal was not one of inter-caste tensions but an instance of intra-caste relationships of subordination and super ordination. The Rathis who belong to a Jat gotra or a sub-caste, not only have numerical strength but are dominant even in political and economic terms.

On the other hand, Rampal belongs to the Dahiya sub-caste, whose members have limited economic means. There are only a few Dahiya families in this Rathi-dominated belt. Political observers feel that caste mobilisation around the khap could have been triggered in view of the panchayat elections due in November.

A close look at the role played by the elected representatives reveals yet another side of the dynamics of rural polity. Asanda's elected sarpanch, Rajesh Kumar, is a Dalit. It was but "natural" that he was not called to the Rathi khap meeting. That he may have an opinion in the matter as the couple belonged to Asanda was not even considered. The Asanda panchayat samiti consists of one sarpanch, two women panchs and seven male panch members. None of them was called for the meeting.

The khap meeting was held in the village chaupal near Rampal's house. It was presided over by Dharam Singh Rathi, the pradhan of the panchayat. No member from Sonia's family, which lives in Kiloi village, was invited to attend it.

As to why it did not object to the marriage 15 months ago, the khap claimed that it had learnt only recently that Sonia did not belong to the Hooda sub-caste but that she was a Rathi. "Being a Rathi, she could only be a sister to any man in the village," it pronounced.

The logic was that as Rathis are the dominant gotra in Asanda, a girl could not marry a boy from that village if she belonged to any of the gotra groups present in that village. If Sonia was a Rathi even from Kiloi, she could only be Rampal's sister and not his wife. The Rathi khap also argued that 400 years ago the Hoodas were Rathis. It prevailed upon the Hoodas to submit written proof that they were not Rathis, by October 24.

Three khap members, including Naresh Sharma, the elected sarpanch of Kharhar village, descended on Rampal's house and allegedly removed the portion of Sonia's sari that covered her head, saying that as she was Rampal's sister, she need not cover her face like a married woman.

"They threatened to slap me if I spoke too much," says Sheela, who along with her husband Kuldeep remained defiant. Sonia was also manhandled as she refused to accept the token of Rs.11 from Rampal meant to sanctify the relationship of brother and sister. The effect of the intimidation was such that Sonia went into premature labour and was admitted to the Post-Graduate Institute of Medical Sciences, Rohtak.

"The decision of the panchayat was wrong. They called the Hoodas from Kiloi only on October 14 after they had taken the decision. How can they take a decision without both parties being present? The Kharhar sarpanch took Rs.10 from his pocket and told me to give it to Sonia as a token. I did not say anything but she refused. She said she would die rather than accept me as her brother. That gave me courage," Rampal told Frontline. His mother, Moorti Devi, is firm that Sonia is her daughter-in-law and nothing can change that.

Dharam Singh Rathi now says he will abide by the court's decision. He denied playing any part in the panchayat's decision and said he never met the Dahiya family. "I was just sitting in a chair and I had to preside over the meeting. No decision was taken. Some mischievous elements and the media blew it out of proportion," he says.

Asked if the sarpanch of Bhabroda had any role in the incident, he retorted with a smile: "How could she, she is a Dalit and a woman." But Rampal's family believes that Dharam Singh was behind the move and that he had deputed the nine persons to force Rampal to annul the marriage. The khap even agreed magnanimously to take the responsibility of Sonia's remarriage.

THANKS to the court's intervention, Rampal and Sonia can remain husband and wife for now. The court intervened in the public interest petition filed by the People's Union of Civil Liberties (PUCL). Giving details of the petition advocate Ujjal Singh Sahni said the matter was mentioned before the Chief Justice on the morning of October 15. The petition stated that it was an urgent matter and that there was a serious danger to the lives of the couple. October 15 happened to be the last working day for the court before the week-long Dasara holidays.

The petitioners insisted that the matter be taken up that day itself. The matter was listed and the court was informed about the harsh attitude of the khap panchayat. Counsel submitted that the tyranny of khap panchayats, which were acting as parallel courts in the countryside, was not new. The petitioner challenged the authority of the khap panchayat to exercise extra-judicial powers and said it posed a serious threat to the administration of justice and rule of law.

The two-Judge Bench, comprising Chief Justice B.K. Roy and Justice Suryakant, directed the Deputy Commissioner and the Superintendent of Police to take immediate steps to provide security to the harassed couple and ordered the panchayat or anyone else not to interfere in the married life of the couple. The matter has been listed for November 22.

Although the court's intervention had a sobering effect, some members of the Rathi caste in Asanda have voiced their dissent. Close on the heels of the Asanda incident, another khap panchayat in Kaithal district ordered the social boycott of a sub-caste. It is now feared that the rehabilitation of Sonia may prove difficult as the Rathis may be emboldened to resort to a social boycott of her as the community did in the case of the Lohan families in Jakholi village in Kaithal district.

Suraj Bhan, a historian specialising on ancient India, says that one reason why such groups flourish in the region is the lack of reform movements in the 19th and 20th centuries. "It is not only an administrative and legal issue. It concerns the future of society as well. But the government should be asked if it can cite a single instance where it has done justice to the victims of khap panchayats," he said.

The All India Democratic Women's Association (AIDWA) has appealed to the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) to issue notices to the administration as no arrests have been made. It has also urged the NHRC to take the initiative and raise the matter in the Supreme Court so that clear directions can be given to deal with caste panchayats, thereby paving the way for legislation on this type of crime.

Jagmati Sangwan, president of the Haryana unit of AIDWA, said that the administration was unwilling to take action against such panchayats. Brinda Karat, general secretary of AIDWA, expressed concern that one of the main persons in the entire episode happened to be an elected sarpanch. "We want to know what action the government is going to take against him," she said

The Om Prakash Chautala-led government has remained silent. The Chief Minister has been holding meetings all over the State, announcing various schemes, but has not visited the beleaguered family of Rampal in Asanda.

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