Caste terror

Print edition : December 17, 2004

At a public hearing in Haryana, participants narrate incidents in which caste panchayats played a serious role in making life difficult for Dalits and other downtrodden people.

in Rohtak

At a public hearing in Haryana.-PICTURES: T.K. RAJALAKSHMI

"WHAT happened to me should not happen to anybody," said Rohtash Kumar. He is a Dalit, belonging to the Valmiki community, and hails from Talao village in Jhajjar district of Haryana. He does not live in Talao any more. For the last two years he has been living elsewhere, after a village khap (caste panchayat) made life difficult for him. Rohtash, a tailor, narrated his experience in front of an unusual gathering of 500 men and women on November 14 at a public hearing.

Organised by the Haryana unit of the All India Democratic Women's Association (AIDWA) to discuss the role of khaps in the State, the hearing was attended by persons other than those belonging to women's organisations, underscoring the message that the issue was about the constitutional and democratic rights of individuals and concerned everyone. The venue was the grounds of the Jat Boys College in Rohtak district, which along with Jhajjar district is the hub of khaps in Haryana. The public hearing castigated such self-appointed `panchayats', which are known to issue diktats under the pretext of upholding tradition, honour and even social harmony. The diktats create new social tensions as they violate the constitutional rights of Dalits, the poor, women and the youth.

Things took a turn for the worse for members of the non-savarna castes in Talao after two young Jat girls eloped with a Dalit boy of the same village. Jats, who form the dominant caste group in the village, held a `panchayat' and decreed that the Dalits in the village should be ostracised and punished collectively for transgressing established caste norms. "Fifteen of us raised objections to the social boycott imposed on our community. For the fault of one family, why were the rest being penalised, we countered," says Rohtash.

But the elopement was not the only reason that roused the ire of the Jat khap. Rohtash's move to start self-help groups and attempts at social reform (he had taken part in an anti-liquor agitation in the mid-1990s) had irked caste Hindus. "Yeh banega chaudhary (He wants to become a Chaudhary)," they taunted him. After the elopement, Dalits lived in constant fear as their women were warned that they would have to face the consequences if the Jat girls did not come back.

Rohtash and some others tried to defuse the tension and approached the administration, which was not helpful. This prompted him to approach the media. An article about the tension in the village appeared in the July 10 issue of a leading Hindi daily. The next day, the Jat khap decided to boycott the Dalits of the village. "I cannot even say what it meant. Even the vegetable vendor was prevented from dealing with us," he said. An elderly Dalit woman committed suicide unable to bear the insults and the boycott.

Meanwhile, the two Jat girls died under mysterious circumstances. The khap then decreed that as a punishment for taking the issue to the media, young Dalit men, including Rohtash, would slap each other with slippers. A fine of Rs.2,100 was imposed on each one. It was only after the matter reached the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) and a notice was issued to the Superintendent of Police, Jhajjar, that cases were filed against four persons under the Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe (Prevention of Atrocities) Act. The matter is now pending before the Sessions Court at Jhajjar. But this has not emboldened Rohtash and his friends to return to their village.

Says Jagmati Sangwan, president of the AIDWA's Haryana unit: "There is a particular pattern. The administration is never seen to take action on its own in such cases. Even when there is pressure on it to act, it does so with great reluctance." She explained that the AIDWA had initiated moves to set up a broad platform of citizens to take cognisance of the growing menace of khaps. It was observed that the elected sarpanchs were not allowed to function and, even if they were, they could do so only on the terms of the economically and politically dominant caste groups in the village. Jagmati Sangwan said the khaps often got active when elections approached, though it was common for them to issue fiats round the year.

The pretext of "Bhaichaara" or village brotherhood that these khaps used, she said, never helped the poor. "Oppression of widows, the weak and the poor are contradictory to general notions of harmony and brotherhood," she said. Ironically, Jagmati Sangwan said, the khaps never spoke out against the crisis in the agriculture sector or the invasion of the Indian economy by multinational corporations. She said there was an open nexus between the ruling political parties and the khaps.

Jagmati Sangwan, AIDWA State president, addresses the public hearing. On the dais are AIDWA State vice-president Shubha, Swami Agnivesh and Professor Suraj Bhan.-

The experience of Rajo Devi, an ironsmith's wife from Sasrauli in Jhajjar district, broadly illustrates Jagmati Sangwan's observations. While Rohtash suffered for the "fault" of a Dalit family in his village, Rajo Devi's involvement was more direct. Her son Sunil had a relationship with a Gosain (Brahmin) girl and the two left the village in May. Not only was this an inter-caste liaison but, going by the principle of village exogamy, the two were supposed to be siblings.

The Gosains, in a meeting presided over by the elected sarpanch of Sasrauli, gave Rajo Devi and her family 72 hours to produce the couple or to leave the village permanently. Anyone having social ties with the family was threatened with a fine of Rs.1,100. The family of 14 (including seven grandchildren) had to leave finally as the couple never returned. Now Rajo Devi and her family are in Rohtak town, paying an unaffordable rent of Rs.1,500 a month. In Sasrauli, they owned a house. "They threatened us that if we returned to the village, they would kill us," she said. The administration, apart from being biased, was unable to take action to help the family. Naresh, a member of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), said that Rajo Devi's husband was tortured by the officer who was in charge of the Sasrauli police post. Said Naresh: "Nothing has been done to rehabilitate this family. All their equipment - the iron implements - is in the village. When we met the District Commissioner, he referred us to the Superintendent of Police, who accused her family of helping her son to elope."

Speaking at the public hearing, Suraj Bhan, former Professor of Ancient History at Kurukshetra University, pointed out that the gotra system had always played an oppressive role. He wondered why no ordinary person was able to protest against the decisions of the khap, why the elected panchayats had a limited role to play, and why the law-enforcers remained silent when their mandate was to protect the rights of people. Suraj Bhan said: "Why is it only the responsibility of the Marxist parties to raise these issues? Why is it that other political parties do not react?"

He disputed a popular notion that khaps comprised illiterate persons. "They are affluent and literate as well," he said. Giving a brief history of the social organisation of khaps, he said they had emerged during the medieval period as a group meant to provide security. In the modern context, they suffered from political insecurity as most of them vied for patronage from the ruling political classes.

The lack of social reform movements in Haryana is often cited as a reason for the dominant role played by khaps. Swami Agnivesh, founder of the Bandhua Mukti Morcha and president of the Arya Pratinidhi Sabha, said the Arya Samaj failed to eradicate such practices because it had a conservative leadership. He referred to a three-year-old incident in Dulina, Jhajjar, to prove his point. When five Dalits were lynched, a panchayat led by some leaders of the Arya Samaj honoured the alleged killers. He commended the efforts of the AIDWA and offered his services for the much needed "social revolution".

Equally critical of the khaps was Khazaan Singh, a sociologist from Maharshi Dayanand University, Rohtak. He said that barring the Arya Samaj, there had not been any social reform movements in the State. While some of the khaps were known to have played a positive role in banning dowry or liquor consumption, it was largely unknown to what extent the "good work" had succeeded. More recently, in the Asanda case, where a married couple were declared brother and sister by a khap, he said he had sensed fear as villagers said that "anything could happen to the couple" if they returned to the village (Frontline, November 19).

Khaps are a form of social organisation peculiar to the Jat community, said D.R. Chaudhary, Editor of Peeng, a progressive journal. The impact of khaps can be felt in the Jat-populated areas in and around Delhi - rural Delhi, Haryana, western Uttar Pradesh and even the adjoining areas of Rajasthan. In the past, they played a different role, when representation and participation were more democratic. But, in recent times the khaps had begun to assume an anti-poor, anti-women and anti-Dalit character, he said.

The Asanda couple are back in the village. They are living as man and wife and not as siblings as ordained by the Rathi khap. This followed the intervention of the Punjab and Haryana High Court. Although the issue received a lot of publicity and women's organisations like the AIDWA and concerned citizens intervened at every conceivable stage, it would have been difficult for the couple to return to the village without the court order, especially as the administration refused to budge till the court intervened.

But it is an individual case and the interim order pertains to it only. Unless and until there is general legislation that debars the khaps from taking the law into their own hands, such incidents will continue to occur.

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