Print edition : April 04, 2014

At the mahapanchayat in Jhajjar district, Haryana, on February 19. Photo: Manoj Dhaka

Naresh Tikait, BKU chief. Photo: T.K. Rajalakshmi

Ashok Balyan, lawyer and chief of the Peasants Welfare Association. Photo: T.K. Rajalakshmi

The Muzaffarnagar violence has given khaps a new importance and facilitated the entry of communal politics into Jatland.

A THREE-STOREYED building in a lane deep inside Sisauli village of Muzaffarnagar district in western Uttar Pradesh is host to the memories of Bharatiya Kisan Union (BKU) leader Mahendra Singh Tikait, popularly known as “Baba”. A hall in the building serves as part office and part residence. There are arrangements for overnight stay for visitors and simple food for everyone. On one of the walls in the dimly lit hall is a huge mural detailing the life of the leader and the various movements he spearheaded. It depicts how he unified all agriculturists irrespective of caste and creed and solved problems, including blood feuds, over a hookah. A newspaper article, also part of the wall-writing, is on how no decision of “Baba” could be challenged in a court. “Sisauli ke Sant” (The saint of Sisauli), “Sisauli ka Sher” (The lion of Sisauli) and “Maati Putra” (Son of the soil) are scrawled on the mural, encomiums to the departed leader.

His two sons, Rakesh and Naresh, have taken on the mantle of leadership now. Naresh is BKU chief and head of the Balyan khap (community council). He is the new Baba. His perspective is different from that of his father. He talks of “the beheading of Indian soldiers” by the Pakistan Army, of how the Hindu populations in neighbouring countries have dwindled, and how Jats have a strong sense of religion.

“People do not want to resolve disputes by compromise. They want to go to court. I have a case under Section 302 [murder] against me. It has been 10 years since I’ve been fighting it. The payment of sugarcane for last year is yet to be made to us; each visit to the court costs us a minimum of Rs.15,000,” Naresh said.

According to him, the riots of August-September 2013 in Muzaffarnagar, where Jats and Muslims clashed with each other, roused “Hindutva” feelings among Jats. “If some Hindu speaks out, he is identified as a member of the RSS [Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh], the VHP [Vishwa Hindu Parishad] or the BJP [Bharatiya Janata Party]. If a Muslim does mischief, there is pressure from above to protect him. The law should be the same for everyone,” he said, giving standard arguments about the appeasement of minorities.

He admitted that there still was a lot of tension and that agricultural work had been adversely affected by the riots. “We cannot get our work done. Masonry, iron work and small repair work were done by Muslims. They are suffering, so are we,” he said, adding how mobilisation by khaps, or caste councils, would help defuse the situation.

Rallying behind the riot accused

On February 19, Dabauda Khurd village in Jhajjar district of Haryana was host to a mahapanchayat of khaps from Uttar Pradesh, Haryana, Rajasthan and Delhi, representing the dominant sub-castes, or gotras, of the Jat community. It had specifically been called against the backdrop of the communal violence in Muzaffarnagar which claimed more than 60 lives. The main purpose of the meeting called by the representatives of one of the numerically strong gotras was to demand a probe into the riots by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) and to mount pressure on the Uttar Pradesh Police to withdraw the cases registered against Jats during the riots and save “innocent” persons from victimisation and police harassment. A Special Investigation Team (SIT) is now probing the riots. Ten days earlier, on February 10, a similar mahapanchayat was held at Phugana, one of the violence-hit villages in Muzaffarnagar. Baljit Singh Malik, the chief of the Gathwala khap, one of the dominant khaps in western Uttar Pradesh, announced that a movement demanding a CBI inquiry would be launched and that the police would not be allowed to make any arrests in connection with the riots. Many prominent khaps, including the Balyan khap, attended it.

Apart from adopting a unanimous resolution demanding a CBI inquiry into the communal violence and the charges of rape and gang-rape against Jats, the Dabauda Khurd mahapanchayat resolved to seek an amendment of the Hindu Marriage Act (HMA) so as to make same- gotra marriages illegal. Khaps have proscribed same- gotra marriages. It was perhaps to give an impression that khaps were dealing with social issues that the demand to amend the HMA was made once again. The meeting also raised issues such as female foeticide and women’s participation in khaps.

Caste consolidation

Barring a few occasions earlier, where the Jat community and its leaders have thrown their weight behind community members accused of honour crimes or those indicted in the infamous Mirchpur (Hisar) and Gohana (Sonepat) violence against Dalits, mobilisation on communal lines has been hitherto missing in khaps.

However, Muzaffarnagar was a turning point. A new vocabulary vis-a-vis the minority community, which was latent earlier, has emerged. Significantly, Jhajjar is where the infamous Dulina killings happened. Five Dalit youth involved in the trade of animal skins were lynched on October 15, 2002, by a group of people who accused them of slaughtering a cow on Dasara day. Taking them to be members of the minority community, the mob beat them up in the presence of senior police officers and officials of the district administration ( Frontline, January 18, 2003). Subsequent years have seen various “community led” actions of rescuing stray cattle from slaughter in the Gurgaon-Pataudi area, which adjoins the Mewat region where Meo Muslims live.

What was observed in the context of the conflagration in Muzaffarnagar was the communal mobilisation of khaps by certain political parties. What should have been dealt as a law and order problem was gradually given a communal colour owing to administrative and political lethargy. This spiralled into an orgy of violence that claimed many lives, mainly from among the members of the minority community. Many of them took refuge in relief camps.

“Yes, we did it. Hamne gundagardi ki. Khul ke ki. Pakad pakad ke maara,” said a member of the Jat community on condition of anonymity about attacking Muslims purposely. “Twelve-year-olds caught people returning from the fields and attacked them with agricultural implements. Three people died from my village alone,” said the villager, adding with some regret that the “wrong Muslims got killed. We should have got the Qureshis [butchers by profession]”.

Pointing to his buffaloes, he said that if the metal ring that harnessed the animals to the ground got damaged, there was no one to repair it now. “There is no one to fill air in our cart tyres. Muslims used to do this kind of work. They have fled the village or are in camps now,” he said.

This was caste, class and communal assertion, all in one. The majority of Muslims killed were agricultural workers and petty artisans.

Exploiting the vacuum

All the ingredients of social unrest were there in the Jatlands of north India when Muzaffarnagar happened: an agricultural landed class in crisis—farmers were bitter that they had not got remunerative prices for the sugarcane harvest last year as well; weakening control of khaps over the economic situation; the withering of social controls and the new challenges posed by democratic India; and the looming threat of changing social relations. It was this vacuum that communal elements could exploit.

According to local journalists, communal organisations took advantage of the latent conservatism among khaps, where an eve-teasing incident and subsequent murder of a couple of young men, the immediate cause of the conflagration in Muzaffarnagar, got violently directed at a particular community. Given the impending Lok Sabha elections, they said, a larger mobilisation along communal lines was waiting to happen in States that had substantial Jat populations.

Whatever pretence of a social fabric existed, primarily because of the interdependence of the landed community and the working class among the minorities, has now been torn asunder. “These wounds are not going to heal for the next 10 to 15 years. The villages were relatively free of communal clashes. But after this incident, everything has changed,” said a doctor in Muzaffarnagar. He said the sharp division between communities extended to the towns as well where members of the minority community were looked upon with suspicion.

The outcome of the violence was twofold. It resuscitated khaps and gave them a new importance in the political landscape and facilitated the entry of those wanting to make capital out of communal feelings into Jatland.

Even though khaps claim to be representative of chhathis, or 36, communities, in effect they are pocket boroughs of certain sections of the landed Jat community and, by extension, fronts of certain political parties. For instance, riot-hit villages such as Kutba, Lisarh, Bawli and Phugana predominantly have members of the Gathwala gotra. The Jat boys who were killed in retaliation of the murder of the Muslim youth were of this gotra. “There was anger as the police let off the persons accused of the murder of the two boys. And now there are cases filed against the family members of the two murdered boys. Our initial protests were against these false cases and we want those FIRs [first information reports] quashed,” Ashok Balyan, a lawyer and spokesperson of the Balyan khap told Frontline.

Ashok Balyan is also the chief of the Peasants Welfare Association. He said that when the BKU called off a condolence meeting on August 30, the minority community went ahead with its meeting, which angered his community members. Following this, Jats held a meeting on August 31 in which, he said, local BJP leaders attended. “The Balyan, Gathwala and Tomar khaps decided that a panchayat would be organised on September 7 if justice was not done. The BJP was supporting us. It was there that a video was shown. Who knows where it came from, but it incited people,” Ashok Balyan said. His reference is to the fake videos allegedly shared by a BJP legislator that triggered the riots.

It was on three days, on September 7, 8 and 9, that the worst violence occurred. “Jats always lead the khaps. What’s new about that? Participation or non-participation by others is immaterial,” he said, adding that there was not a single Jat legislator in the five Assembly segments of the district.

“I would say that only 10,000-15,000 are genuine cases in the camps. Where did this figure of 70,000 come from? The Chairman of the Minorities Commission visited the camps many times. Some 600 FIRs have been filed and 7,000 persons named. To get compensation, many have written false reports. From 7,000, the number has come down to 700. They say the panchayats are putting pressure. The rape cases are fake. In one case involving a woman of Lankh village, where three persons are accused of gang rape, one of them is disabled and the other is over 60. How is it possible? Both the husband and wife have given contradictory statements of the events of that day. But as she has given her statement under Section 164 [recording of confessions and statements by a magistrate] of the Code of Criminal Procedure [CrPC], the FIR has to be registered,” he said. An FIR of gang rape was filed after the victim approached the government as the police had refused to register the complaint, he said.

He cited another case where a man and his nephew were accused of rape. “In our custom, when a man cannot smoke the hookah in front of his uncle, jointly committing the act of rape is unheard of,” he said. Seven cases of rape have been reported.

“All the FIRs on rape are afterthoughts. Our khap members have been the worst affected. We don’t have faith in the SIT set up by the State government. We are ready to talk but the government should come forward,” said Baljit Singh Malik. “Why are the Muslims staying on in the camps even after getting compensation?” Local people Frontline spoke to said on condition of anonymity that rape was commonplace. “It is so common that it is hardly reported. It has therefore come as a surprise that women have come forward to report it. Maybe the present circumstances have given them the courage to speak out,” one of them said.

“A Jat-Muslim alliance won’t happen for a long time. The differences have grown. I went with the BKU chief to Darul Uloom Deoband to try to persuade the leaders there to get the Muslims to return to the villages. But they don’t want to go back because of the compensation. We cannot have an Israel-Palestine situation here. What we did, the destruction of property, was wrong. Khaps have never supported the wrongdoers. The Gathwala khap was angry about the earlier incident involving one of their girls and a Muslim boy,” Ashok Balyan said.

Referring to Mahendra Singh Tikait, Ashok Balyan said: “Baba was known to take up issues of all communities. He sat in a protest once when a Muslim girl had been kidnapped by her own people. It is wrong to say that khaps raise issues involving Hindus only.”

Politically, he said, the community felt that as the BJP had come to its support, new alliances could be in the making. “The BJP has taken an interest in khap matters and so the khaps are supporting them,” he told Frontline. He said when the BKU chief was alive, formal announcements of support were made.

The district Congress chief, Tegh Bahadur Saini, told Frontline that communities had got polarised as never before in the region.

Demand to amend the Hindu Marriage Act

Ashok Balyan admitted that killings in the name of honour did take place but they were done by the families involved. He was emphatic that khaps did not break up marriages or force couples out of the village as was often reported. But what about the FIRs? Missing people? He said no one, including the family members of the so-called errant couples, complained. He said when couples who defied marriage norms were told to leave the village, they would bring a court order and continue staying. “This is not tolerated. But khaps are aware of the problems of female foeticide and declining sex ratio,” he added in order to underscore the social roles of khaps. But the Special Marriage Act, he said, had to be amended; it allowed all kinds of marriages.

“If the amendments are done, killings in the name of honour will stop. There are different customs everywhere. In south India, uncle-niece marriages are allowed. They are also Hindus but they have different customs than ours,” said Baljit Singh Malik.

But according to Jagmati Sangwan, general secretary of the All India Democratic Women’s Association (AIDWA), khaps were only interested in the institution of marriage.

“Khaps never take up issues of domestic violence, incest or rapes within the village. It is only choice marriages or relationships outside caste or religion that bother them the most,” she said.

Referring to the huge mobilisation of Jats on September 7, following which riots aggravated, Naresh Tikait said: “I tried to control the meeting on September 7. There were three lakh people.”

“The youngsters don’t listen to the khaps anymore. They keep mobiles and do whatever they want. Even the Supreme Court is interfering in the business of khaps. It is our personal matter where we marry our children and who we get them married to,” he said, referring to his controversial statements against the Supreme Court.

“We have a degree college for girls and an inter-college as well. We are doing social work for free. The Supreme Court should fix a salary for us for keeping peace in the villages. But we cannot have the culture of the cities in our villages. Why doesn’t the Supreme Court ensure that we get proper rates for our sugarcane and that there are proper roads in the villages? Inter-caste marriage or marriage within the same village is like social murder. Families cannot show their faces. What can any court do if we decide to have fewer girls? But if a Jat girl is teased, there will be consequences,” he said, narrating two or more incidents of eve-teasing involving Muslim boys.

When asked about Jat boys, he replied: “They don’t do anything. The question doesn’t arise.”

On the way back from Sisauli, one among a group of girls was seen wearing a pair of jeans. The local guide told us that only Jat girls could wear trousers; no one else would dare.