Print edition : February 06, 2015

Dharana village, Jhajjar district, August 2009: Members of the khap panchayat staging a protest against Risal Singh Gehlout's family who they claimed violated gotra norms and so had to be expelled from the village. Photo: Anu Pushkarna

IT is not very difficult to locate Dharana village in Jhajjar district of Haryana. The road meanders through jowar fields deep into the interiors of the district and most people helpfully direct visitors to the narrow paths leading to the village. The reason why all roads lead to Dharana is the notoriety it has earned following a diktat by its dominant caste panchayat to a family to leave the village permanently.

House No. 419, where Risal Singh Gehlout, an agriculturist, and his family reside, is under siege. Around 450 members of the Haryana Police are stationed in the village to protect the family, and an uneasy calm prevails. People, including the police, speak in hushed tones. The problem began when Risal Singh’s Delhi-based grandson, Ravinder Gehlout, married Shilpa, a girl of the Kadyan gotra from Panipat district.

In Dharana, the writ of the Kadyan khap (caste panchayat) runs. Dharana and the villages neighbouring it are dominated by people of the Kadyan gotra. Shilpa, being a Kadyan, could only be a sister to Ravinder, argued Kadyan khap representatives. They added that by marrying her, the Gehlout family had committed one of the worst transgressions of the bhaichara (brotherhood) principle of social organisation, even though the gotras were different.

Brotherhood principle

According to the “brotherhood” principle on which khaps organise themselves, marriages cannot take place between people of different castes. Within the same caste, marriages should not take place between people of the same gotra. Even when the gotras are different, people living in the same village or adjoining villages cannot marry. Marriages that fall in the latter two categories are interpreted as tantamount to “incest”, though on account of the general paucity of girls and the difficulty in finding different gotras within the same caste group, some flexibility is allowed.

“This is our parampara. The media are writing all wrong things about us,” said Narender Singh, the sarpanch of Majra-Doobaldhan village.

Asked where the khap would get brides for its young men in the face of the acute shortage of women in the State, one of them quipped that they were already “getting them” from outside, referring to the “bought brides” syndrome prevalent in the State.

“Who can question the raja?” says Ved Prakash, Ravinder’s uncle and one of the three sons of Risal Singh, referring to the Kadyan khap panchayat. The Gehlout family owns a good amount of fertile land and livestock, and its roots in Dharana go back several generations.

On July 13, the Kadyan khap began an indefinite protest demanding the ouster of the family as the marriage had not been annulled. It said Ravinder’s father, Rohtas Kumar Gehlout, was unacceptable in the village, though his brothers could continue staying but after paying a fine of Rs.21,000 each to the panchayat.

“What was our fault? Ravinder grew up in Delhi with his aunt from the time he was a baby. We had nothing to do with him,” said a relative. Ironically, the couple had no intention of staying in the village as Ravinder had made Delhi his home several years ago.

“The panchayat has taken a wrong decision,” says 83-year-old Chanderpati, Ravinder’s grandmother. “How can things be normal? Even if the police are there, we do not venture outside our home. We’ve sent the children away as we fear someone would attack them when they go to school,” said Sheela, Chanderpati’s daughter-in-law, who has come from Hardwar in Uttarakhand to support the family.

On July 16, the family was given an ultimatum to leave the village in 72 hours. On July 19, the day the Gehlouts left, angry villagers attempted to stone the house, following which clashes erupted between them and the police. A tehsildar, some policepersons and several mediapersons were injured in the melee.

On July 19 itself the Gehlout family filed an application in the Punjab and Haryana High Court seeking directions to the state to give it protection as well as to initiate immediate action against autocratic individuals for issuing diktats to end the marriage. Meanwhile, Shilpa’s family in Panipat has stood resolutely behind her.

The Gehlouts returned to the village on July 28 with heavy police protection. The stalemate continued as the khap panchayat planned to take the issue to a “sarva khap” meeting on August 9.

On June 23, 2008, Justice Kanwaljit Singh Ahluwalia of the Punjab and Haryana High Court, while disposing of 10 cases involving young married couples, noted that of the 26 matters listed, 10 pertained to marriage between young persons aged between 18 and 21; that in the last four to five years, the court was flooded with thousands of petitions where married couples came seeking protection; and that the State remained a mute spectator. “Couples hiding themselves in the corridors of the court, chased by relatives, accompanied by musclemen armed with weapons, is not the answer which they seek by performing marriage. Society has to insulate these couples,” the judge observed. The High Court constituted a committee comprising the Advocates General of Punjab and Haryana, Standing Counsel for the Union Territory of Chandigarh and some senior advocates in order to work out an alternative, efficacious, compassionate and humanitarian remedy.

* * *

On July 22, 2009, Ved Pal Maun, a 27-year-old medical practitioner of Mataur village in Kaithal district, reached his wife Sonia’s village, Singhwal, in Jind district. He was accompanied by a warrant officer appointed by the Punjab and Haryana High Court as well as half a dozen policemen.

Ved Pal’s wife had been kept captive by her family against her wishes and he had come to take her. But at her house he was told that Sonia was not in the house. He began looking for her. Soon, a crowd gathered, armed with weapons, and pushed its way into the house and, in the presence of Sonia’s family, the police and the warrant officer, bludgeoned the young man to death. The warrant officer, Suraj Bhan, who was injured, said in his complaint to the Narwana police, Jind, that the crowd would have killed him had the police not been there. “They killed him in front of my eyes,” Suraj Bhan said in his complaint.

For several years, Ved Pal had provided medical care for the people of Singhwal. The trouble started when he fell in love with Sonia, who was of the Banwala gotra, and the couple, realising that there would be opposition to a “choice” marriage, eloped and got married under the Hindu Marriage Act on April 22, 2009. They were of different gotras and neither was their’s an inter-caste wedding; both were Jats. The couple did not feel that they had caused any dishonour to their families.

But matters took an ugly turn. Incensed already by the fact that a couple had dared to marry out of choice and determined to convey a message to the community, the Banwala khap got together and, at a public meeting, declared a reward for the murder of the couple.

(In 2007, the same khap had called for the elimination of Manoj and Babli of Karoda village in Kaithal district ( Frontline, July 27, 2007). The couple were murdered despite the police protection ordered by a High Court and their bodies were found near a canal in Hisar district. While some persons were arrested after a prolonged effort by AIDWA, no action was taken against the instigators.)

“He was the only earning member in this family,” said Harkishen, Ved Pal’s father, breaking down. In another part of the house, where Ved Pal had stuck two posters of Sania Mirza on the mud walls, his mother wailed uncontrollably, “Why did they kill my son. What did he ever do to them?”

Show of numerical strength and clout

Ved Pal’s case had nothing to do with honour or sanctity of relationship. The diktat was based on numerical strength and political clout. The issue was baffling as not only were the gotras of the couple different, but the villages involved were located in different districts.

After registering their marriage the couple returned to Ved Pal’s village. Apprehending danger to their lives from Sonia’s family, the couple filed an application seeking protection from the Senior Superintendent of Police, Jind.

On June 22, Sonia’s parents sought the panchayat’s help to request Ved Pal and his family members to send her home for a few days. Only two days earlier Sonia had stated in court that she wanted to stay with her husband. Following the panchayat’s intervention, her parents gave an undertaking that Ved Pal could take her back any time and that there was no threat to her life from them.

Ten days elapsed and there was no word from his in-laws. When he went to get his wife back, they refused to hand her over. On July 14, Sonia sent word through friends that she was being harassed, physically and mentally, by her family and that there was a threat to her life. Ved Pal then sought the help of the court again and, along with the warrant officer and the policemen, went to bring his wife.

“The whereabouts of his wife are not known. Neither are the police taking any interest in locating her,” said Jagmati Sangwan, president of the State unit of AIDWA. As for the action taken against those accused of murdering Ved Pal, the Narwana Station House Officer was suspended and seven persons were arrested on the charge of murder. On July 31, taking suo motu cognisance of media reports, the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) issued a notice to the Chief Secretary, Haryana government, calling for a factual report within four weeks. The NHRC issued a similar notice in the matter of the besieged Gehlout family at Jhajjar and sought a factual report within four weeks.

“The public declaration by the khap is totally shocking and unprecedented,” said Inderjit Singh, State secretary of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), referring to the death sentence announced by the khap.

The Banwala khap argued that even though the gotras of the youngsters were different (sections in the media erroneously reported that it was a sah-gotra, or same-gotra, marriage, causing more confusion and anger as such marriages are strongly disapproved of), the villages, Singhwal and Mataur, were neighbouring ones where the norm of “bhaichara” or “Seem-Seemali” (a concept of fraternal neighbourhood for villages located in a proximate vicinity) applied. Therefore there could be no conjugal relations between people of even different gotras.

Social sanction and consensus

Two young girls of the Dhanak caste were burnt alive in Kaluwas village, Bhiwani district, last year. Their crime: they had gone to convey Diwali greetings to their male friends. The matter came to light when one witness, unable to stomach the crime, complained to the police.

“Sometimes girls just disappear. It is as if the earth has swallowed them,” said Inderjeet Singh. He explained that it was immaterial whether the honour crimes were committed by an individual or a group of persons. In both instances, there was social sanction and consensus. He said there were many cases of bodies of young couples being found on railway tracks. “These need to be investigated and a proper post-mortem done,” he said, adding that standing instructions had to be given to the State that without a minimum level of inquiry, false cases declaring a person as a minor should not be registered.

The patterns of settlement and migration also played a role in marriage norms of communities. Where settlement as in the Deswali belt, comprising parts of southern Haryana, has been more or less of a permanent nature because of the availability of irrigation facilities, the systems are more rigid as compared with regions like Sirsa which have seen migration over several years. The dominance of caste, he said, was within a radius of 250 kilometres from Delhi.