Print edition : March 26, 2010

Azad Singh and Lakshmi, parents of Satish Berwal. The family has been given police protection.-BY SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT Photo: BY SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

Haryana's caste panchayats continue to punish couples, practically unchecked, for breaking "brotherhood norms". (Published in the issue dated March 26, 2010.)

ON February 12, Meham town in Rohtak district, Haryana, saw a citizens' convention that was unusual in more than one sense. First, it was being held from the ramparts of the Meham Chaubisi Chabootara, a platform reserved for members of the Meham panchayat (a conglomeration of 24 villages, better known as the Meham Chaubisi). Second, the meeting was not dominated by any one caste. Third, it was a congregation of secular and democratic groups, and a good number of women participated in it. (Women had never attended meetings at that venue since all caste and khap panchayats are male-dominated.) Fourth, it was a meeting where caste and khap panchayats and their undemocratic ways were roundly criticised. People from neighbouring villages also attended the meeting and expressed their opposition to the illegal acts of the panchayats.

The meeting reflected a growing anger against the actions of self-styled khap panchayats. In early February itself, there were at least three reported cases of panchayats ordering the expulsion of married couples for having allegedly violated one community norm or the other. Meham shot into notoriety 20 years ago following complaints of poll-rigging and booth-capturing in an Assembly byelection. The election had to be countermanded twice because of large-scale violence and the murder of an independent candidate. The Meham Chaubisi has historically played a crucial role in elections.

On January 31, Kavita and Satish, a young couple from Kheri Meham with a nine-month-old child, were told by the khap panchayat that their marriage three years ago was in violation of the gotra norm of bhaichaara, or brotherhood. Kavita belongs to the Beniwal gotra and Satish to the Berwal gotra, and their marriage had seemingly not violated any caste or gotra norm. However, according to the bhaichaara norm, girls belonging to a village's dominant gotra could be accepted in that village only as sisters, and not as wives. Of late, this has been used to harass couples who either married out of their own choice or whose marriages were arranged by their families.

Twenty-one members of the Beniwal gotra convened a meeting and decided to expel Kavita and Satish from the village. Kavita could not stay in the village as the wife of Satish, but the child could live with Satish's father, Azad Singh, the meeting decreed.

As a punishment for allowing the marriage to take place, the 65-year-old Azad Singh was paraded around the village with a shoe shoved into his mouth. Azad Singh's family is among the poorer ones in the village and belongs to a minority gotra. We were told that we could stay on in the village if we donated whatever land we possessed to the village dera (a village shelter used by mendicants). As per the ruling, Satish would become his own child's uncle, while I have to pay Rs.3 lakh for the upkeep of my grandchild. How will I procure all the money for this after giving away my land? said Azad Singh.

Anil Rao, Senior Superintendent of Police, Rohtak, told Frontline that the couple was now staying in Bhiwani district and that he had sent word to the police authorities there to provide them security.

Kavita had, with support from her parents, who live in Bhiwani district, approached the SSP with a detailed complaint, naming the people who had convened the panchayat and humiliated her father-in-law. She demanded action against the 21 gotra members involved in the act. But the police registered a first information report (FIR) without mentioning any names, reportedly owing to pressure from influential people. Frontline learnt that at least two revenue department employees and one panchayat samiti member were involved in the humiliation of Azad Singh and in the decision to expel the couple.

The SSP said that the police were doing everything possible to help the couple and claimed that police intervention had forced the Meham Chaubisi to reverse its judgment. A joint meeting of the Berwal and Beniwal khaps resolved that the couple could live as man and wife but outside their village. The Chaubisi also condemned the humiliation of Azad Singh.

At Azad Singh's house, emotions run high. They have done their worst. What more can they do? said Azad Singh, referring to his humiliation. While he and his wife Lakshmi are relieved to have police protection against further assaults by members of the dominant gotra, they are scared to say openly that they will bring their daughter-in-law home. What would you do if you are surrounded by the village toughs? But how can a man and his wife reconvert as brother and sister? wondered an elderly relative of Azad Singh. However, she said that the panchayat was right in its decision but others had influenced it wrongly. Lakshmi wondered what would be the nature of her relationship with her grandson, Raunaq, if her son and daughter-in-law were to see each other as brother and sister.

It was shocking that none of the influential Berwal gotra members was ready to stand by the family. Dharamraj, a former sarpanch of Kheri village, said that the khaps' decision, taken at a joint meeting of the two khaps, was final. The role of an elected sarpanch, as has been seen in most cases relating to such issues, is marginal. An older citizen of the village told Frontline that an elected sarpanch was of use only if he was influential and strong.

The police maintained a studious silence regarding the couple's desire to live together in their own village of Kheri. Mindsets have to change, and then there is the issue of bhaichaara that cannot be disturbed, said a police officer.

It is significant that the Punjab and Haryana High Court took suo motu notice of the issue and asked the Haryana government to file a reply. The Director-General of Police told the court that the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, 1967, does not cover the activities of khap panchayats. Equally significant is the fact that apart from the Left parties and the All India Democratic Women's Association (AIDWA), which took up the cudgels on Kavita's behalf, several individuals, including veteran Congress leader Shamsher Singh Surjewala, and organisations such as the All India Lawyers' Union, the All India Kisan Sabha and a few youth organisations, denounced the undemocratic diktats of the caste panchayat.

Apart from the Kheri incident, three other cases of caste panchayat atrocities were reported in the recent past. A couple in Jind district came under immense pressure to call off their engagement after a section of residents of the boy's village, Budalkhera, claimed that the gotras of the groom and the bride had brotherly relations. The Budalkhera panchayat declared that the marriage could not take place in the village. The families of the couple resisted and finally, on February 6, the panchayat reversed its order. But it ensured that the wedding took place outside the village.

Similarly, on November 1 last year, a joint panchayat of the Garhi Ballam and Sundana villages ordered a couple to leave the village for violating gotra norms. The couple quietly left. No complaint was lodged.

Curiously, on February 3, in a village in Hisar district, members of the Scheduled Caste Dhanak community objected to a wedding and banished the boy from the village, alleging gotra violations. That was perhaps the first time that the Dhanak community had targeted one of its own. Until then, only a section of the Jat community was found raising vocal and violent objections on the grounds of gotra violations. It was because of the intervention of some Left and democratic organisations and the determination of the boy's mother, a widow who threatened to commit suicide, that the panchayat finally relented.

The Bhupinder Singh Hooda government's record in taking on illegal actions of caste groups is less than satisfactory. Such incidents are as common as they were before, but many of them go unreported.

There are so many more important issues such as dowry, domestic violence and livelihood issues. But we spend most of our energy and time fighting the unconstitutional fiats of these self-styled panchayats, said Jagmati Sangwan, president of the State unit of AIDWA.

She pointed out that though the government had promised to set up shelters for couples who were being targeted by khap panchayats, to date not a single one had come up.

The Rohtak SSP told Frontline that harassed couples could stay in the police lines, sharing accommodation with other families until the government shelters came up. We cant provide independent accommodation for 2,000 couples overnight, he said.

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