- Khap panchayats are community councils
- In north India, they are largely a Jat institution
- ‘Gotra’ implies lines of descent within a caste
- Marriage within a gotra is taboo
- Khap panchayats often punish such marriages with barbaric orders
Last February, when Ravinder Gehlawat of Dharana village, near Jhajjar in Haryana, married Shilpi Kadian of Sonepat, the khap panchayat (a caste council of the Jats), dominated by the Kadians (a Jat clan), violently objected to the match. It alleged that the marriage violated ages-old gotra norms and that the Gehlawats and Kadians, being from the same gotra, could be considered siblings.
Flashback to some 40 years ago, when two sisters of the very same village, Savitri and Prem Kadian, had married two brothers, Sardara and Attar Gehlawat, of nearby Talao. In an exchange of sorts, the sister of the Gehlawat brothers was married into the Kadians. “The khaps these days are not upholding but breaking our traditions, and for ulterior motives, making it difficult to find matches in rural Haryana,” says Dr Satish Gehlawat, son of Prem, who’s now in her seventies.
In Bhaini Badshapur, near Hissar, Balwant Sihag, a prosperous farmer, married Rajbala Godara of the same village in 1997, defying the strict norm of not marrying a girl of the same village. “I was able to resist the khap’s disapproval because I am socially and economically better-off,” says Sihag. “The initial murmurs against our marriage died down because I have political connections, know the law, and can give as good as I get.”
Poonam, Bhiwani district
This brave Jat girl married a Dalit. Despite the atrocities the couple faced, they are together.
Similar is the case with Shruti Chaudhary, the Lok Sabha MP from Bhiwani and grand-daughter of former Haryana chief minister Bansi Lal. When she married an Assamese boy, no one objected. Other grandchildren of Bansi Lal, too, have married outside their Jat community without trouble. But when Surender, a Dalit from Kharkadi village, not far from Bansi Lal’s ancestral village, married Poonam, a Jat girl, all hell broke loose. The khap panchayat forcibly separated them and married off Poonam elsewhere. She escaped, reunited with Surender, and the couple lived underground for many months. “When we asked the elders why they didn’t object to Shruti’s marriage, they said, ‘Oh, they are big people!’” says Poonam. “Are social norms different for us and for them?”
Recently, a Karnal court handed down the death sentence to five and life imprisonment to one for murdering a young couple—Manoj and Babli—on the diktat of a khap panchayat. The judgement was hailed as a landmark, one that would chasten the khaps, which often punish people through public humiliation, ostracisation or by taking away land. But most khaps have reacted belligerently, raising funds (every family is to contribute Rs 10) to defend the convicts. And the khap mahapanchayat held in Kurukshetra on April 13 has, ominously, demanded an amendment to the Hindu Marriage Act to ban so-called “same gotra” marriages. The khaps have decided to block highways to Delhi unless the Haryana government writes to the prime minister about their demands.
That vehemence notwithstanding, the actions of khaps are arbitrary and there isn’t a hard and fast observance of the social norms they swear by. Investigations by Outlook in three of the worst affected districts—Bhiwani, Jhajjar and Rohtak—have revealed that most cases raised in recent times by khap panchayats have roots in personal feuds or attempts to grab land. Otherwise, they are related to the politics of panchayat elections. “It’s common knowledge that these kangaroo courts attack poor and helpless families and almost never target influential ones,” says Dr D.R. Chaudhary, member of the Haryana Administrative Reforms Commission and a campaigner against the atrocities of khap panchayats. “Issues are raised selectively. In most recent cases, factors other than preservation of so-called societal norms are at play.”
Randhir Singh, Bhiwani
A khap panchayat opposed his son’s ‘sagotra’ marriage. He says it was political vendetta.
Take the case of Samaspur village, near Bhiwani, which has been in the news for over a month now after Sri Bhagwan, of the Legah gotra and working for the Rajasthan police, married Anita Juthra, who’s from a neighbouring village. The khap panchayat objected on the grounds that even though the two are from different gotras, since they belong to a group of 12 villages that observe bhaichara, marriages between people of these villages is forbidden. Sri Bhagwan’s father Randhir Singh was ordered to either have his son’s marriage annulled or hand over his 8.5 acres of farmland to the khap panchayat and leave the village. When the couple refused, goons attacked the family’s fields and destroyed two tubewells, forcing the family to seek police protection. “There is not much substance in the khap’s stance because the couple are from far-off gotras,” says Chaudhary. “It also had no business to order seizure of the family’s land.”
Randhir Singh says he is the victim of the sarpanch’s vendetta because, during the panchayat elections, his family members supported a woman candidate who eventually lost. “They told me I’d be thrown out of this village. The sarpanch mobilised the khap panchayat against me and I was forced to file cases against them,” he says. Today, some 30 policemen guard his fields and family on court orders. The sarpanch was suspended for his role in the attack. Seeing that Randhir Singh had the administration’s support, it did a U-turn. It is now lobbying for a compromise. The caste matter has been conveniently forgotten.
Dharana, near Jhajjar, is a classic example of the double standards and dubious motives of khap panchayats. The village has families of some 12 different gotras; though inter-marriage is taboo, this has been breached several times. A ruckus was raised only in one particular marriage, that between one Ravinder and Shilpi. “Ours was a model village of peace and harmony,” says Jaivir Singh Sheoran, the sarpanch. “The matter was raked up to polarise votes ahead of the panchayat elections so that a Kadian could become the sarpanch. The village is now defamed and there’s tension between sub-castes that was never there earlier.” Capt Dilbagh Singh, who spoke for the Kadians, could give little justification for the khap panchayat’s actions. “If bhaichara norms have been broken in the past, it means nothing to us. Two wrongs do not make a right.”
The likes of Dilbagh Singh, powerful though they happen to be, are few in number. It’s an oft-heard refrain across rural Haryana that khaps do not really enjoy the support of the majority as their motives are quite suspect. “Just a handful of mischievous elements get together to stir passions over caste identities,” says Saroj Beniwal, a school teacher. “When the matter snowballs, the saner voices usually die out.” With falling support in the villages, the myth of a khap’s votebank is also fast collapsing. This has prompted senior politicians like Shamsher Singh Surjewala to speak out against the khap’s tyranny. Mounting pressure from the courts and the administration, coupled with the growing disillusionment of the people at the selective “protection of society norms”, has indeed put these grizzled elders on the defensive.
Jagmati Sangwan, president of the state unit of the Janwadi Mahila Samiti, wonders why the khaps don’t object to the recent practice of Jats marrying girls from the impoverished tribal belts of Assam, Chhattisgarh and Andhra Pradesh. “There aren’t enough girls here, so these girls, who serve the purpose of producing heirs, are kept like animals,” she says. “No khap has objected to such matches or such practices.”
Voices like hers are growing in rural Haryana. Most feel that with the Jat community facing serious problems in the marriage of young men because there simply aren’t enough women, it’s just a matter of time before the khap panchayats, infamous for their barbaric orders, are forced to back down. The infiltration of personal feuds and politics into the “society protection” agenda will only hasten their downfall.