Haryana’s khap panchayats are in the news again, this time for a rather unusual reason. The Kundu khap, a self-regulated caste panchayat of the Kundu Jat clan, hit the Rohtak-Jind highway last week demanding justice—hold your breath—for a young woman. Vernika Kundu, a young DJ from Chandigarh, was recently stalked by two men and later complained that the police had watered down charges against the alleged stalkers. The Kundu khap warned the Haryana government of a wider agitation unless kidnapping charges were restored.
Quite in contrast to the stand taken by the Kundu khap in the Chandigarh case, Haryana’s khaps have earned a bad reputation due to their harsh diktats against women and young people. Khaps wield considerable influence over society wherever Jats are the dominant caste, and the institution has invited opprobrium for imposing sanctions defending caste orthodoxy from social change. In fact, the word ‘khap’ is most closely associated in the public mind with the phrase ‘honour killing’—brutal, cold-blooded murders of couples who seek to marry outside their caste, or within the gotra (clan), whose members are considered by the khaps to be consanguinous either by actual kinship or historically close ties.
Considering the khaps’ unabashed appeal to patriarchal orthodoxy, their zeal to prevent or punish the breaching of boundaries that sustain hierarchies of caste, many are surprised by the Kundu khap’s stand in the stalking case. Vernika’s everyday life, after all, would be in violation of many of the taboos khaps are known to have imposed on young women—from using mobile phones to wearing jeans, the khap list of don’ts for women is long. A financially independent working woman who looks “westernised” cannot be someone whom a khap would accept as a role model for women.
“She does not fit the image that khaps associate with women,” says Vikas Rathee, who teaches history at the Central University of Punjab. This is what makes the Kundu khap’s support for Vernika worth reflecting on, to try and decipher how the khaps are framing the discourse on gender. Rathee ventures that for khaps the question of women’s rights and the limits to those rights are not one-size-fits-all. “What khaps do when an issue related to women’s rights arises varies according to place and time. That is, it varies from khap to khap and case to case,” he says.
From the Kundu khap’s perspective, their protest reflects bhaichara (brotherhood) among the Jats. Khap pradhan Rajendra Kundu, however, insists that “even if she were not a Kundu, we would still have protested”. Acknowledging that Vernika is not bound by the rules khaps impose on Jat women in Haryana’s villages, he says, “In the cities, everybody stays out late. That’s no reason to harass somebody.”
Vernika and her father
Does this suggest that khaps are being affected by liberal tendencies through constant exposure, which might eventually help them get rid of obscurantist notions about gender relations? IGNOU professor Jagpal Singh, who specialises in democracy, development and identity issues, says the Kundu khap has indeed acted “unusually”, but it is possible to locate its protest within the norm for khaps. “We tend to note only the negative tendencies in a community, caste or region, but in all such groups, including the Jats, democratic forces are also always present,” he says, referring to families such as Vernika’s Chandigarh-based one. Vernika and her parents belong to the urbane sections of Jats, but have found, even without seeking, explicit approval from their khap.
In fact, there is no way the khap can exercise power over Vernika, unless her family allows it, which they, thankfully, do not. “If khaps had their way, Vernika would not be a DJ and I would not train in martial arts,” says Vernika’s mother Sucheta Kundu, a former sociology professor and a Bishnoi married to a Jat. “If a khap speaks up [for her], that’s good. If they don’t, it wouldn’t matter.”
Not just that. The Kundus never brought up their caste in the aftermath of the stalking episode. That is what Jagpal Singh emphasises. “Vernika or her father do not identify with the khap,” he says. “It is the opposite. By speaking for Vernika, it is the khap that is identifying with this family.” With higher education a norm for three generations in Vernika’s family, and because of being well-off, it is they who break the khap (and Jat) mould, not the other way around.
This ties up with a prevailing critique of the khaps—that the rules they enforce on women do not apply equally on all Jats. The khaps respect powerful people and allow the rules prohibiting inter-caste or even same-village marriages to be broken from time to time. However, these relaxations are not across the board. “Since the Kundu family is elite, the khap tried to benefit from the agitation,” says Jagmati Sangwan, an AIDWA activist in Haryana. “But just a year ago, when two non-Jat girls were harassed in a bus, the khaps supported the administration’s smear campaign against them.”
‘Bekhauf Azadi’ march in Chandigarh, August 11
The arbitrariness necessary for this differential application of sanctions is made possible by the fact the khaps’ interpretation of tradition follows no holy book or standardised ideology—as Rathee puts it, “they do whatever they think tradition demands”.
Marriages among villages near each other and gotras considered consanguinous are, of course, taboo irrespective of whether they are within or outside the Jat fold. Insisting that khaps are trying to accommodate the aspirations of the younger generation, but that there are limits, khap leader Surendra Dahiya of the Dahiya ‘gotra’ says, “The khaps will not allow marriages within three gotras—the mother’s gotra and both the grandmothers’ gotras. People in the villages listen to the khaps as ties are deeper among all castes and within Jats.”
It’s mostly the rural Jats who bear the brunt of khap diktats. The class cleavage, at the same time, is rapidly increasing social distance within the Jats, driven by shrinking landholdings. A growing Jat middle class is exiting the khap sphere of influence too. This has implications for the community’s “unity”, at both the political and social levels. “We need to move with the times or we’ll be left behind,” says Mahinder Singh Rithaal, who heads the Majra khap, formed last year after the centuries-old Kandela khap ‘split’. Rithaal wants to relax marriage rules to permit marriages with Redhu ‘gotra’ Jats in 14 Majra villages. Such marriages are barred due to what the Kandelas consider bhaichara, or deep social ties, though not actual kinship, within the undivided khap. “Inter-caste marriages would be best,” Rithaal says. “Parents permit them now from a sense of compulsion—they should start accepting them happily.”
Critics say that these liberalising impulses barely conceal the khaps’ hunt for ways to retain control over women and the youth. Even the Kundu khap’s support for Vernika can be seen as a way to protect one of “their” girls. Yet, communities rarely reform without extraneous compulsions. In the context of Haryana politics, where the Jats’ traditional political allies, the Congress and Lok Dal, face intense competition from the BJP, the need to ‘unite’ over issues beyond reservations is likely to be felt sooner rather than later.
“It’s an unstable landscape the khaps confront. They are running out of women to marry their men with. Families with fragmented land are seeking brides from Uttar Pradesh or Bihar,” says Vineet Rathee, a historian researching issues related to middle-class culture among Jats at McGill University, Canada. The all-male khap faces challenges from the growing number of Jat women in higher echelons of education and business too.
Entrepreneur and activist Sangita Dahiya recently uploaded a video online criticising the police for watering down the charges in Vernika’s case. “It was a matter of women’s dignity and rights. She must get justice, no matter who the alleged perpetrators are,” she says. One of the alleged stalkers is the son of senior BJP leader Subhash Barala. Like many in Haryana, she feels the Kundu khap should not have got involved in the affair at all. “It is a matter for the courts to settle and the khap’s intervention reeks of political conspiracy,” she says.
As a traditionally entrenched dominant caste in Haryana, low on social mobility, Jats remain rooted in a conservative ethos. A section of the youngsters, however, are forcing the khaps to change, questioning how powerful they really are. “The jajmani system, of co-dependence between social groups, has only just broken. Among Jats, it is mostly the first or second generation that is getting educated today. Reform in gender relations will take time,” says Singh, who dismisses many of the seemingly liberalising tendencies in khaps as “mere rhetoric”, especially because Jats are still reluctant to allow girls to marry outside the caste. “They prefer only to bring a daughter-in-law into the family, as women are in short supply.”