It was too good to be true. That Khaps ( male dominated Jat community panchayats) , known to bay for the blood of eloping young couples and for passing bizarre fatwas, could possibly turn over a new leaf and take up social evils such as female foeticide, was a little hard to swallow. Not surprisingly, the overwhelming sentiment after the first ever women Khap Mahayapanchayat held at Bibipur village in Haryana’s Jind district last week, which resolved to declare female foeticide as murder, punishable under Section 302 of the IPC, is that it was a manipulated tamasha designed to improve the image of the infamous ‘Khap panchayats’.
Bibipur’s young progressive sarpanch, Sunil Jaglan who, in June had organised the first mahila gram sabha on female foeticide, declared he would rope in the state’s ‘Khap Panchayats’, because in many ways they are more powerful in the social sphere than the elected panchayats. Though women are not traditionally members of khaps, this mahapanchayat had the entire women population of Bibipur village turning out, singing and dancing, to add to the numbers. Some of them were allowed to sit on the stage, albeit with their faces veiled and some of those who spoke also did so with veils on. They raised their hands in support of the resolution and clapped on cue.
‘ It was a historic first’, said many. “An encouraging beginning which has given us immense strength to continue with our campaign”, added Sunil. The very next day chief minister Bhupinder Singh Hooda, whose own record in cracking down on illegal ‘fatwas’ by Khaps has been dubious, announced a gift of Rs one crore for the village. The hoardings, with Sunil’s smiling face on them, smiled some more in Bibipur.
But those who were looking for evidence of genuine women’s participation came away disappointed. Vimla Ghanghas from the Janwadi Mahila Samiti, a NGO working against social evils in the state told Outlook, “Women’s presence at the event was token. An 11 member committee was formed to enforce their resolution but it comprised only men. We protested and urged them to include at least two women in the committee, but were ignored. That it was an event backed by the government was also quite apparent.”
Professor Santosh Dahiya, who heads the women’s wing of the Sarvjatiya Khap Mahapanchayat and who was one of the showpiece speakers was also asked to get down from the stage when she began to criticise patriarchy. Says she, “My point was that when most Haryanavi families spend only 10% of their assets on the wedding and education of their daughters, and yet the girls willingly give away their share of their parental property to their brothers, then why do we kill them ?” But Santosh’s speech roused the Khap’s ire and someone said that the mike will be put off if she did not stop. The other women were suitably chastened.
For some weeks now, Haryana’s Khaps have been targeting Aamir Khan for showing them in a poor light in his show, Satyamev Jayate. Their protests were woven around claims that they are not occupied purely with ‘gotra’ issues and that Khaps are working to eradicate other evils plaguing rural society. They complained that their pleas had gone largely unheard by the media. So, when the event at Bibipur provided them with an opportunity to whitewash their image, and show a more progressive face, they readily grabbed it.
Says Om Prakash Dhankar, coordinator of the Sarvkhap panchayat, “Though we were not officially invited, yet, it was a good effort and will go a long way in projecting the positive role played by Khaps in society.” But, as with others, his outfit is also sceptical about the hand of the government in organising this event as also the self projection of the sarpanch in the form of huge hoardings.
But Sunil remained unfazed. “Criticism is not unexpected in any new initiative and we welcome it. When I started out, I had thought that even if I get around 20 women participants, our expectation would be met. The turnout of women was almost 400 and despite some issues, they did manage to put across their points of view.”
Even if the panchayat at Bibipur was a ‘show’ stage managed for the media’s consumption and remote controlled by an eager government, the very fact that a need to hear the voice of women was felt, is an indication of which way the wind is blowing. That all male Khaps are keen on improving their image, is also a positive trend. The challenge is to seize this initiative and take it in a more meaningful direction. That could still be some way off.