The Hegemony Of The Khap Panchayats: A Case Of Culture And Tradition In Its Extreme

Posted on December 2, 2010 in Society

By Sakshi Abrol:

What does the word ‘culture’  or say ‘tradition’ brings to our mind? For some it would be the picture of their God placed under the sanctum sanctorum and yet others may think of their rituals or festivals. Quite different from this, for an artist or a writer tradition would be a style, or a genre of articulating his thoughts. Whatever the case might be, each person will have a different perception of the word ‘tradition’. To generalize the term and yet not circumscribing it within a finite arena for interpretation, tradition basically means a set pattern of beliefs, values and the code of ethics a person inherits by the virtue of his ascribed identity of religion, caste, creed etc.

Elevating the term to its allegorical level, leaving behind all kinds of superficial division and related problems it brings about, the word ‘tradition’ in its pristine form is truly beautiful and intriguing at the same time. But we human beings, rational as we are by our very genetic configuration are known to have a kind of aversion to beautiful things. And so the ramifications of our apathy towards all good things have left no area untouched be it tradition or culture. Extreme form of anything is lethal and so is the case with tradition. One of the cases of the manifestation of culture and tradition in its extreme form is the clout enjoyed by the barbaric Khap Panchayats.

Khap is a term for a social, political grouping; it is used in a geographical sense. A khap comprises of village elders grouped along caste or community lines and motivated by the need to perpetuate a feudal and patriarchal order. They are powerful enough to issue fatwas, and declaring marriages void without due legal process or the sanction of law. History tells us that khaps are as old as the 14th century, started by upper caste Jats to consolidate their power and position. Khap panchayats are prevalent in Haryana, western Uttar Pradesh and parts of Rajasthan. The khap panchayats do not have any legal sanction. However, they being powerful, the government has in the past failed to invalidate their rulings and actions. Also their position is further consolidated by some political parties to attain their ulterior motives.

Persons living in a khap are not allowed to marry in the same gotra or even in any gotra from the same village. If one of them lives in another village yet is of the same sub-caste, they are prohibited from marrying each other. Perplexing? Maybe for a modern, liberal individual who believes in the democratic principles as advocated by our founding fathers. But for those who do not even think before killing their own people in the name of hollow principles of ‘honour’ and ‘pride’ of the family, all this seems very normal. These unscrupulous and heinous demons do not even hesitate to use ‘culture’ as a tool to justify or condone their act of brutality. The rationale behind this, they argue is that people belonging to the same gotra are believed to be from the same clan or family lineage and thus are brothers and sisters. Not only are they carrying out these inhuman activities with impunity, but are also blatantly demanding an amendment in the Hindu Marriage Act, 1955 to prohibit marriage in the same gotra. All this speaks volumes about the inefficiency and lacunas that cripple the criminal justice system in our country.

It may bamboozle some of us, but there is a great paradox involved here. A recent study commissioned by NCW, which was conducted by NGO Shakti Vahini revealed that 72% of the 326 cases of honor crimes were in fact inter-caste marriages, while same gotra marriages were only 3 per cent. Marriages within the caste were 15 per cent and only 1 per cent were inter-religious marriages. In the experience of struggles by AIDWA in Haryana, only one case over the last one decade involved a same gotra marriage.

Jagmati Sangwan, AIDWA State President of Haryana explains the hypocrisy of Khap dictates in her article ‘Khap Panchayat: Signs of Desperation’ (The Hindu, 7.5.2010):

By creating the false impression that all marriages of choice between young couples are incestuous, what the khaps are actually opposing is the right to choose a marriage partner. Among the several instances ofkhaps issuing fatwas in Jaundhi, Asanda, Dharana, Singhwal, Hadaudi, Maham-kheri, Ludana and other villages, not a single one was an intra-gotra marriage, yet the married couples were declared siblings, and families made to suffer boycotts and excommunication from their villages…. As couples are selectively targeted, it is clear the real motive is to control women’s sexuality to ensure that property remains within the patriarchal caste domain (mainly Jats in Haryana).

This deterrence to the possibility of own choice marriages can be further understood in the context of rights for women in land and other parental property in these areas. If a woman is married several villages away the possibility of her exercising inheritance rights over parental property in her natal home also becomes comparatively remote.

Economist, Bina Agarwal, writes about the link between property rights and marital practices in Are We Not Peasants Too: Land Rights and Women’s Claims in India, (‘Seeds’, Population Council, New York, 2002):

Traditionally among matrilineal communities where daughters had strong claims in land (as in Kerala and Meghalaya), postmarital residence was in or near the natal home. This kept the land under the overall purview of the natal family, as did close-kin marriage. In contrast, in traditionally patrilineal communities, post-marital residence was patrilocal (the woman joined her husband in his natal home) and often in another village. In addition, in northern India close-kin marriage was forbidden among most communities…. South India has the fewest obstacles. Here legal rights are relatively more equal, in-village and close-kin marriage is allowed.

Explaining this further in the same article, Bina Agarwal writes:

    “…marriages in distant villages make direct cultivation by women difficult. In many areas this is compounded by illiteracy, high fertility, and social restrictions on women’s mobility and public interaction.”

I believe this is enough to unveil the hidden motive behind the spate of ‘honor killings’ that have haunted recently. This should be a clarion call for the government to look into the matter and take stringent actions against these demons, these perpetrators of violence.

Unfazed by any criticism, the Khap Panchayats still indulge in these crimes which are off late assuming monstrous proportions. Is this the code of ethics their tradition or culture espouses? Which tradition under the blue sky advocates killing of people who exercise their democratic right of marrying the person of his/her own choice? Well, none in my knowledge. In fact the cardinal rule of the canons of morality any culture upholds says that humanity is above anything else. So, well established is the fact that the killings of innocent people cannot be justified on flimsy grounds of ‘tradition’, the use of which can only be considered to be an eye-wash or a deception to cover the sinister deeds of the Khap Panchayats.

Image courtesy: