Jagmati Sangwan is a renowned social activist who is fighting against the rigid and patriarchal khap panchayats and in the state of Haryana. She stands up against the oppression of women with her small group of ladies called Janwadi Mahila Samiti (JMS).
She is a courageous, confident and determined lady. Qualities she displayed in the case of Manoj-Babli honour killing of 2007. She, with almost no help from anyone, she took the case to the court, fought hard and won in the end.
Being an ex-international volleyball player who represented India at the Asian games, she is superbly fit at the age of 56 and is still very active in the field of social activism.
She recently resigned from the Communist Party of India (Marxist), but is currently heading the All India Democratic Association for Women (AIDWA), Haryana.
I was lucky to meet her at her home in Rohtak on 19 March, 2017 and had a long discussion with her. Her husband Inderjit Singh, CPI (M)’s General Secretary of Haryana, also joined us in our discussion on the future of Khap panchayats, recent Jat reservation agitation and other issues concerning the state of Haryana.
Here are excerpts from our conversation:
Ankit: Outside Haryana, people have only heard negative stuff about Khap panchayats but people here in the state have great regard for these institutions. What, according to you, is the true significance of Khap panchayats in today’s Haryana? Do we really need them at all?
Jagmati: Khap panchayats are a platform for caste consolidation in the state. We have elected gram panchayats in all of Haryana, but the hegemonic status of these Khaps have been the same through the years. There is no real need for these institutions, but for a caste like Jats to maintain status quo in society, these institutions help emotionally mobilize people based on the age old traditions. Also, to maintain the long-term patriarchal system, to pursue personal interests and to continue exploiting minorities like women and Dalits. These Khaps play a large role in triggering various community decisions and are able to influence the fate of political parties in the state.
But certainly, our society can do well without these institutions.
Ankit: If we look back at the history of Khaps, we find that they were supposed to unite and protect people. But that is certainly not true today. Are there any recent developments with regard to this history?
Jagmati: In history, Khaps were intended to mobilise people against the increasing day-to-day thefts during those times. There was no particular king in the area and people from outside used to pass through these areas.
Local councils used to mediate between communities when there were disputes. In 1857, Jats acted against the East India Company by collecting grains from the community (as it was largely an agrarian society) and sending it to other parts of the state. But councils started getting formed because of the insecurity. People needed some social mechanisms to defend themselves, for example, at one time, the tribal peasant communities were dominating, so they formed councils and these, with time, became caste councils.
In case of Khaps, they were formed to protect all sorts of natural resources like Johads (water storage tanks), trees, jungles etc.
Khaps extend their jurisdiction even over villages where Jats don’t dominate because they are the ones who own a majority of the land and people from lower castes are labourers on their lands. In recent times, they have become the elements who mobilise people by emotionally blackmailing them and creating fears of caste dominance. They don’t tend to change easily, so no recent developments in this regard.
Ankit: What are some of the differences between the Khap Panchayats of different Jat belts in the state like the one in Sirsa and the one in Rohtak?
Jagmati: If we look at the Jat belt of Sirsa and Hisar districts, we would find that in villages like Chautala and others, people can marry into families from their own villages and from the neighbouring villages. But this is certainly not true for the other belts of Jats. It is mainly because in Rohtak or Jind belt, villages have only one gotra (sub-caste) and they dominate other minority groups. But Sirsa belt has villages with several gotras. This is why it is easy to marry within a village because of different gotras. Sirsa belt is also more flexible in terms of marriages.
Ankit: What about women in Khap panchayats?
Jagmati: Women, according to these Khaps, are not recognized as citizens. They believe in the saying – ‘Janana aur khazana agar khule me hai to fir vo loota hi jayega’ (If a woman or treasure is left out in the open, it will be looted). They think it is important to control a woman’s interactions. That is why there is purdah system such that their eyes are not visible to any stranger. Then, everything is fine and there is no fear. Also, her name is never revealed, as in, she is a sister first, then a daughter, then she is a wife and further, she is a mother and a grandmother. She is never a woman who has her own identity. And all these tags keep her from her individual freedoms.
But, it is also a fact that, when some women speak up against discrimination and are politically active, they try to persuade her to be a part of Khaps. Then, they are able to say that they work for the betterment of all sections of the society.
Ankit: This seems interesting. But then there are no youths either. Why exclude women and young people?
Jagmati: See, these Khaps are nothing but ways to ensure that systems of patriarchy continue without any setbacks. What happens in a society like ours is that the older you are, you seem to get more respect in society. And these Khaps constitute of ‘older’ people, the eldest one of the family is the head and these heads of the families become the main members of the Khaps. So, institutionally, there is no space for women and youths. Also, youths tend to go outside of the village, for the sake of education and return with their own choices of spouses that is not accepted by the elders. These many reasons have pushed Khaps to be wary of young people in their institutions.
Ankit: How important is it to question these khaps and where does the solution lie?
Jagmati: We live in the modern era, the 21st century, and these Khaps want us to live the life of the 1700s. How good is that for all of us? Don’t we want equality and freedom? Don’t we want to marry someone of our own choosing? These Khaps challenge all of us in doing that.
We need to educate more and more people so that they come out of the corridors of castes and have some compassion for the marginalized sections like women, Dalits and young people. I’m pretty sure that that time is not far when there would be no Khaps and women of the state will be exercising their rights ontheir own terms.
Ankit: If we look at the recent Jat agitations, what according to you, triggered these demands? Is there any role of Khaps in this whole incidence? Any comments on the history behind the demands?
Jagmati: If you look back to 2014, when Prime Minister Modi first came to Haryana, he addressed the crowd that gathered at the rally in Jind by saying – ‘Mai khapo ki sardari ka naman karta hoon!’ (I acknowledge the heads of the Khaps gathered here today’).
He looked at Haryana as the land of Khaps not as the land of farmers, land of warriors or anything else. Clearly, no political party is actually against the functioning of these Khaps. Since the time BJP has come into power, Khaps have been trying to regain their position by reorganising themselves. They are trying to gain their lost land in the state.
Haryana is an agricultural state, but in recent times, the agricultural sector isn’t doing that well, thanks to the policies of the state. Service sector is not in demand. There is no place for young people to go now. All their lives, they have been living off their lands which, with time, they sold and now, have nothing. This traditional way of life kept them from moving ahead with their education.
BJP is a party that basically works on communal and caste alliances to gain power. And at times, this has also led to communal violence in various states. Khaps, in Haryana, supported BJP in recent Lok Sabha elections and thus, BJP won with amazing results and formed the central government. Today, in the time of identity politics, these BJP people and RSS ones have never supported reservations.
They look forward to destroying this whole scenario of reservation in our country. But they can’t do it one go. So, they have tried to help Khaps and the Jat community to demand reservations for themselves. They did the same in Maharashtra and Gujarat where Marathas and Patels came forward to demand reservations for themselves. And all of these castes – Marathas, Patels and Jats – are economically very well of. But then, what reservation do they seek?
Clearly, there are political intentions behind all of this. Jats have control over all the resources of the state. There is no need for reservations for them. So, I would like to say that to end reservations for all communities, BJP, with the help of caste-based institutions like Khap panchayats, is instigating well-off communities to demand for reservations. This would cause ordinary people to start thinking that reservations are of no use and thus, they can put an end to reservations. Unless there are scenes of violence and fear among people, communities will keep demanding for reservations. Violence is certainly the route, according to BJP politics, by which they can put an end to all of this.
Ankit: So was this all planned?
Jagmati: I certainly think so. One has to wonder why, at the same time, three different communities in three different states under the rule of BJP start demanding for reservations? And all of these communities control most of the resources of their respective states.
Ankit: What suggestions would you like to give to a student of development studies, like me, to start thinking of ways to make society just and equitable?
Jagmati: I would suggest that you to think first and then act. Because the times we are living in are complex. We cannot jump to conclusions as soon as we see something happening in front of us. You should try to read as much as you can and it will help you reflect on things happening in society.
Haryana needs young people like you to become a prosperous and peaceful place for all communities and sections of society. Keep working hard and keep reflecting on things. You can do everything that seems impossible now but impossible itself says – I’m possible. All the best!
Photograph courtesy Jagmati Sangwan on Facebook.