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Are Khap Panchayats Really Breaking Through Social Barriers?

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Khaps, especially the Jat clan panchayats, infamous for their social dictates, have been maintaining a stronghold on the society for centuries. But, they are now themselves breaking down barriers and blockades, paving the way for a positive social change. Haryana’s Malik Jat clan khap, known as Gathawala  Khap, has decided to do away with the customary practice of a married woman covering her face with a veil, a tradition prevalent in the community since the time of Mughal imperialism. On the 149th birth anniversary of legendary Khap leader, Dada Ghasi Ram Malik, in the presence of dignitaries of the society including Bihar Governor, Satyapal Singh Malik; Union Steel Minister, Birender Singh and Haryana Agriculture Minister, Om Prakash Dhankhar, a six-point resolution has been passed unanimously on February 19. At Gohana, Sonepat it was decided to ban female foeticide, the custom of a veil, celebratory firing in marriages and other social functions, the dowry system, ceremonial community feast after death etc.

Ravinder Poonia, a government teacher, appreciates the decision of the Khap, “This is a good step by the Malik khap. I feel nothing is truly impossible and change often begins with our own families.”

Rajesh Nandal, a social activist from Rohtak  also applauds the khap, “It’s a very appreciable step. Khap panchayats should take such decisions which are in favour of the society and beneficial to everybody. The practice of dowry should be curbed totally. All our girls should be educated and be made independent.”

However, most of the abovementioned evils of the society are dying on their own with a passage of time due to education and awareness. Now the ceremonial community feast after the death of an old family member, which was a forced custom, has become a story of the past except some cases within wealthy families. Celebratory firing in marriages and other social functions are also only a blatant display of wealth and power. And thanks to widespread education, more and more women are choosing not to wear the veil.

But the significant problem with the Khaps (caste or community organisations in villages) is their act of working as quasi-judicial bodies to pronounce harsh punishments of honour killings in the name of inter-caste/ intra-gotra ( clans) or same village marriages. However some of the khap panchayats, like Satrol Khap of Haryana, have permitted inter-caste marriages, but love marriages within the same caste are not accepted by them.

It is pertinent to mention here that in the Jat community four gotras (oneself, mother’s, paternal grandmother’s and maternal grandmother’s clans) are restricted in matrimonial issues. The Khap gotra, in whose jurisdiction one lives, is also prohibited. However, with the passage of time, the fourth gotra (maternal grandmother’s) is now also being accepted and has been kept out of the restricted category in most of the cases. But the khap still prohibits marriage in the same village.

Commenting on avoiding three gotras in marriage, which is a barrier in the Jat community, Nandal states, “If a suitable matrimonial partner is available and only the third restricted gotra is becoming the hurdle, then we should leave aside this third gotra.”

Raj Rup Fuliya, a retired IAS from Haryana adds, “The progressive decision of Malik Khap leaders is worth praising. It is necessary to make and accept a desirable and concordant change to step up to the changing time. Khaps can play a major and constructive role in this direction. The timely change in marriage restrictions will also be beneficial and fruitful to the society.  Maximum leniency must also be given to cope with the changes while imposing gotra restrictions.”

While hearing the case filed by NGO Shakti Vahini seeking court’s intervention to stop the menace of honour killings by khap panchayats, the Supreme Court of India (SC) has also shown its annoyance over the marriage restrictions levied by the various khaps. It observed that khaps have no right to question the marital choices of community members. The Asian Age reported that a bench headed by the Chief Justice Dipak Misra told counsel Narinder Hooda, who appeared on behalf of the Sarva Khap Panchayat of Rohtak, “Where two consenting adults agree to enter into matrimony, no individual rights, group rights or collective rights shall interfere therein or harass couple. You don’t have to play the conscience keeper of the society. Law and courts will take care of all relationship; whether it is parents, society or anyone, they are out of it.”

Agreeing with the SC, an RTI activist and a  farmer leader of Haryana from Bhiwani Dr. Balbir Singh alleges that the Khaps always force their opinion on the poor and are lenient with the rich, on issues they shouldn’t have a say in, to begin with. “Interference of khap panchayats in matrimonial and criminal cases is always based on the concept of power. A powerful person is seldom blamed for anything. If a person, who deviates from the khap restrictions, is socially and economically well-off, the khaps can’t even dare to oppose them. But, if the deviator is poor, khaps instruct them to leave the village and not keep any relations with the community,” Dr. Singh says.

He further adds, “The khaps have no legal or moral right to control the society by their unlawful dictates. The disputes should only be resolved within a legal framework in a civilised society. The khaps should not try and become the sole authoritative path makers for the society. An individual should be able to choose who they want to marry without any fear of consequences.”

So, we are again back to the same question – Why do khap panchayats deem it fit to impose unlawful restrictions? And are they really breaking the barriers and doing away with outdated norms and customs?

Only time will tell.

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