The Human Angle
On 21 July 2012, leaders of the Jat community from all over the country will gather in a Mahapanchayat in Asara village in Baghpat district, Uttar Pradesh (UP). At this meeting the Jat chiefs will discuss how to enforce their decisions about women and marriages on their community. That day will be a day of reckoning for India.
Historically, a panchayat was a village council headed by five male elders, and a mahapanchayat was an assembly of leaders of all panchayats. After independence, the caste-based, peasant-led panchayats were replaced by a system of local self-governance called the Panchayat Raj. The new system has 265,000 village assemblies called Gram Sabhas, and universal adult suffrage and ensures representation for women and under-privileged castes.
Some traditional caste-based panchayats called Khaps continue to operate in the country… illegally. Khaps are geographical units, and each Khap has a jurisdiction over 84 villages. The most important Khaps are those run by the Jats who could be Hindu, Muslim or Sikh. Three hundred such Khaps control 25,000 villages in Haryana, Punjab, Western Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan. They issue writs on civic and criminal issues which have greater reach than that of the law.
Recent Khap interference has ranged from the bizarre to the chillingly barbaric: the Daadan Khap banned cricket and warned that offenders would pay fines for seven generations; the Kadyan Khap banned DJs in wedding parties, while the Tevatia Khap showed its misogynistic side by declaring that families needed to have at least two sons before they could approach it for justice – this in Haryana which is plagued by female foeticide and a dismal sex ratio of 821 women to 1000 men.
Khaps have also used murder, rape, ostracism and banishment from the village as means of control. When Chetan eloped with the daughter of an upper caste Yadav, the Tevatia Khap ordered that Chetan’s mother be raped to avenge the dishonour.
The latest instance happened just 50 kms from the national capital. A Jat-panchayat meeting in Asara village decided that women below the age of 40 should cover their heads and face when stepping out of their homes; after sunset they should do so only with a male escort; and that young men and women should not use mobile phones on roads. The Panchayat banned dowry and also love marriages.
Following widespread outrage at these unlawful restrictions, the police started making inquiries which ended when their boss, UP’s young Australia-educated Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav, dismissed the developments as just a media issue. The powerful farmer’s group, the Bharatiya Kisan Union, lent its support to the Panchayat’s tyrannical diktat, while Rashtriya Lok Dal’s leader and Union Minister Ajit Singh’s son Jayant Chaudhary claimed that this was just an advisory. Yashpal Malik of the Jat Arakshan Samiti threatened a huge agitation if the Centre dared to go ahead with the proposed bill to ban Khap Panchayats. Only Janata Dal United’s Sharad Yadav reminded public officials of their duty to abide by the Constitution.
Freedom of Speech cannot legitimise intimidation. In 2001, Rajasthan’s High Court and its State Human Rights Commission instructed the state administration to curb caste panchayats of the state. In 2009, a Haryana court fined a Khap for calling for a person’s social boycott. The Supreme Court termed the caste panchayats ‘barbaric and illegal’ kangaroo courts. The Law Commission of India’s draft bill on The Prohibition of Unlawful Assembly (Interference with the Freedom of Matrimonial Alliances) Bill, 2011, states no group of persons can condemn any lawful marriage.
The government must go further: honour killing must be recognised as a separate category of crime, and Panchayats should be held responsible for conspiracy and murder when an honour killing happens. Political parties that support Khap’s illegal orders for the votes of the over 80 million Jats in nine states need to be pulled up, for their loyalty to the Constitution is a pre-requisite for their registration.
The meeting of 21 July should not be allowed unless the organisers undertake to abide by the rule of law and the Indian Constitution.