KHAP PANCHAYATS: TENTACLES OF TRADITIONAL INSTITUTION

Dr Maninder Kaur

Chairperson

Department of Anthropology

Panjab University, Chandigarh

E-mail: maninderkaur_1@yahoo.in

Those of us living in Punjab or in its vicinity or familiar with spoken colloquial Punjabi dialects would infer Khap as noise that is disconcerting. Acts for which traditional kha-a-p[1] panchayats have acquired infamy are also equally unnerving. Chroniclers of Khap panchayats trace the origin of the word to saka language word Khatrap that refers to an area inhabited by a particular clan. There is no evidence to suggest as to when and how the word came into popular usage and when Khaps came to be associated with its current form of being a local level political or administrative unit. Any reference to its formal use dates to 1890-91 in the census report of Jodhpur. There is hardly any other reliable account about its historical antecedents.

As stated earlier, the exact origin of Khap Panchayat cannot be traced, but some researchers argue that it developed in 600 AD. They also link it with the social transition of societies from nomadic, forging hunting-gathering mode of survival to permanent settlements, surplus agrarian economies requiring economic and political management. Villages acquired relatively more complex social organization, and hierarchies based on the division of labour (Rajpurohit and Prakash, 2015). These scholars also reason that Khaps are basically councils of tribes that were engaged in inter and intra-tribal dispute management (Singh, 2010).

More recently, khaps are viewed as an assembly of elders that may come together or be called to give a ruling or judgement in a local dispute. Awasthi (2016) believes that a khap is a political unit that comprises 84 villages. Khaps are also considered clan or lineage councils (Pradhan,1966). These council meetings occasionally come together for a particular purpose and members are elected on a temporary basis and not assigned any permanent office or a defined tenure (Chaudhry, 2014). These studies also assert the informal nature of these temporary political associations. It is also assumed that the authority invested with the head of these temporary associations is hereditary. Invariably this power is vested with a particular dominant caste. Senior caste member or elder has the autonomy to invite a few other members to act as part of the governing body. Several ambiguities continue to prevail on how and why khap panchayats acquired exceptional hold on their respective communities.

Nonetheless, it is well established that various local panchayats have played in the past a vital role as a social and political-administrative unit. These involved effective management of political, administrative, and judicial functioning of villages and were instrumental in maintaining social harmony. In the absence of any other constitutionally defined local level institutions, traditionally accepted decision-making bodies were vital in matters of local governance. Rules of the game changed, when for effective governance and development of the rural areas, contemporary gram panchayats were constituted under the 73rd Amendment of the constitution in 1992[2].

Debates on the genesis and historicity of khaps may persist but the fact is that in recent memory, some of the diktats given by khaps have shocked the masses and questions have been raised over its social reach and extrajudicial power. Threat to its political survival and constitutional validity possibly resulted in its dramatic shift to an overarching, authoritarian extraconstitutional body. It went into overdrive to sustain its moral and normative control. It projected itself as the supreme authority and only worthy custodian of social customs, traditions, local hierarchies and ethnic purity. Local leaders exploiting their control on local communities used it as an instrumentality for gaining political power and for entrenching the fangs of patriarchy. In the last two decades, several activists’ organisations, largely comprised of feminist groups questioned their proscribed acts.

Serious concerns are raised over the blanket sanctity these organisations had and the impunity with which they ordered the murder of young women and men to protect the so-called honour of the community. Diktats given by the leaders of khap panchayat are kept secret and it is only after the execution of the crime that the onus falls on these unregistered bodies. Most of these crimes are not reported in the police stations and are often pushed under the carpet. The saddest part of these extrajudicial orders is the incapacity of the victim’s family to seek justice from the legal instruments of the state. Families are subjected to immense social pressure and compelled not to report the slew of injustices being meted out to them.

This issue was raised in the parliament for the first time in 2014. It then came to the fore that these heinous crimes responsible for the gruesome murder of mostly young women by the family or clan members in the name of ‘honour killing’ were not even recorded. In 2014, only 28 such crimes were reported but in 2015, the number went to 251 indicating a 792% surge in the number of cases recorded under this category. Most cases were filed as murder under section 302 of the Indian penal code and under section 304 as culpable homicide not amounting to murder. But due to secrecy surrounding these orders and the nonavailability of witnesses to certify these gruesome killings, these cases are invariably not brought to justice.

Demand for having a law to ban these killings was made and Honourable Punjab and Haryana High Court directed that in such cases the young couple may seek protection by filing the Protection Petition before the district court or the high court to save their life and liberty. Several petitions and public interest litigations were filed in the Hon’ble Supreme Court of India.

On March 27th, 2018, in a historic judgment, the Supreme Court of India declared it illegal for Khap to stop a marriage between two consenting adults.

Unfortunately, this decision has not prevented these local bodies to persist with their authoritarian, patriarchal hold. The crime statistics of the National Crime Records Bureau (India) recorded thirty cases of dishonour killing in the year 2018 itself (National Crime Records Bureau India, Ministry of Home Affairs, National Crime Records Bureau. Crime in India 2018: Statistics. Vol. 1. (2019). The only positive outcome of anti-khap diktat movements is a glimmer of hope for justice but sadly, there are very few convictions one has seen in recent years.

EMPIRICAL EVIDENCE

During one of my research projects on Cognitive rigidity among social groups of Haryana, funded by DST (Department of Science and Technology, New Delhi), I got an opportunity to interact with a few convicts sentenced by the courts for following the khap panchayats orders. When I started interacting with these convicts, I was astonished, to record the absence of any remorse or guilt in their psyche. One of them candidly said, he had no remorse. He went on to insist that he did this to save the honour of his baradari (community). He added, he was proud of it as it enhanced his social respect within his clan. Some case studies cited below narrate socially conditioned mindsets that are bound to puzzle many psychoanalysts and have certainly intrigued my anthropological imagination.

CONFESSION BUT NO REGRET

Mahesh (name changed) killed his cousin Simran (name changed) and her husband Manohar (name changed) because they were from the same clan (gotra). According to Simran’s family, the marriage is not as per accepted social norms and violates the family’s honour and dignity. Nonetheless, she defied the family’s resistance and eloped with Manohar. They solemnized their marriage in a temple against the wishes of her family. Simran’s family approached Khap Panchayat, and the marriage was annulled by it. After the Khap ruling, the couple feared for their lives, aware of several precedences of similar marriages and their unfortunate fate. They sought police protection from the court and was given security but on a fateful night in June 2007, the couple was kidnapped and brutally killed by Mahesh and others. Manohar’s family demanded justice, the accused were arrested and after the completion of the trial, they were convicted.

When I met Mahesh in prison, he showed no regret or repentance and narrated the course of events with ease, without any trepidation. He did confess that he missed his cousin Simran, as they were childhood friends and often played together. But what she did was humiliating for the family and maligned family traditions and social norms. He further added that his actions sent a strong message to his daughters to get married according to his wishes, even though he was in jail. This conversation raised several challenges for a student of human behaviour trying to understand contradictions that exist in legal interpretations of deviance and social construction of its virtuosity and righteousness.

Patriarchy is deeply rooted in these communities. Masculinity and associated macho values always want to assert their supremacy and power. To be able to control a female body even in a heinous act like murder adds to their masculine instincts. The alliance between a male from an upper caste and a girl from the lower caste or even class is acceptable. But if the daughter of a family marries someone from the lower caste or class, men within the household are offended as it challenges their authority and normative supremacy. Most khap members generally come from the upper caste and protection of caste honour and dignity is more important than respecting legal and established institutions which are having the onus of administration of justice. To protect familial and community honour, they are willing to sacrifice their freedom and go behind bars if found guilty.

DEFIANCE AND DEATH

Young men and women have continued to deny black sermons of these socially rooted bodies while being acutely aware of threats to their lives. Some of them seek protection from the court and local police but these organs of the state were also not able to protect them. One such couple marrying against the wishes of their family because the groom came from a lower caste group sought protection from the court as they feared for their lives. But the boy was murdered a day after the marriage was solemnised. The girl’s family tried to take their daughter back home, but the young woman stood her ground and refused to go back with her parents. She decided to live with her in-laws and logged a criminal lawsuit against her family and other persons responsible for her husband’s death. One day as she was returning from the court after the hearing, contract killers hired by the girl’s family killed her on the spot and fired at her mother-in-law too.

Lady officer accompanying this girl and her mother-in-law on that fateful day commented that these are communal groups with orthodox thinking. Narrating events, she told me that as the shots were being fired and the girl got the bullets, I saved her mother-in-law by becoming a human shield. I knew they will not fire at me as I come from the same caste group to which the girl’s family belongs. Later, my family was approached by the Khap members. They wanted me to recuse the case and refrain from making eyewitness statements in court. Counting her blessings for being alive today, she said, “if I happened to be from another caste, they would have certainly killed me to destroy any eyewitness or evidence. Their actions reflect communal, rigid, and male dominating mindset and this is the tragedy of being born a girl in my caste”. Her candour in narrating the entire sequence of events also shows young women’s desire to come out of their entrapped existence.

During the collection of data for this study, I also learnt from a judicial officer that some parents are taking the courage to defy the orders of the khap and go with the choices that their children make. Talking about one such case that came to his court, the complainant wanted protection for their daughter who had married outside the caste with their consent. Khap was threatening both the families. Leaders of Khap Panchayat ordered a social boycott and asked the communities to excommunicate the families for not abiding by their diktat. This clearly indicates that if the parents are not endorsing the decision of the Khaps against inter-caste marriage of their children, they must face repercussions of going against the Khap panchayats. It is the arrogance of members of khap panchayat that has not allowed members of these close-knit caste communities to take independent decisions or endorse their children’s choices. Khaps are gradually acquiring immense political clout and there is hardly any political will to take any substantial action against them. Judiciary also feels handicapped in the absence of any legislation.

There is near consensus among the general masses, that the power of these khaps must be curtailed by appropriate central legislation or by adding more provisions to the Indian Penal code. As of now, only the state of Rajasthan has legislation to restraint the extrajudicial authority of the Khaps. In recent farmers agitation, khaps played a very critical role in giving credence to its social outreach. Under the prevailing political and social environment, it seems difficult for any blanket legislation to be promulgated soon.

Legal experts are currently debating whether the deterrent theory or reformative theory should be applied against culprits, who are committing offences under the influence of the khap panchayats. Deterrent theory is having a significant contribution to controlling crime in India and other parts of the World. If punishment is awarded without inordinate delay, the deterrent theory is very effective. In our country, due to intricate and marathon procedures, criminal justice is generally and gradually procrastinating. Entire justice system is often subjected to legal and technical manipulations by the custodians of the system. Under the existing system, deterrent theory is like a rusted weapon and thus ineffectual.

So far, the reformative theory is concerned, our system has failed to provide adequate infrastructure and social will for it. Reform is a long-drawn process and involves engagement of committed agencies. Behaviour changes even for a neutral precautionary intervention like washing hands has required persistence messaging and motivation. To alter individual belief that draws its strength from persistence narrative of pride, dignity and identity is bound to be immensely difficult. It is also a question of reform when and for whom? Intervening for individuals is different from changing perception of a segment of an entire community. Reforming convicts is far more ardours task. Reformative approach fits the bill in the context of human rights but to reform a convict who has no remorse for the act he committed as believes in its righteousness and virtue is bound to be a herculean task. There are also questions on how one kind of act of murder or homicide is to be reprimanded vis-à-vis others.

To conclude, it is pertinent to draw attention to the fact that these ‘dishonour killings are not unique to India or to a particular region. It is a global phenomenon. According to United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) the projected prevalence of the cases related to dishonour killings are as high as 5,000 women every year across the globe, while some non-governmental organizations (NGOs) noted the annual worldwide prevalence is about 20,000 cases. The official record of the crimes related to these heinous killings is not reliable; they just represent tip of the iceberg. A major roadblock to finding a solution is not only a false notion of cultural morality but also deep-rooted gender inequity. In addition to legal measures and open discussion on cultural mores and roots of patriarchy, reducing gender parity by equal emphasis on female literacy and equal wages holds the key for women’s security. Legal reforms and reducing pendency of cases for these acts should be the priority for giving justice to unfortunate victims of these heinous crimes.

REFERENCES:

  1. Awasthi, D. (2016). Khap Panchayat: Women, and Honour Killing. Kalpaz Publications.

  2. Chaudhry, D. R. (2014). Khap Panchayat and Modern Age. National Book Trust, India.

  3. Hindustan times, (2016) 792% spike in honour killing cases, UP tops the list: Govt in Parliament. https://www.hindustantimes.com/india-news/792-spike-in-honour-killing-cases-up-tops-the-list-govt-in-parliament/story-x0IfcFpfAljYi15yQtP 0YP. html (Last assessed 17-01-2022)

  4. India, P. S. (2011). National Crime Records Bureau. Ministry of Home Affairs, Government of India, New Delhi.

  5. National Crime Records Bureau, India. (2019). Ministry of Home Affairs, National Crime Records Bureau. Crime in India2018: Statistics. Vol. 1.

  6. Pradhan, M. C. (1966). The political system of the Jats of Northern India. [Bombay]: Indian Branch, Oxford University Press.

  7. Rajpurohit, G. S., & Prakash, A. (2015). Khap Panchayat in India: legitimacy, reality and reforms. International Journal of Allied Practice, Research and Review, 2(3), 81-90.