Sonia of Asanda is lucky to be alive. So is her husband Rampal. Any number of instances can be dug up of khap panchayats having ordered the killing of couples for defying the oppressive and irrational caste-based social code of the community. Her own determination to challenge the irrational order of the village elders asking her to treat her husband as her brother is largely responsible for the happy turn of events.
The Punjab and Haryana High Court responded promptly to a public interest petition filed by the Haryana unit of the People’s Union for Civil Liberties and directed the Asanda khap to not interfere in the marital affairs of Rampal and Sonia. The judiciary has done its bit. However, the larger issue of how to neutralise the influence of the khaps, that exist everywhere in India under different names, over rural communities needs a political response.
The system should have been dumped in the dustbin of history after Independence. The list of the victims of the tyranny of the Jat-dominated khaps, active mostly in Haryana, western Uttar Pradesh, Punjab and Rajasthan, since Independence would make civil society hang its head in shame. Most of the atrocities against socially and economically weaker sections are committed in the name of protecting “honour”.
According to studies by civil liberty organisations, honour killing is not just a Pakistani malaise. It is practised in areas where Jats and Rajputs put a heavy premium on their moochh. Less than a month ago a case of alleged honour killing in a village in Rajasthan provoked the PUCL to write a strong letter to Chief Minister Vasundhara Raje.
Briefly, this is what happened. Neelam of Shahadpur and Vaijanti from Mahua village eloped with Rajesh Bairwa and Mahipal Gurjar. All the four were under 18 years of age. They belonged to the same gotra. The police brought them back from Mumbai. The boys were sent to a juvenile home and the girls to their parents. Neelam was allegedly made to end her life, (or was she killed?) by her relatives because of the pressure from the local khap. Vaijanti's parents too are under pressure to remove the physical manifestation of the social kalank.
There is a method in the madness that the khaps practice. If the boy and the girl are both Dalits, the community elders usually order them killed for violating the caste laws that prohibit marriages between the same gotras. This happened in Saharanpur and Bulandshahr in UP a few years ago. If the girl comes from a low caste, and boy is a swarna, the khap recommends the public rape of the girl or her female relatives. In May, 2000, a mother was gang-raped and paraded naked in Faridkot in Punjab because her brother was involved with an upper caste girl. If a Dalit boy dares to marry an upper caste girl, the entire family of the boy is made to pay.
Jhajjar district, currently in the news because of the harassment of Sonia, has a history of caste violence. Four years ago a number of Dalits were lynched on the suspicion of aiding and abetting cow slaughter. The khaps did not intervene in favour of the Dalits. However, when the upper caste youths, allegedly behind the lynching, were arrested, a maha-panchayat was called by the Guliya khap for demanding their immediate release. The national highway was blocked and public property destroyed, and the police looked the other way.
Two years ago Jhajjar was in the news again for the usual reason. When Rajpal, a Dalit youth, eloped with Sushila, a Jat girl from Talaav village in July, 2002, it invited the fury of a mob that wanted to “avenge the 'insult”. His family had to flee and only Dalits were arrested for “disturbing the peace”. Needless to say, Sushila, the Jat girl, was found dead, and other persons from both sides too kept dying under circumstances that were never explained.
In January, the All-India Democratic Women’s Association (AIDWA) organised a daylong convention for discussing the role of khaps in sanctifying “honour killings”. Since the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance was still in power the left-wing association spent most of its energy on castigating the saffron parties for ignoring the problem. The fact is that the khaps, with their extra-judicial powers, were in existence in India before the birth of the political parties in their present form.
Social justice was an irritating slogan in feudal India. The caste-dominated creation of khaps was encouraged for taking “care” of socially inconvenient issues locally because the rulers ihad more pleasurable pastimes to pursue.
But the AIDWA convention was not just anti-saffron rhetoric. There was Geeta from Punjab to narrate how in 2003 her husband Jasbir was hacked to death in full public view two months after their marriage. Jasbir was a Jat Sikh and Geeta a Rajput.
In Muzaffarnagar in UP at least 13 honour killings were reported within 13 months in 2002 and 2003, Over 30 couples were declared missing. According to AIDWA estimates 10 per cent of all honour killings take place in Haryana and Punjab. Yet, no political party dares to raise its voice against the tyranny of the khaps. Why?
In UP and Bihar, the Dalits enjoy state protection. They are not touched even if there is evidence of their involvement in acts of crime. This happened after the Mandalisation of society. In Rajasthan, western UP, Haryana and Punjab the whip continues to be with the Rajputs and Jats. In a manner of speaking, a large number of communities, from either side of the caste divide, have placed themselves above the laws of the land.
The remedy is simple. Political parties will have to close their ranks and support a comprehensive law for dealing with the threat that the private writ of religious denominations or region-specific dominant castes pose to the growth of a robust democratic polity based on the rule of law.