“Khaps are a major problem in your state, right?”
I belong to Haryana and live in Delhi. The portrayal of khap panchayats in the media creates a very negative perception about the state in general. Inevitably, I have come to expect questions from curious minds about khaps. After all, incidents in the state have been widely reported in the media, usually hyped up with a running commentary about what the poorly-informed journalists believe is the real situation. This narrative is so strongly embedded that it becomes difficult to convince well-meaning friends that the situation is not as bad as is being portrayed.
What exactly is a khap panchayat?
The Jat society in North India – mainly residing in Haryana, Western Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan – is divided into smaller sub-groups in the form of clans, with each clan adopting a particular surname. This surname is a gotra and as each clan has adopted a specific surname (gotra), a gotra represents only a particular clan. A clan (or gotra) is also known as a ‘khap’, a division of the Jat society. Each khap has its own dispute redressal body known as a khap panchayat. Centuries ago, when the Jats settled in these parts, various families took up residence in different villages. Over time, some of these clans or khaps were scattered across various districts.
Like in any family, disputes are resolved with the help of elders, and if it involves more than one family of a clan then the khap panchayat steps in. In some cases, the khap panchayat members have been caught going overboard with their “solutions” and “diktats”. Sometimes they have been found to indulge in criminal activities in their efforts to enforce their decisions. This is rightly criticised and the guilty face the force of law enforcement.
These khap panchayats claim legitimacy on the basis of certain historical documents which have been pronounced as fraudulent by the historians. For a historian’s view, read Myth & Reality of Khap Panchayats by Suraj Bhan Bhardwaj (Full Disclosure: The author of the piece is related to me).
Notwithstanding dubious historical incidents, khaps have come to occupy an important space in the popular imagination across India. How is the truth different from the general portrayal in the media?
First and foremost is the extent of this menace. The khaps’ extent and influence across the state is quite exaggerated. Khaps are a phenomenon confined only to the Jat clans. Despite being the largest caste group in Haryana, Jats are estimated to be only one-fifth of the state’s population. Even among the Jats, khap panchayats are bodies with influence limited only to rural pockets. The universal opinion among all my friends from the Jat community is that they hadn’t even heard about khap panchayats until 15 years ago. In fact, none of them has seen a khap panchayat in action till now.
In a state with high economic growth and fast pace of urbanisation, the society is rapidly changing. Inter-caste marriages are common now. Existing norms and customs are breaking down. The old-guard tries to resist change but invariably fails. Even when a khap panchayat adjudicates over a matter, its writ is under question. A well-off or powerful family can continue to challenge or disregard the diktats. It is the economically weaker and less powerful ones who suffer.
The popular narrative suggests that the state’s population or the law and order machinery are complicit in the illegal activities of the khaps – as if this is the way of life for all Haryanvis. This is both unfair and untrue. With the Jats being the dominant caste in certain parts of the state, the law enforcement agencies are careful in how they deal with these clan formations. If a law is broken, the administration and the general population’s attitude is always against the khaps. The culprits in various cases have been punished in the court of law. This is not a way of life in the state. It is an aberration, not a rule.
Haryana, even rural Haryana, is not Taliban-ruled Afghanistan. Opportunities for educating females are both available and availed of. Girls are not prevented from studying, working or even taking up sports. They are in fact encouraged. Haryana’s villages have changed dramatically because of the rising prosperity. With girls opting to study and work, gender barriers are being broken. The “ghoonghat” or the full veil is dead in urban areas and on its last legs in the rural areas. None of this would have been possible had the khaps held the kind of influence suggested in the media.
Khaps have come to be associated with grotesque dishonour-killings, often consequent to personal relationships. This is a misleading representation. Such killings have also been reported in Tamil Nadu and Punjab, states that don’t have khap panchayats adjudicating matters of marriage. Even in those states, old social arrangements are being challenged. Families and extended families oppose couples – often violently – who choose themselves. Khap panchayats are but a flimsy excuse for what are deep-rooted social evils in conservative parts of our society.
Nevertheless, there have been some abominable incidents in Haryana where members of khap panchayats have broken the law and indulged in violent acts. Their regressive mindset has some takers although the number is much smaller. The most effective way of dealing with these khap panchayats is to bring in judicial reforms down to the lowest level of our state. The courts must enable people to approach them for speedy and fair resolution rather than spend years in hearings.
If the legal system continues to fail the people of this country then extra-judicial bodies will increase. They may crop up in various forms in different parts of the country. In Haryana they may be khap panchayats; in Mumbai, they may be in the form of a Bal Thackeray or an underworld don trying to resolve dispute in the film industry.
Media portrayal notwithstanding, khap panchayats are not the problem but sporadic symptoms of a much bigger socio-political and administrative disease. If we misdiagnose the malaise, we will continue to over-treat the symptoms while the sickness in the society continues to fester.
Ankur Bhardwaj is a corporate slave with an interest in politics and policy. Views are personal.