Barbarism of the banana republics of khaps has led to a spate of killings of young couples. Will the epidemic stop, or will it spread its vicious wings?
Shaweta Anand ( Delhi )
Dishonour crimes is a phrase made popular by Shakti Vahini, a women and child rights group, to describe the phenomena of ‘honour killings’ associated with a sense of violation of community honour. The phenomenon acquires a vicious and barbaric form when youngsters breach the traditionally prescribed social norms of marriage and select a partner of their own choice, mostly across castes, within their gotra (sub-caste) or across religions. Traditional belief in many villages of the rural northern belt, especially in Haryana, UP and Rajasthan, is that youngsters from the same gotra or even different gotras but living within or adjoining villages are considered to be siblings. Marrying each other is therefore considered incestuous by some and unhealthy for the offspring by others, ‘bringing dishonour to the family and community’, according to the self-appointed guardians of orthodox culture and tradition.
A handful of men among them, who constitute the khap panchayats, have taken it upon themselves to decide upon ‘appropriate punishment for offenders’, including unconstitutional torture or death sentences to be executed by villagers themselves. This comes as a punishment for exercising the right to choice of a partner (albeit without social approval), which is well within the purview of law under the Hindu Marriage Act, 1955.
It is a misnomer that only young people choose socially unacceptable partners because many parents are doing the same for their children due to lack of options. “Earlier, smaller villages had two-three gotras so you could avoid them, but now, villages have 20-25 gotras that must be avoided, alongside parents’ gotras and gotras of neighbouring villages. This, coupled with low sex ratio (as low as 550 women per 1000 men in some districts) and high unemployment, makes it a very challenging situation,” says sociologist Dr Prem Chowdhry.
The informal institution of khap goes by the names of a particular gotra (Dahiya khap, Hooda khap, Gathwala khap etc) or of the geographical area they represent (Meham chaubisi representing 24 villages in Rohtak, Bawal chaurasi representing 84 villages in Rewari etc). Such khaps are still functioning in states of northern India and cases of dishonour crimes have also been reported from as far as Tamil Nadu down south. Members of this unconstitutional, parallel system of ‘justice’ often convene an all-male gathering that squats on or around a chabutara (a raised platform) in the village, smoking hookah sometimes to denote bhaichara (brotherhood), with an aim of taking quick, unilateral decisions on multiple issues like social transgressions, property rights, inheritance, or regarding situations threatening peace in the village.
Most cases heard at such gatherings concern women but they are never made part of the proceedings. This reveals the patriarchal and authoritative nature of this grouping compared to the constitutional gram panchayats that also have women representatives, especially after the 73rd Amendment, says Chowdhry in her acclaimed book Contentious Marriages, Eloping Couples.
Interestingly, the concept of bhaichara (brotherhood) as elaborated upon by Chowdhry, whether caste or village-based, covers sisters and daughters, not wives. For instance, a married woman running away is not made to be such a big deal by people of the community. But an unmarried woman eloping with her partner is met with an iron hand and it evokes a range of violent reactions, especially from male members of the community for breaching and threatening traditional social norms and culture.
As it happened in the case of Darshana, a married woman of Jhajjar, who was unveiled in front of other village men (symbolising a return to single status as unmarried women do not cover their heads) and was made to tie a rakhi (a thread signifying the bond between brother and sister) on her husband’s hand on the diktat of the khap.
Her torture didn’t end there. Her father-in-law was given the duty of marrying her the second time to someone who was appropriate as her marriage was ‘against the order of nature’ by virtue of fraternal ties between their gotras starting many generations back.
In Punjab and Haryana, the brother is considered to be the ‘protector’ of the izzat (honour) of his sister. Such emotions with regard to sisters and daughters are played upon and exaggerated. They are also used as male control-mechanisms. They usually serve as common factors in male-bonding within khaps when members collect to pass decrees on couples who transgress kinship norms, informs Chowdhry.
Dwelling on this idea of honour, United Nations Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women, Radhika Coomaraswamy, says the regulation of women’s sexuality and violence against them is closely related. She writes: “In most societies, the ideal of masculinity is underpinned by a notion of ‘honour’ – of a man, a family or a community – and is fundamentally connected with policing female behaviour and sexuality.”
‘Honourable’ behaviour for women then gets defined by concepts of sharm (modesty) and lihaz (deference), explains Chowdhry. Any breach of ‘honour’ is met with violence of varying degrees to teach them (and others) a lesson. Such an oppressive system exists because the functions of production (control over land) and reproduction (control over women through the institution of marriage) need to be closely guarded at all costs by men since that gives their lineage or caste strength, recognition and leverage in society and the polity. That explains why men get so threatened and offended by women who choose their partners not only breaking out of social norms, but also taking away their legal share in their father’s property under the Hindu Succession Act, 1956, to another group with a different lineage.
In retaliation to the idea of health risks posed by same gotra marriages, Dr RS Dahiya, associated with Bharat Gyan Vigyan Samiti, offers an interesting argument in his paper titled ‘Khaps: Misusing the science of genetics‘ in the context of Haryana. He says that marriage within the first generation of Jats and within a gotra makes two people first cousins. But beyond the third and fourth generation, blood gets mixed hundreds of times over. So it’s a myth that same-gotra marriages cause genetic diseases in the offspring. Women in abusive relationships or teenagers who are forced to give birth to children pose a greater threat to the children’s health than the danger posed by same-gotra marriages, he argues.
“That marriage within the same gotra poses health risks is a bogus argument made for the heck of it. This is because the genetic pool of both the families is very different due to different family histories,” says research scholar Rani Rohini Raman at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), Delhi.
The social ostracism meted out to ‘erring’ couples and families by villagers can be excruciating, feels Ranjana Kumari of Women Power Connect, a women’s rights group. She was referring to exclusion faced by Manoj’s family members in the famous ‘Manoj-Babli case‘ in which Additional District and Sessions Judge Vani Gopal Sharma of Karnal High Court found seven people guilty in a landmark verdict of April 2010. Justice Sharma pronounced death for Babli’s family members, life imprisonment for the khap leader of Kaithal district who ordered their killings, and a seven-year prison term to the driver who abducted the couple.
The couple-in-love was hunted down after they eloped and got married in 2007, despite having approached the Chandigarh High Court for protection in advance. Their crime was that they belonged to the same gotra because of which their marriage had been declared incestuous, thus null and void. The policeman who had been directed to provide protection to the couple is under suspicion for having revealed their whereabouts to Babli’s blood-thirsty family in 2007. He is currently facing departmental action.
Justice Sharma is facing threats from the khap, and has been given police protection. Manoj’s mother, Chanderpati, who approached the court in her relentless fight for justice, continues to live a lonely and dejected life. No one talks to her in the village or sells her grocery as a punishment for raising her voice against the khap’s diktats. Indeed, the village kumhar (potter) even refused to give Manoj’s family clay pots for the dead couple’s ashes and their last rights. “The village dhobi (washerman) refused to wash their clothes, such is the extent of ostracisation,” says Kumari. It’s vicious, entrenched, relentless, this social boycott and vengeance.
The National Commission for Women (NCW) was approached by Shakti Vahini in 2009 and subsequently, a study on similar crimes (unpublished) was carried out in which 326 such cases were examined. It was found that a maximum number of oppressive diktats were made by panchayats in cases of inter-caste marriages (72 per cent), marriage within same caste without family consent (15 per cent), contentious relationships (7 per cent), same-gotra marriages (3 per cent), and inter-religious marriages (1 per cent).
“The issue of dishonour crimes is therefore not about same-gotra marriages as it is made out to be. It is about the larger issues of curbing women’s rights to make their own decisions. Most such crimes (90 per cent) are executed by the girl’s family,” says Supreme Court advocate Ravi Kant, president of Shakti Vahini. “Today, more girls are getting education. Their role models have changed to NASA astronaut Kalpana Chawla, World Number 2 badminton player Saina Nehwal and Mamta Sodha who climbed the Mount Everest, all from Haryana,” says Kant.
Zohra Chatterji, Member Secretary, NCW, agrees that parents are supporting education for girls even in Haryana – but to get them better grooms in the marriage market. They are least interested in their professional careers. “There is a widening gap between parents and children, the latter having the exposure and education to rationalise things for themselves, even if there is no social sanction. Such decisions lead to friction, feeding into instances of anger-driven dishonour crimes,” she adds.
Prof Surinder S Jodhka at JNU feels that such crimes show serious inability of parents to communicate with their children because the gap between them is generational. Youngsters belong to a mobile generation, are educated and far more independent in thinking compared to parents, which leads to disagreements between them. “Inter-caste marriages are not unheard of if you think about the tales of Heer-Ranjha, Sassi-Punnu or Sohni-Mahiwal. What has happened today is that due to changes in a liberalising world, rural agrarian relations of dependency of lower castes on upper castes are disintegrating. With falling authority outside family and even within it, a large number of people feel socially pressurised, hence the pent-up frustration,” asserts Jodhka.
Many villages in Haryana have about 150-200 boys who are unable to get married; the sex ratio is low, unemployment is high. “Altogether there is too much energy and no other work. This makes it easier for khaps to get their violent diktats executed through these people by playing on their emotions,” says Kant. “Additionally, in Haryana’s case, Jats also want to find a political identity, especially after the landmark Manoj-Babli verdict that convicted seven people for their murder. Just like the BJP used the temple issue, Jats are using the issue of same-gotra marriages for mobilising themselves through khaps,” he says.
A spate of community-pride related crimes have been recently reported, but they are not even 10 per cent of what is actually happening. “Sums of up to Rs 20 lakh have been collected by khaps in a small place called Shyamali (Haryana) alone to fight legal battles in courts with regard to same-gotra marriages. This shows the level of mobilisation and bhaichara on this issue and it shouldn’t be taken lightly by the government,” Kant cautions.
While the Supreme Court has issued notices to nine states and the Centre with regard to ‘honour’-related crimes, a certain diabolical politics of conspiracy and silence is being enacted on the ground. How long will the UPA regime, headed by a woman, and the states, refuse to recognise and punish this organised barbarism and blood-letting, which is fast turning into a social epidemic?