Khap Panchayats are groups of village patriarchs that dole out rough and ready justice, handing out death sentences and ostracising entire families at will. They have come in for much condemnation in recent times. With the spate of news stories about Khaps handing out death sentences to young people who have married either outside their caste or within their gotra or punishments meted for failing to abide by some archaic laws laid down by the Khaps, these groups have come in for a lot of censure in recent times.
Khaps are described as barbaric and have been accused of taking the law into their own hands, trampling on the fundamental rights of the people whose welfare they purport to look after. Recent events have even caused the judiciary to come out and speak against Khaps, calling for the abolishment of these traditional forms of government that encourage honour killings and deliver diktats on who can and cannot get married. Khaps have been described as regressive kangaroo courts. But is it any solution to ban khaps?
Khaps have performed valuable traditional functions
Khaps have been a powerful method of social control. Traditionally they have sorted out quarrels and dispensed justice using conventional wisdom. They have been family courts that help sort out disputes and bring about amicable resolutions.
The supposed wisdom of Khap patriarchs has been respected because they bring about resolutions that are popular if not wholly impartial. Also a resolution that is arrived at expeditiously in contrast to court proceedings that languish for decades has to count for something. So certainly the Khaps have enjoyed social support and with good reason too.
Now however, Khaps and their truculent refusal to evolve with the times doesn’t fit into the modern context and that is why so many sections of society have called for them to be banned.
Khaps are a reflection of our society
It occurs to me that Khaps – this seeming anachronism, is actually a reflection of our society – they are reflective of our society and societal beliefs. If Khaps did not have social sanction; either tacit or overt, how could they wield the kind of power that they do? How could they issue death sentences and ostracise people if such behavior did not have the approval of a significant portion of society?
The approval for Khaps and their diktats stems from patriarchal mindsets that seek to retain their power and prevent the erosion of the convenient status quo. This patriarchal mindset is widely prevalent and deeply entrenched. In other words there are enough old men around who control their families and more particularly the destinies of their women folk who encourage Khaps to continue upon their regressive paths that prevent female empowerment and keep communities within narrow proscribed caste hierarchies. The fact is that individuals support Khaps and their actions in order to justify their own beliefs as well as an oppressive social order.
The proportion of powerful people within society who want caste systems to remain in place, that want women to be restricted to activities and freedoms that only they deem to confer upon them is evidently high enough for these few feudal, traditionalist power centres to retain their authority and control.
Banning Khaps is not a solution
So banning Khaps in my humble view is no solution at all. When the Courts say “Stamp out Khaps”, this is like addressing the symptom of a malaise rather than the malaise itself. Which Khap would issue a death sentence against a girl and/or a boy that dared to marry within the Gotra if the family or families had not felt aggrieved enough by this behaviour to go complaining to the Khap Panchayat? And if the decrees of the Khap do in fact hold sway, then they do so only because there are people who choose to obey them, as in the case of Manoj and Babli, where the couple were murdered after the Khap ruling that ordered their execution.
The general mind set of traditional communities opposes change because it is scared of change; is afraid that such change will alter power equations not just within the community, but within families as well. So while Khaps can and do rule by virtue of the fear that they engender, they also represent a welcome continuation of a familiar way of life. Progress is viewed as an invasion and a denigration of ways of life held dear, and change is viewed with suspicion and distrust.
And self-choice marriages (what we colloquially refer to as love marriages) are seen to threaten the power structures of society. It is a fact that traditionalists are inordinately threatened by self-choice marriages. It may seem strange that people feel so menaced by something so seemingly harmless, until we recognise that controlling the choice of one’s mate is indicative of controlling much else in a young person’s life; ergo the perpetuation of existing power structures that strongly favour men to the detriment of women.
So since Khaps exist because of self interest that favours keeping family structures overwhelmingly patriarchal and societies feudal and caste based, little can be accomplished by banning them. If the men in the police station themselves feel that Khaps are needed to keep their womenfolk ‘in control’ and if the privileged sections of society feel that it is in their interests to keep caste hierarchies intact, there is little that banning Khaps will accomplish.
By – Reena Daruwalla
Image Courtesy – Wikipedia (Manoj & Babli Honour Killing)