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Kejriwal bats for khap panchayats, says no question of banning them

Kejriwal, who became chief minister of Delhi after his one-year-old Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) swept to power last month, will now contest the national elections due by May. His party’s key anti-corruption platform is seen as having considerable appeal among urban voters.

The urban population of the country had hoped the 45-year-old’s progressive social politics would include a strong agenda for women’s empowerment. But his stand on village councils – unelected all-male bodies which have issued many misogynistic decrees, including ordering ‘honour killings’ - contrasts with that of some women’s groups who want them dismantled.

Their diktats have ranged from banning women from wearing western clothes and using mobile phones to ordering the killing of young couples. Some councils have demanded that the minimum age of marriage be lowered to 16 from 18 for girls and 21 for boys as a way of coping with an increase in the number of rapes.

‘No, it is not a question of banning these panchayats,’ Kejriwal said, referring to ‘khap panchayats’, the name given to village councils in rural north India.

‘Khap panchayats are a group of people who come together. There is no bar on people to assemble in this country … (But) whenever they take a wrong decision, whenever they take an illegal decision, they ought to be punished,’ he said.

Powerful village councils have governed the country’s rural landscape for centuries, keeping a conservative grip on rural society that not only clashes with the current more liberal attitudes towards women, but also challenges the law of the land.

Acting as de-facto courts for millions, they settle disputes on everything from land and cattle to matrimony and murder, helping maintain social order in a country where access to justice can be slow and difficult for the rural poor and uneducated.

The councils are coming under growing scrutiny because of their brutal forms of punishment, prompting some women’s rights activists to label them the ‘Taliban of India,’ after the Islamic fundamentalist movement active in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Last week, 13 men were arrested after they were alleged to have gang-raped a 20-year-old tribal women on the orders of a village court in West Bengal as punishment for having a relationship with a man from another community.

The case has made waves in India, underscoring how sexual violence has become a serious social and political issue since the rape and murder of a physiotherapist on a moving bus in Delhi in December 2012, an attack that sparked nationwide demonstrations.
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