Killing in the name of?
The other day I encountered a man from a Khap Panchayat. Here is an excerpt from my conversation with him: ‘We are in the 21st century. What is wrong if a boy and a girl marry if they like each other.’ ‘It’s a matter of tradition and honour. These are the evils of modernisation. Have we not lived a good life by marrying according to our elders’ wishes?’
‘But one has to understand the context. There is more mobility. People meet, make their choices. There was a time that Sati was practiced. It was abolished rightly, being a draconian practice.’ ‘First it was the Britishers. Now it is the brown sahibs. They do not understand what honour is, and are messing with our systems.’ ‘So is killing justified?’ ‘How can anyone marry in the same gotra?’ ‘What ancient system are you talking about? In none of the cases we have known, were the couples even remotely related to each other? Even if they were, who is the panchayat to order execution?’
At this point, there is a spot of sweat on the man’s brow. He gets shifty, angry, aggressive, ‘One has to protect one’s honour. We will go to any extent for that’
It’s strange how this idea of honour has been sold to us for centuries by the patriarchal forces, and it has been able to maintain its hegemony too. The ‘khap’ is not a Haryana-specific phenomenon. Witch hunting is a phenomenon as old as the mountains. How often have we heard that a woman in some village has been beaten up or burnt because she is a ‘dayan’? A random sampling of newspapers of the last few years will show how across north India, young couples have been killed, or rape has been ordered against an ‘erring girl.’ Falling back on words like ‘tradition’ and ‘honour’ has been convenient justification for the perpetrators of these crimes. What they fail to understand for themselves is that social traditions are living traditions, they have to change with the changing time. Living traditions that cannot change, must die. Panchayats are meant for decentralization of power, not for perpetuating decadent values of bygone fiefdom.
In January this year, people in a village in Meerut noticed that a young bachelor girl was pregnant. Her own father was responsible for this, and he had been raping her since the death of his wife three years ago. This is shocking, but what is even more shocking is that the village panchayat ordered the father to marry his own daughter, who he had been routinely raping for three years. Is this punishment for the father or the daughter? Rape for a lifetime! Just a couple of weeks after this incident, another panchayat found the act of falling in love outside the community unbearable. It kangaroo court, or shall we say the wolf court, ordered rape of the girl. Thirteen men took turns in the dastardly act. They were all arrested, but doesn’t this show how deeply regressive and perverse such institutions are? One of the landmark cases with regards to panchayats of this nature is the Babli-Manoj case. In 2007, in Kaithal village of Haryana, the khap panchayat decreed that the lovers belonged to the same ‘gotra’ and therefore they could not marry. The two were not cousins or even remotely removed cousins, but the ancient system of ‘gotra’ or who belongs to which cowherd, made their marriage impossible. The youngsters did not care and went ahead and married. They were abducted by the girl’s family and killed. In an important judgement in 2010, a Karnal district court awarded death sentence to these criminals. The Khap panchayats spoke against the court and said their honour was being compromised.
I believe that we as the largest democracy, need to immediately ban these courts, and declare them illegal. Panchayati Raj is meant to empower people, not to take their lives. Only Panchayats that are democratically elected through elections held by the government of India, should have the mandate to solve minor cases. There is a legal system, there is a law of the land, and only judiciary has the right to decide criminal cases. That all this has been happening through 67 years of democracy shows how deeply entrenched all this is, and how the system has supported the flourishing of these criminals in disguise.
In a development, for the first time, a Khap Panchayat has decided to allow inter-caste marriages. The Satrol khap covers forty two villages. This is the first time a Khap has taken a forward step. However, marriages within the same village and same ‘gotra’ are still not allowed despite these reforms. This is still tokenism. Reforms need to be undertaken fast. As such our marks on the human rights index is not great. Let us not go to international fora shame-faced everytime. This is an issue that is very much in our hands, atleast the banning of these institutions. If the government does not wake up to it, the women themselves will. Take the case of Gulabi Gang for example. Sampat Pal Devi organised women in Bundelkhand and formed an army of women wearing pink sarees – to fight against domestic violence. They would go to the houses of women who suffered abuse at the hands of their husbands, and beat up these men with ‘lathis’ that they carry. They also once forced officials to turn on the power supply in Banda, after the officials had cut off the supply asking for bribes. When a democratically elected government is unable to deliver, people are forced to come out on the streets. If we do not want a parallel vigilante system like the Gulabi Gang, we must act. Now!