The apex court on Monday sought an account of the recent case surrounding a young Dalit woman and her family members from Baghpat district of Uttar Pradesh, who were allegedly subject to a grotesque <g data-gr-id="31">khap</g> panchayat diktat. According to news reports, the <g data-gr-id="32">khap</g> panchayat issued a diktat, ordering the rape of a young woman after her brother had eloped with a married woman from the Jat community. The girl and her family have reportedly fled their village and are now residing in the national capital. The girl has alleged that her family members were being implicated by the state police in various criminal cases under pressure from the Jat community. The family has sought a CBI probe into the matter. In response to the girl’s plea, the apex court on Monday summoned two senior police officials of the district. Village elders, meanwhile, rejected the accusation and said that no such diktat was ordered. Merits of the case notwithstanding, the case has once again brought the role <g data-gr-id="33">khap</g> panchayats in the India’s village societies to the forefront. For the uninitiated, <g data-gr-id="34">khaps</g> are age-old social institutions, consisting of an assembly of village elders from the community.
These bodies are community organisations unaffiliated with formally elected government bodies. Moreover, as per law, their decisions are not binding, and people routinely do knock on courts when they fail to deliver a decision to their liking. Khaps sort out a plethora of social and legal issues in villages starting from minor disagreements to grazing land, playground, water and fodder distribution in villages, land disputes, and common-resource management in villages and most noticeably, among others. However, it is their view of social customs that have got the urban intelligentsia tied up in knots. Many among the urban intelligentsia are of the belief that woman are still subjected to the ruthless and conservative diktats of <g data-gr-id="40">Khap</g> and other Panchayats. Khaps, according to them, often infringe on their choice to life, livelihood and dignity despite the existence of the rule of law in the country. Although such a claim may hold merit, it does not take into account why people from a particular village would approach their local <g data-gr-id="41">khap</g> when the ultimate arbitrator for any dispute is the court. It fundamentally boils down to the poor state of India’s legal infrastructure and the lack of access to judicial remedy in the hinterlands.
It is no secret most courts in India, at whatever level, function below capacity. According to a recent report by this newspaper, it was found that High Courts function with 63 percent of their approved strength of judges, the pendency of cases continues to mount. The condition is aggravated by the absence of any mechanism to appoint or elevate judges to the higher judiciary. The problem, however, lies with district courts or lower courts. Cases under the media spotlight receive scrutiny. Otherwise, the legal system can be a very difficult place for the common man. There is a considerable time lag between hearings. Moreover, it takes years for the common man to get an order from the lower courts. Although High Courts are mandated to monitor the functioning of lower courts, they are usually overburdened with a plethora of unresolved cases. Also, corruption has become endemic to lower courts, thereby creating a problem of access for the common man. Without a requisite legal infrastructure, it is only clear why people from the villages seek out <g data-gr-id="45">khaps</g> to resolve their disputes. Though <g data-gr-id="46">khaps</g> are age-old institutions, at present they fill a vacuum left behind by the formal legal system, despite the apparent presence of the rule of law.