For the first 10 days after she was savagely assaulted and raped by eight men, 16-year-old Reshma [name changed] shuttered up her heart and mind, hoping silence would kill her memories of the violence, wrenching physical pain and the waves of shame, anger and fear.
Everyone knows Reshma now and is using her case their own particular way. Dalit groups have camped outside her home, using her case to illustrate caste iniquity and violence in Haryana. Leaders of the ‘powerful’ Khap panchayats recently have used the case to call for rolling back progressive reforms that made it illegal for women to be married before the age of 18.
Her voice, though, still unheard – and of dozens of other women, Dalit and upper caste, young and old, fair and dark, who have been victims of sexual assault by men across the country.
Reacting to the shocking idea proposed by the Khap panchayats, the age old upholders of caste norms who have always been in the news for all the wrong reasons, this is what they [who claim to be supposedly working towards the development of society] could come up with! This idea is ridiculous, uninformed and step backwards. When the system needs more support for assaulted women, higher penalties for those who commit such crimes, and more people in power who understand how hard it is for women to report about the same, these so called leaders came up with such ideas. In my opinion, this is a specious argument that is not likely to stand any test of reason.
Any contemporary evaluation of these panchayats has to take into account their interventions on socio-cultural issues in modern times, as also the fact that we are now living not in feudal times but in the period of democratic polity.
This is a clear story of two mindsets divided against each other in the backdrop of a society struggling to emerge from its earlier avatar. The new wave of young blood, gradually becoming aware of its individual space, influenced as it is by the winds of change brought about by the democratic ethos and liberalisation, is learning to take its own decisions. When they have the right to vote at 18 – why not the right to choose their own partner at the same legally prescribed age?
This assertion of a legal right has been taken to mean that the youth today has gone out of bounds that it is unbridled in its choices and acts. When the occasion arises, however, they do act with responsibility and dignity. For instance, with the advent of the age of liberalisation in the early 1990s, doubts were sometimes expressed as to how patriotic the youth of today is. Kargil, however, proved beyond doubt that the outer trappings of the individualistic liberal ethos have not had any negative effect on our youth in this regard.
In a similar vein, by and large, the youth of the Jat heartland, the area in which issues revolving round gotra marriages have been recurring over the last few years, are cognisant that the custom of marriage within the gotra does not enjoy socio-cultural acceptance, and I am pretty sure that they would not like to cross into forbidden territory.
For a society to move ahead, a certain degree of elasticity is required on matters that do call for reasonable mutual adjustment in tune with the times.
Given this fact, the demand for a change in the Hindu Marriage Act of 1955 on this basis gives a strong impression that these forces are arrogating to themselves the power to decide for all.
More importantly, the saddest part of the story is that the political class of Haryana, seems to be more concerned about its vote-banks rather than the larger social good. Instead of taking a leading role in countering the forces that are taking a stand, detrimental to the interests of an egalitarian and progressive society, the political actors seem to be playing second fiddle to them. One can only hope in these circumstances that a balanced view will be taken, the saner view will prevail, and conclusions reached on the basis of a reasoned judgement of issues.
To conclude on a note of caution in the larger socio-political context, one, there are much larger social issues crying for our attention, on which the Khap panchayats can play a positive role – and on which, till now, they have maintained a resounding silence. Domestic violence against women, the scourge of female foeticide, dowry-deaths, the menace of drinking and drug-addiction, the crisis in agriculture – these, and many more, are issues with which we need to grapple on an urgent basis, for they strike at the very roots of a harmonious society. These panchayats, however, seem to have turned a blind eye to them. Is it that they find it more convenient to overlook such issues because the perpetrators of these social crimes are an inseparable part of these panchayats? One needs to ponder over this.
Neha Jain is a senior copy editor with Millennium Post.