“The love of the intellectuals Indians for the village community is of course infinite if not pathetic…What is the village but a sink of localism, a den of ignorance, narrow mindedness and communalism?”
Dr. B. R. Ambedkar, during Constitutional Assembly Debates, 1948.
That what Ambedkar said in the year 1948, and that’s what still is the state of affairs in India’s villages where "institutions" such as Khap/Caste Panchayat not only exist and flourish but are also being nurtured by the political class of our country. Dr. B. R. Ambedkar was of the firm view that the village in India forms the social unit of society which thereby requires going through a profound social change. However, the Indian society in general and its countryside in particular, as it today, never witnessed the unfolding of the process of enlightenment. The project of enlightenment in this country was a nonstarter from the day one. Hence, as the consequences we still see continuance of these caste panchayats to follow a certain "code" which is an unwritten law for them, through which they save and defend their "honour" and in the process going to the extent of murdering people for the sake of this "honour", of course with the sanction of their whole community.
What is this "honour" which these Caste Panchayats try to "save" and what is so very important in this honour that they shamelessly claim pride for? And what on earth gets them into such acts of frenzy - killing people - even young men and women in order to defend this honor? Answers to these questions are not simple and unilinear but are quite complex. In other words, in order to answer these question one has to look at at how caste, class and gender operates in rural and indeed in many parts of urban India.
A Khap is a fairly old system of social administration in the villages of Northwestern India covering Rajasthan, Punjab, Madhya Pradesh, Haryana, NCR, and parts of Western Uttar Pradesh. A unit of khap takes care of the social affairs of almost 84 villages from the same caste. It has also been mentioned in some news reports that Khaps Panchayat plays an important role in regulating the society, for example in some instances Khaps have been able to prohibit consumption of liquor. They help in regulating the society in a ‘certain’ way which keeps the traditions intact and thus helps in strengthening the ‘bhaichara’ (brotherhood) among the community. Having said that, lets see what Khaps really are and why do they still exist, in these times of atleast formal democracy in India. Khap Panchayats are the self proclaimed arrangement of caste lords in a village and enjoy full legitimacy and authority among the sections of their caste - community. Among their briefs - the most primal of which is the custodianship of "honour", is to order brutal maiming, lynching or even killing couples who marry either in the same gotra (there can be numerous gotras within a caste) or who "indulge" in inter caste marriage. While in the former, that is marrying in same gotra, the "logic" purported is that the couple are in fact "brother and sisters" (of the same gotra) and therefore their marrying each other is an assault on their honour (in some cases of this kind, the wife was forced to tie Rakhi on her husband - a simple way to declare a married couple- brother and sister). In the latter kind of honour breach, the punishment is generally simply that of death. The breach of honour is of more serious kind here. The only thing which is left for the Khaps here is, is to discuss the ways to deliver this death to the transgressor.
It is this latter sphere - the absence of sanction to inter-caste marriage - which forms the bed rock of our village society and in its final analysis gives the material conditions for the ‘institution’ like caste/khap Panchayat to survive. It is here in this sphere of contentious /inter-caste marriages that we witnessed the various archaic social factors working behind these caste panchayats. In other words, the caste panchayats are the logical outcome of the caste relations in rural society which derives its authority from defending the honor of a caste group which in turn necessitates the cohesiveness of the same.
Before we further delve upon this issue let’s see what is this whole concept of "honour". Honour or for the Hindi speaking people, izzat is the central reason for the functioning of these caste panchayats. In the popular perception of rural society and as well as in the Hindu scriptures, women are the repositories of this izzat of a community. The greatest danger to this ideology of izzat comes from the woman. In the warped logic of the caste system that dictates terms of life in villages, a female "dishonours" her family/clan/ caste and community by her "shameful conduct". Why is their conduct termed "shameful"? To understand this we should see what Manu, the Law Giver of the codified Hindu caste system writes for women in Manusmriti: (translated)
• II. 213. It is the nature of women to seduce man in this (world). For that reason the wise are never unguarded in (the company of) females.
• IX. 14. Women do not care for beauty, nor is their attention fixed on age; (thinking), (It is enough that) he is a man, they give themselves to the handsome and to the ugly.
• IX. 16. Knowing their disposition, which the Lord of creatures laid in them at the creation to be such, (every) man, should most strenuously exert himself to guard them.
• IX. 17. (When creating them) Manu allotted to women (a love of their) seat and (of) ornament, impure desires, wrath, dishonesty, malice and bad conduct
It is clearly and further stressed in Manusmriti that women should not be made free under any circumstances:
• IX. 2. Day and night women must be kept in dependence by the males (of) their (families), and if they attach themselves to sensual enjoyments, they must be kept under one’s control.
• IX. 3. Her father protects (her) in childhood, her husband protects (her) in youth, and her sons protect (her) in old age; a woman is never for independence.
• IX. 5. Women must particularly be guarded against evil inclinations, however trifling (they may appear); if they are not guarded, they will bring sorrow on two families.
These above verses coupled with other Codes (which must not be seen in their textual isolation) to be observed for caste purity describes the way caste panchayats operates in rural society. It is these archaic laws ingrained in the minds and actions of rural folks which drive them to uphold their caste linkages and force them to have a closer surveillance on the happening marital alliances. Thus, it is the woman who holds the key to the honour of a caste group and it is by not letting the woman to marry beyond the fold of her own caste (in various instances in the same gotra) that these caste panchayats maintain strict endogamy and thus the honour of their caste group and the "purity" of caste itself.
Now, the crucial thing is to understand what hold this archaic set of laws together with set of modern and formal institutions like Panchayati Raj, Judiciary, Police and the larger State. In India the institution of Panchayati Raj or the third tier of the government was introduced with lots of hopes in order to further decentralise the governing process. The larger objective was to give the power to the last person and make him/ her participate in the governing process. In many states this institution is quite vibrant and the enthusiasm of the people from lower rungs has been visible and effective. This decentralization of the government at the grass root level, if not entirely, has certainly brought the partial democratization in village society. But despite this drive of democratization in Villages of India, there are certain questions which really perplex one such as, why is the case that the elected panchayats had a very limited or no role to play in the matters of governance that are otherwise usurped by Khap Panchayats? What is the role of State’s law- enforcing agency in such matters that the Khap Panchayats usurp for themselves and indulge in kangaroo courts dispensing (in)justice? Why is there no movement or even noise by the political parties (with an obvious exception of the Left, particularly the CPI(M) taking up this issue) on the brutal violence perpetrated by the dictates of Khaps? Answer to such questions needs closer study of caste society and its relation with the day-to-day politics in the modern Indian state.
It can be stated that Khaps are the classic example of patron - clientele nature of Indian politics, where these panchayats have been given political patronage and thus have become immune to constitutional framework of law and order. In Haryana, for example, khaps are the crucial channels to galvanise caste based political mobilisation which becomes so very central to the functioning of every political party, that instead of questioning the very existence of khaps, the Khaps controls the lever of political stability. However, there is some resistance to khaps as well, though in minimalist sense but the resistance is growing. The role of increasing democratisation and opening of new economic opportunities has brought a gradual shift in the power dynamics (an example of this can be seen in rural Haryana) between different caste groups. The rising assertiveness of Dalits – owing to their socio-political movement as well as sections of them coming up as confident, modern individuals – is inevitably leading up to various cases of inter caste marriages and ultimately stiff and violent resistance on the parts of caste panchayats. This section of young people are consistently challenging the idea of such archaic laws and eventually questioning the whole edifice of caste panchayats by defying and discarding the dubious notions of "honour".
To sum it up, two broader propositions can be made for as to why these Khaps still been able to call shots in rural north-western India: Firstly, Caste panchayats are the logical outcome of caste and gender relations in Indian society which in turn is the result of unfinished enlightenment project (primarily movements against Caste and atrocities against women) whereby these panchayats enjoys not merely political support but also drives the local politics. And secondly, the patronization of khaps by the political parties is in turn the result of the hegemonisation of caste relations over the polity, where by the political actors themselves firmly believes and support institution like Khaps and its action too. Thus, it’s a vicious circle of caste relations, polity, and the absence of anti caste movements in the first place which gives life to khap panchayats and proves to us that without the actualization of broader social change monsters like Khaps will not only smile on the face of ‘emerging’ India but will thrive and be defended by the gatekeepers of Indian Polity.
( Writer is research scholar in J.N.U.