India, which lives in several centuries, civilisations, mindsets and worldviews at the same time, is destined to be a perennial battle zone of conflicting ideas and interests. There can be no overarching magic formula to provide coherence to the understanding of the country. Probably the numerous conflicts we have—societies vs societies, communities vs communities, communities vs the modern institutions and small intra-group battles within all of them—is the way civilisations evolve and take more mature forms.
For the Indian separated from the rural life by generations, it is beguiling why the khap panchayats exist despite being so apparently out of touch with the real world and why people have to rush to them when courts are available. But ‘real’ in the Indian context is such a dicey word! It depends heavily on which of the several Indias one resides in and which particular worldview one subscribes to.
Khaps, in one name or the other, have been part of the Indian community for ages. Assigned the role of the maintaining social order and curbing deviant behaviour, the institution has been serving as a stabilising force in the rural society for long. The justice it dishes out is crude and barbaric. That again is subjective, given millions in the country trust in that kind of justice.
Let’s face it, khaps go back many centuries. In comparison, the modern judiciary is of recent origin. Khaps cater to the community, the latter centres around the idea of the individual and his legal rights. Most of India still lives in communities. If people still look at khaps for justice, it originates from that reality. Modern institutions have not travelled deep into the country as yet and it is still at least a century before they do.
If the situation has left both the approaches to justice antagonistic to each other, it’s only inevitable. Both have differing perceptions of justice; both represent separate social bases and both exist in different time zones. The role of khaps in the society is much larger than of courts. At a broader level this could explain the failure of many social legislations in India.
In the general anger against the khaps what has been ignored is their potential to bring lasting change to the societies we live in. They are powerful and carry a lot influence in their sphere of activity. If their dictats can take lives, their dictats can make lives much better too. What it requires is co-opting them into the process of social change and progressive ideas. It could work. One village in Rajasthan has proved how.
In Doongaron ka tala, a village in Barmer, a region notorious for female infanticide and gender ratio heavily skewed against the fair sex, a khap order issued 20 years ago has ensured that all girl children go to school and lead a life of dignity. According to a CNN-IBN report, the Panchayat made it mandatory for everyone to send their daughters to school or face a penalty of Rs 1,000. Many of the first generation of girls are in jobs now.
“People in other villages here generally don’t educate girls, but in this school, girls come from two to three kms away regularly. Their parents don’t send them to the fields for work or just keep them engaged in the household work, so the girls are keen on studying and the parents take a lot of interest in their education,” CNN-IBN quoted Kamla, teacher in the high school where the girls study. The khap order still stands and there has been no violation of it so far, the report says.
The experience of Doongaron ka tala should be an eye-opener for policy makers. It shows that the influence of khaps could be put to socially beneficial uses. It’s not easy given the mutual distrust between these khaps and government agencies. But none of the government’s ideas on reforms—social, economic and otherwise—are likely to succeed unless the khaps are part of the process.
The initiative in this respect should come from the government since it is the force which is intruding into communities and their ways.