Let’s not work ourselves into a frenzy over the Baghpat khap panchayat’s diktat banning love marriages and restricting movement of women after dark. That the diktat militates against all liberal principles, reflects the medieval mindset of the panchayat and is obnoxious to the core needs no overstating. 'Illegal', 'unconstitutional' — well, it has been received with the usual chorus of disapproval from all quarters.
The khap panchayat deserves all the rebuke it gets. But let’s take a break from the routine reaction and ask the questions that remain at the core of the tyranny of khaps. Who protects the women who decide to move out alone after sunset from villagers? Who protects the couple in a love marriage which decides to stay in the village? Who defends the people who defy the khaps?
Unless we find the right answers to these questions — we can replace 'answers' with 'solutions' and 'questions' with 'problems' — all that fretting and fuming over the decision of the khap panchayat would remain idle talk, pointless howling from the sidelines. Everything about khap panchayats boils down to the singular equation: power. It’s the the power of the collectivity against the power of the individual, or isolated individuals. Till the time the individual is strong enough to fight back and in a position to win, the menace of the khaps will continue.
Declaring the institutions, which wield considerable sway in the states of Haryana, Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan, illegal or unconstitutional — the Supreme Court termed these so not long ago — is far too inadequate to diminish their power or influence. More than a thousand honour killings take place every year following the khap panchayat judgments; most of these, of course, go unreported. We know of the regressive social restrictions they impose on individuals from time to time and the brutal way they enforce them. The source of such crime is the power they wield.
It goes without saying that the khaps derive their power from the community, at least the powerful sections of it. The community acceptance — this is what matters most in the limited, fairly insulated rural, social environment - provides them the sense of legitimacy. The primary concerns in such societies being the protection of property, patriarchy and existing social equations, communities work out the threat perceptions to these from time to time.
Now with more and more youngsters getting exposed to urban life and getting 'contaminated' with modern ideas, the threats to the core concerns are bigger. Probably that is the reason we find the khap decisions getting more and more regressive — from the liberal city dwellers’ perspective at least. Khaps wield tremendous political power. They can easily make or mar the fortunes of political parties and usually make panchayat-level representative bodies subservient to them. Thus they can easily influence the police administration.
Does all this leave individual free will with any chance vis-a-vis the khap will? Of course not. Any act of rebellion or any violation of diktats is dealt with severely; murder and rape of the women members of the alleged culprit’s family being the preferred punishment often. Any serious discussion on khaps must start at this precise point. It makes little sense going on and on cursing khap panchayats for what they do.
Is there a way out? Criminalising the diktats of khap leaders or initiating legal action against them serves a limited purpose, particularly when the society they belong to does not consider their act as criminal. You arrest a few khap leaders, there would be others ready to take over. It’s about the mindset.
One reason for the aggressive reaction from the khaps is the spread of education and awareness among Dalits, women and backward sections of villagers. The entrenched interests perceive a threat from the trend as it promises to unsettle the traditional social and power equations in the agrarian world. This process has to be expanded and deepened. With education, sooner than later, there would forces challenging the power of the khap panchayats.
The political-electoral process might play a role here too as it has done in many places in Uttar Pradesh. As more and more interest groups emerge with increasing awareness, politicians will have the option to look beyond khaps for votes. This will diminish their political clout and the sway over the bureaucracy, particularly the police administration. The rise of Dalit politics in UP and Bihar is an example how power equations could swing with political awareness.
Of course, another way to handle the khaps could be to co-opt them in the process of social change with well-directed incentives and disincentives. Given the social importance they wield, the government cannot just treat them as a criminal tribe.
It’s time the country went beyond abusing khaps and started acting.