Mobile phones encourage love affairs. Girls wearing jeans invite inappropriate male attention. Movies and television are a factor in the growing number of rape cases. And the solution to bring down such cases? Marry girls off early. The khaps in north India never cease to amaze. Their rulings range from the silly to the obnoxious to the regressive. They reflect the mindset of an insular world cut off from all change outside.
Given the history of bizarre decisions of the khap panchayats in Uttar Pradesh, Haryana and Rajasthan, the recent suggestion from members of such panchayats in Haryana asking the government to do away with the marriageable age of girls and boys to curb the growing instances of rape does not surprise. They linked the sexual assault cases to the growing urge in children to have sex when they reach puberty.
“After the children attain puberty, it is normal for them to have sexual desire. They stray when the desire is not fulfilled. Thus it is ideal that they are married off when they turn 16,’’ said one important khap member. He attributed the growing rape cases to the influence of cinema and television. Other khap members sought to put the blame for such cases on girls. There have been 12 rape cases in the state within a month. The meeting had taken place in this backdrop.
Sick, yes. Yet it is impossible to wish the khaps away. Their influence in the socialscape where they exist is overwhelming. The writ of the government does not work here neither does the long arm of the law. The reason is simple. The community institutions represent a mindset, a worldview steeped in medievalism. Punitive action will work against persons but not against a mindset which allegedly sanctifies honour killings and reaffirms the traditional caste and community based segregation and discrimination.
There are howls of protest against the latest khap suggestion already – this is almost ritual by now. Frankly, it serves no purpose, it has not served any so far, however well-meaning they could be. The attitude of the outside world towards khaps needs to change. The media and others have to be more proactive in this direction.
In July, when the mahapanchayat of over 100 khaps from Haryana, Delhi and Uttar Pradesh waged war against female foeticide, it was an unprecedented move from an institution believed to be heavily biased against women. The community leaders demanded that doctors indulging in killing the unborn girl child should be booked for murder and they also recommended stern action against parents involved in the act.
The media, which normally make a huge song and dance when khaps pass adverse judgments against eloping lovers, were largely silent in this case. They chose to ignore or failed to grasp the the import of the development. The wider society could have grabbed this opportunity to build bridges with the institutions and convince them that they are actually capable of being of help to the society they live in.
Given the influence the khaps wield, they could be powerful agents of change in rural India. There are indications that these are opening up, albeit reluctantly, to change. They have agreed to allow formation of women’s committees to look after issues related to them. A panchayat in Rajasthan has made education for girls compulsory. At the all khaps panchayat at Muzaffarnagar district in July, the community elders have pitched for education of women.
All this mean nothing in the face of the overwhelmingly regressive outlook of the khaps towards everything alien to their worldview. But India cannot afford to continue to be condescending towards the institutions. The hope is in breaching their insularity and connecting them to the other world in slow and patient ways. There are footsteps of change from inside already – one reason why the khaps are getting more and more aggressive. This process needs to be aided in subtle ways.