Cornered Khaps Sing Tune of Change
Their word is law in the rural landscape of Haryana. Their regressive take on same-caste marriages has resulted in honour killings of young couples. Politicians big and small try to remain on their right side for fear of losing out on votes. But khap panchayats appear to be in a makeover mode. For a change, khap leaders are presenting a lenient face to the world—raking up issues like female foeticide, crime against women and education of girls in what is perhaps a first attempt to improve their image.
There are 106 khaps in the state, intricately woven into the socio-cultural fabric of society. Some of these khaps or village councils have existed for over 1,000 years and were formed to settle law and order problems at the village level, among other issues. However, in the last few years, they have only invited criticism and dismay for their sweeping orders condoning killing of young couples who dared to marry within the same gotra.
Over the years the khaps have stopped being vocal about their support to any particular political group, yet it is their support that mostly decides elections in the state. No wonder they are being wooed heavily by all major political parties—the Congress, the Indian National Lok Dal (INLD) or the BJP and even the new entrant AAP—in the run-up to the polls. In the last two general elections, the Jat votes had tilted in favour of the Congress to some extent under the influence of khaps.
However, what has forced the khaps to take a hard relook at their stringent stance has been the fact that with access to higher education and social media, the youth are no longer a natural ally. The realisation has dawned that to keep the youth on their side, there had to be a change in thinking. And for that they need to relax rules and get more involved in social issues and problems faced by the community. One such decision taken by the Sarv Khap, a congregation of khaps of all communities, pertains to whittling down the number of neighbouring villages where marriages within the community are not allowed. Khaps are popular in rural areas of Bhiwani, Jind, Kaithal, Sonipat and Jhajhar and their orders are strictly followed by villagers. Anyone not following their orders is socially boycotted by the whole community.
“Earlier, it was like, if there are 50 villages in a khap then people of these villages cannot marry each other but now we have decided to bring it down to 7-8 neighbouring villages, thus giving them options to choose brides and grooms from nearby villages,” said Om Prakash Mann, spokesperson of Sarv Khap. Mann claimed khaps never order “honour killing” in case of a same-caste marriage but calls for cutting of all links—hookah pani band—with the couples’ families and it is in turn the families of those young couples who commits such crimes out of guilt and anger.
“We hope that the relaxation in marriage rules will help in containing these honour killings. Moreover, we have requested the Centre to amend the Hindu Marriage Act by banning same-caste marriages and marriages within the boundaries of a village … it will solve all the problems,” said Mann.
Khap leaders’ vociferous opposition to same-caste marriages is based on science and not radicalism. They claim that marrying within a community will impact the genetic pool of the next generation and make them prone to diseases.
To shed their fanatical tag, khaps are now trying to project themselves as champions of social issues, especially related to women. “There is no girls’ college in the area and despite requests, the government did not listen to us. We cordoned off the whole area and didn’t let any government official enter the region till a proposal for a college was cleared. Now a college is being constructed and all girls from nearby villages would not have to travel far to study,” said Vinjeder Singh Berla, member of Sheoren Khap.