Khap Panchayat—unofficial rule of law

To go with story 'India-social-marriage-caste,FEATURE' by Abhaya Srivasta In this photograph taken on May 5, 2014 Inder Singh More, the head of the 42-village Khap panchayat or local village council, speaks during a meeting in Hissar district of the northern state of Haryana. For as long as anyone can remember, villagers north of India's capital have lived under two sets of laws -- those of the government and another imposed by unelected but powerful men. Now in a sign of major reform coming to a corner of the country steeped in tradition, Haryana state's largest council has allowed couples from neighbouring villages to marry, even if they belong to different castes. AFP PHOTO/ SAJJAD HUSSAIN (Photo credit should read SAJJAD HUSSAIN/AFP/Getty Images)

By Kanika Rangray

CNltjxXWsAAIkQWTwo sisters, natives of a village in Baghpat district, Uttar Pradesh were ordered to be raped, paraded naked, their faces blackened, as punishment for the action of their brother—he eloped with a married woman of an upper caste, the woman belonged to the Jat community. Apparently the boy’s family belonged to a low dalit caste. Reports say that the couple, who were in love, eloped after the woman was forced to marry someone from her own caste.

The incident, yet again, brings to fore the repulsive caste system of India, a bane that ceases to be non-existent. Amnesty International, a human rights organisation, started a campaign to sign a petition called ‘Two sisters to be raped as punishment—demand justice’. The petition says

“Your eyes do not deceive you. An unelected all-male village council in India has ordered that 23 year old Meenakshi Kumari and her 15 year old sister be raped .The ‘sentence’ was handed down as punishment after their brother eloped with a married woman. They also ordered the sisters to walk naked with blackened faces. Nothing could justify this abhorrent punishment. It’s not fair. It’s not right. And it’s against the law. Demand that the local authorities intervene immediately.” 

Kumari also approached the Supreme Court last week to seek justice, saying that instead of protecting them,the police were harassing her and her family. In the plea to the court,Kumari said that she and her family “cannot return back to her village and have been rendered homeless.”

What is Khap panchayat?

Villagers sit after attending a panchayat, or village council meeting, at Balla village in Haryana May 13, 2008. REUTERS/Vijay Mathur/Files
Villagers sit after attending a panchayat, or village council meeting, at Balla village in Haryana May 13, 2008. REUTERS/Vijay Mathur/Files

This is not the first case of unjust punishment allocated by Khap panchayat. Before delving into other such cases of cruelty, it is imperative to understand the meaning of Khap panchayats. They are basically the union of few villages, and have in recent times emerged as mock judicial bodies that pronounce harsh punishments based on age-old customs and traditions, often bordering on regressive measures to modern problems.

The Supreme Court declared ‘Khap panchayat’ illegal in 2011, but even today its existence seems quite prominent.

This is wholly illegal and has to be ruthlessly stamped out. There is nothing honourable in honour killing or other atrocities and, in fact, it is nothing but barbaric and shameful murder. Moreover, these acts take the law into their own hands, and amount to kangaroo courts,which are wholly illegal.

                                                         —Bench of Justices Markandey Katju and Gyan Sudha

Extent of atrocities at the hands of Khap panchayats

ed9The monstrosity of the Khap panchayat extends to honor killing as well. In 2007, a newly-wed couple, Manoj and Babli, were murdered by the girl’s family who were influential people and enjoyed the backing of the panchayat. According to reports, the couple were force-fed pesticides and when Manoj resisted, he was strangled to death.

But justice was served. Manoj’s mother went to court for the wrong done to her son and daughter-in-law, despite threats from villagers to eliminate her and her children. Finally, in March 2010, a Karnal district court ordered death penalty to the five perpetrators who orchestrated the killings, and a life sentence to the Khap leader who had given the order.

What was more disheartening in this particular case, was that the policemen deployed for the security of Manoj and Babli  actually aided the accused in perpetrating the crime. Consolation can only be found in the fact that this was not ignored by the court.

In 2014, a Khap panchayat in Uttar Pradesh’s Muzzafarnagar district banned girls from wearing jeans and keeping mobile phones giving the reason that it was resulting in a bad effect on them and were responsible for eve-teasing incidents.

A tribal woman in Kolkata was gang-raped by 13 men as punishment for falling in love with a man from a different religion. In an article, the victim said: “The morol (village headman) ordered that I be ‘enjoyed’ by the men of the village. Following his orders, at least 13 people, including (some) members of a single family, continuously raped me. I lost count of how many times I was raped.”

Apparently in the eyes of the patriarchal council, a union between a Muslim man and Adivasi woman, which is fully legal under Indian law, is illegal. The Khap panchayat is like an unofficial rule of law which is above and immune to all laws except the ones which it has made of its own accord.

Another example is the honor killing case of Ved Pal and Sonia. Both belonged to the same caste, the Jat community. But according to Khap, there was a mistake. Ved Pal married a woman of his choice who was from an adjoining village and belonged to the same clan. The Khap panchyat saw it as a crime and the couple paid the price with their lives.

What to do… where to go?

But there was a landmark in history, established by the largest Khap in Haryana, the Satrol Khap, by allowing inter-caste marriage in 2014. However, this alone is not enough to uproot the trauma and terror of the Khap panchayat from the minds of the people who have seen, heard, been a victim of these ‘kangaroo courts.’

It is true that the Indian judiciary does play a crucial role in the abolishment of the Khap panchayat system, but even the hands of the law are tied. What is the judiciary to do when the people don’t make enough attempts to change the patriarchal and disgusting laws of the society they live in?

On June 23, 2008 Justice K.S. Ahluwalia of the Punjab and Haryana High Court said:

“The High Court is flooded with petitions where… judges of this Court have to answer for the right of life and liberty to married couples. The State is a mute spectator. When shall the State awake from its slumber and for how long can Courts provide solace and balm by disposing of such cases?”

The question raised by Justice Ahluwalia is extremely valid.

It is time that the masses realize the true nature of Khaps and unite in protest against it.