In the sexual molestation case of a six year old girl in Keshavpura, Gujarati basti near Kota, the victim was summoned by the local panchayat to be married off to the son of the accused. The accused Kailash Gujrati (44) had earlier molested the girl by touching her private parts and was caught subsequently by the people. It was then that the panchayat brought up this bizarre verdict and ordered that the victim should be married to the eight year old son of the accused. Apparently, Kailash did not subside to the decision taken by the panchayat body. But before the verdict could be enacted, the police intertwined and arrested Kailash under POSCO act with charges of abduction, molestation and physical assault. The self-styled kangaroo court instead of punishing the guilty made the victim marry in the family of the very person who had committed the heinous crime.
I kept on looking for a follow up on the story in the local newspapers of Rajasthan. But to my disappointment there was no other news regarding this case. This story reminded me of Imrana case where the victim was raped by her father-in-law and the shariat court issued a fatwa to Imrana stating that she should treat her husband as her son and declared their marriage null and void. Imrana defied the panchayat and continued to live with her husband. This case secured the attention of national media due its complexity. Many shariat groups came up with different counter views regarding the case. Even Mulayam Singh Yadav, the former chief minister of Uttar Pradesh endorsed the view of many Muslim law boards that she should not stay with her husband. This news was covered extensively by the media and the latest follow up on the famous case appeared in an English daily on 13th July of last year.
Social institutions such as caste panchayat and the shariat rule thrive under the disguise of moral policing and culture, defying the basic tenets of Indian constitution and oversee the judiciary behaving in an outrageously autocratic manner. Such organisations have become powerful and brutal thereby impeding lives of hundreds of individuals on the basis of caste. They are stark examples of establishments formed on the basis of caste and gender distinction backed by political parties for their vote banks. In the last few years, there have been many incidences where the decisions taken by these forms of caste elected panchayats have ostracised many people on irrational reasoning and killed hundreds. Also this regressive, patriarchal system limits and forbids the individual as well as community rights of women. Such bodies wield more power and authority than the statutory panchayats as they have been historicised referring them to vedas and quran which generally shuns the poor or a particular caste or religion. The faith of the people has kept them on the pedestal as a local ruling body. The elected panchayats cannot oversee without support of the social institutions as they enjoy favouritism among people. They are the respected lot of their society and have immense power to ostracise people or pronounce death sentences (honour killing). Many a times when the elected bodies fail to deliver on the issues related to society at large, it paves way to the kangaroo courts to chip in as the legal entity of the society and function in full throttle. The semi-literate society and the poor still vouch for these bodies as they are more accessible and pocket friendly. They usually tend to neglect the feudal factor which openly outplays in the villages.
What can be observed in both the cases is that media often fails to recognise the complexity, socio-economic situation and political aspects of such illegal institutions regarding judicial matters. These Khaps and shariats violate the fundamental rights of an individual and behave in a dictatorial manner. They work as apex courts and aren’t monitored by any legal entity. Last year Supreme Court clearly declared that such courts have no sanction of law as they breach the basic fundamental rights guaranteed in a constitution. In spite of the verdict, these institutions continue to exist and rule over fates in the rural belts of India.
Even the Punjab and Haryana High Court have come down heavily against the actions of the Khaps and honour killings. The court has even given directions that couples who are hounded by the Khaps and their families be given protection by the police and the administration. Though protection homes have been set up in the last one year, many couples still fear for their lives.
Many supporters of khap panchayats have tried to historicise them as they have been functioning since the 7th century and perhaps even earlier. According to an article published in The Hindu, Khaps have aided Razia Sultan in 13th century to fight against her enemies Turkish nobles. In return for their help they were rewarded with 60,000 buffaloes. Even her tomb lies on the outskirts of Kaithal, deep in Haryana’s khap lands. It is also believed that Khaps helped the Marathas against Ahmed Shah Abdali, during the third battle of Panipat by providing ammunition. But originally such bodies functioned to resolve disputes, dispense quick and cheap justice regarding matters related to debts, contracts, adultery and inheritance of property. They were considered as eminent bodies for delivering justice before the British displaced them by establishing statutory, local, self-governing bodies at the village level and judicial courts for legal relief.
In earlier times, Khaps were more inclusive and ‘Sarvkhaps’ comprised people of all castes and communities. Today, their realm is restricted to specific Jat community. They have succumbed to validating marriage practices on the basis of caste and religion in Haryana and parts of Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan. To be in the run they have opted more regressive measures which are highly undemocratic, oppressive and in conflict with the governing law.
Khaps are responsible for gender based inequality as the Hindu Succession (Amendment) Act 2005 was strongly opposed by them that ensured equal inheritance rights to women. Their reason behind such diktats is that the new law will empower other girls to oppose their patriarchy and demand share in ancestral property. Even marriages in same gotra are opposed due to this factor.
After measure statements and dictation on various issues regarding marriages and their outreaching support to honour killings has smashed their image. To clean the wounds, they have worn mask of socially responsible group by starting programmes against female foeticide and extravagant marriages. But it is unclear to me as whether these steps taken to lessen the male female ratio difference has shades of patriarchal greed as then men would not have to go out of the state in search for a bride or to increase chances of marriage for their middle aged sons?
Media’s coverage of such cases tends to be partial as it highlights only certain aspects or cases which suit their appetite for sensationalism. There is also a growing trend of joining the bandwagon in the media regarding selective cases of moral diktats whereas remaining blindfolded for the rest. Media tends to grasp only sensationalist and outrageous elements in cases as sensitive as rape, for example the entire ruckus over the Haryana Khap’s statement that eating chowmein and using cell phones are the major reasons for increasing number of rapes. Especially in broadcast media, the trend is much more stark and apparent as we the passive consumer of news are served with dramatic elements in the platter without even scratching the upper layer of patriarchy and castesim which is deeply prevalent in the society and is perhaps the reason why such bodies function smoothly despite warnings from the supreme court. We as consumers of media are deliberately given fences to choose between ‘us and ‘them’, where ‘them’ are the hilariously regressive panchayats and ‘us’ are the sensible lot. But in reality what media fails to highlight is the fact that roots of sexism, patriarchy and moral policing are found within ‘us’ as well. What media also resists showing is how these kangaroo courts exist in today’s 21st century despite tall claims made by all the major political parties regarding women safety and abolishment of such bodies. That how vote bank is the major reason popular figures such as Narendra Modi and Arvind Kejriwal too had to accept the existence of Khap as the ‘culture and heritage’ of Haryana.
Whereas, they deliberately avoid covering other such institutions which do not have any vested legal power and still function in a tyrannical manner. But there is another aspect to this as people fear social boycott and that is one of the primary reasons they vouch for their support. The basic idea of decentralisation and empowering people at ground level seems to be evading. Presently media hasn’t gone much underneath the surface to understand the concept and formation of social institutions and its implications.