The Khap that wasn’t

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In another episode of media excess, a family dispute was twisted into a Khap diktat by a TRP-hungry news channel, Soumik Mukherjee finds out

Fired up Muhakkam Pehelwan addressing a rally at the village mosque
Fired up Muhakkam Pehelwan addressing a rally at the village mosque
Photo: Soumik Mukherjee

LAST WEEK, television news channels reported the story of a Khap decision in Asara village, in Uttar Pradesh’s Baghpat district, banning young girls from using mobile phones and marrying out of love. It also reported that girls in the village were barred from going to the local market without a male escort. In reality, the ‘Khap’ was held by two villagers in their late 40s, Muhakkam Pehelwan and Mujahid, and a few others.

Five days after the diktats were issued, a group of young girls was standing at a village bus stand, talking on their mobile phones. Some young boys passing by in a tractor took digs at each other. “Don’t take out that phone,” said a 20-year-old youngster to his friend, “or you’ll be thrown out of the village.” And then, they all burst out laughing. For a village that had issued tough diktats on women, the atmosphere was surprisingly relaxed.

The puzzling difference between what was reported and what actually took place in the village is best explained by two local journalists. A stringer of a news channel, on the condition of anonymity, says the whole thing was a small affair that no one in the media cared to report about. A small gathering of villagers had met initially to sort out a family quarrel that arose out of a love marriage between an already-married woman and her neighbour. The couple was asked to leave the village to avoid any ugly scenarios. It was not until a few days later, on 11 July, that it turned into a ‘Khap Panchayat’.

Shockingly, the journalist says the meeting was orchestrated at the TV crews’ behest after they missed the original gathering of villagers. “They were saying what we wanted them to say. Let them,” he says. TEHELKA couldn’t verify these claims independently. But if true, it’s plausible that the Panchayat members, playing to the gallery, went overboard and issued the set of diktats that included, inter alia, the banning of mobile phones for women below 40. But Asara has not always been like this.

“You cannot expect this place to be as liberal as a city, but girls are relatively free here,” says Zil-E-Deen, a village elder. The Panchayat’s decision is barely reflected in the people’s interactions. Some even criticise it. “Many girls from our villages go to colleges in nearby towns. The diktat was unwarranted,” says Younus, another village elder. Afsana, 21, nods in agreement. “I don’t own a mobile phone so there is no question of flaunting one. But if people have phones, they will flaunt them. What’s wrong with that?” she asks.

Interestingly, Muhakkam Pehelwan, one of the men who called the panchayat that imposed the bans, had contested for the post of the village head and lost. Says Avinash Kumar Misra, Circle Officer, Baraut, that includes Asara: “Muhakkam lost the post of the village head, so these actions are definitely a way to gain popularity among the community.”

But, the issue has now spiralled out of the village’s control. On 14 July, in a meeting called by Muhakkam and Mujahid at the village mosque, Yashpal Malik, president of the Akhil Bharatiya Jat Sangrakshan Sangharsh Samiti (ABJSSS), addressed a crowd. “We support the villagers’ decision of imposing the bans,” he said. People cheered the declaration. Some were even vociferous in their support, including the 20-year-old boy, who had earlier joked about it.

The leaders were scathing of the media, for trying to harm the reputation of the Muslim Jat community. “Whoever takes a stand against these decisions is trying to harm the Jat culture,” added Malik.

In an obvious jibe at Union Home Minister P Chidambaram’s comments condemning the bans, ABJSSS member Satpal Chowdhary remarked that no “lungi-wearing outsider” had the right to defy measures taken to save the “honour” of women.

The Rashtriya Lok Dal (RLD) also supported the banishment. Jayant Choudhary, RLD MP from Mathura and son of RLD chief and Union Civil Aviation Minister Ajit Singh, has said that it was merely a matter of solving a family issue and the panchayat members are right in their stand. But stage-managed by a section of the media in need of TRP ratings, a simple family matter has been made out to be a “national” issue.

Soumik Mukherjee is a Photo Correspondent with Tehelka.
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