The rope runs out for Khaps

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With the Supreme Court ruling Khap panchayats unconstitutional, it is now time to get rid of these institutions

By Ranjana kumari
Delhi

Illustration: Anand Naorem

IT WAS barely a week ago that two women were brutally murdered in Bhiwani district of Haryana on the pretext of saving the community’s honour. These women were alleged lovers. Within hours, organisations and important public figures condemned the killings and the community, once again bringing the issue of honour killings and the role of Khap panchayats under scrutiny.

A Khap consists of 84 villages. Although Khap panchayat rulings have no legal validity, their presence in Haryana, UP and Rajasthan have been the subject of much debate as agents primarily responsible for conducting honour killings. Functioning as parallel courts, these medieval entities govern social norms and pronounce verdicts in contravention of modern laws. The justice meted out by these bodies has been compared to Taliban-type kangaroo courts. The comparison is not entirely true but to pass verdicts on people and act as prosecutors and judges in many cases without legal authority should not be possible in this era.

According to a study, 1,000 honour killings take place each year due to Khap panchayat judgments. Unsurprisingly, a majority of these deaths occur in Haryana. It also explains the irrational patriarchy that promotes female foeticide in the state, leading to a decline in the female sex ratio to 877 per 1,000 males. The political and juridical power wielded by Khaps end up affecting socio-economic situation of rural citizens, especially women. Some schools are even forced to have separate timings for boys and girls. In many instances, girls are not allowed to go to school. It is common practice to feed pesticide pills to teenaged girls and then dispose of their bodies by burning them. There are no police records of these deaths.

Ironically, Khap leaders of Haryana and Punjab, who violently prohibit samegotra marriages, are from areas where a shortage of girls has forced brides to be sourced from states like Jharkhand. Women are not the only ones affected by Khaps. In April 2007, head of the Daadan Khap, Tewa Singh, banned playing and watching cricket in 28 villages in Jind district.

Influential Khaps also have a say in who gets what kinds of jobs. Consequently, women are often left out, thereby stripping them of a chance to achieve financial independence. Despite such instances, there is still no law against Khaps. Many officials and politicians, including Haryana Chief Minister BS Hooda, prefer to be quiet, fearing a backlash from voters.

Pesticide pills are fed to teenaged girls and their bodies disposed of by burning them

In a landmark judgment in March 2010, a Karnal sessions court condemned five people to death for killing a young couple — Manoj and Babli — at the behest of the Khap panchayat, for marrying within the same gotra and village. The panchayat expressed its support for the guilty and asked villagers to contribute Rs 10 per household to help appeal against the sentence. On 13 April the same year, 20 Khap leaders met at a mahapanchayat in Kurukshetra to work out a common strategy to protect their social customs and insulate them against reforms. A resolution was passed to press for an amendment of the Hindu Marriage Act, which would safeguard the right to contract marriages as enjoined by tradition, and presumably punish those who dare flout convention.

Against this backdrop, the recent declaration by the Supreme Court that Khap panchayats are unconstitutional comes as a much-needed relief. However, the apex court needs to do more than condemn. It must oversee steps taken by state governments to disable the Khaps. It is also anticipated that the monsoon session of Parliament will introduce an amendment to the IPC that defines honour killings as an act of murder. Unfortunately, several groups are already mobilising support in various states to build pressure on MPs to stall the Bill. For the sake of preventing further deaths, the SC and state governments have to remain firm in their stance.

Ranjana Kumari is Director, Centre for Social Research.
[email protected]

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