‘Their battle is a glorious one’


Filmmaker Nakul Singh Sawhney believes the Khaps have reason to fear their immoral daughters. Nishita Jha finds out why

Trapped no more A still from Izzatnagari Ki Asabhya Betiyaan
Trapped no more: A still from Izzatnagari Ki Asabhya Betiyaan

ALL DAUGHTERS are not the same,” an old man leans forward, “some understand honour. Others want to live without social rules — like animals,” he smiles. The ‘Khap’ (a cluster of anything from 7 to 90 villages that falls under a group of dominant caste leaders) has acquired sinister overtones. FTII graduate Nakul Singh Sawhney’s 90-minute long documentary Izzatnagari Ki Asabhya Betiyaan undertones, the voices of the women whose lives the Khaps have long defined.

The central narrative of Izzatnagari is how Jat and Haryanvi women resist the ideologies thrust on them. There are the feisty students in Delhi, who use theatre and academics to destabilise patriarchy. There are women who lend strength to organised struggles through institutes like All India Democratic Women’s Association (AIDWA). And then there are Chanderpati and Seema, the surviving relatives of Manoj, who was killed along with his wife Babli by Khap ideologues and policemen, for marrying within his gotra, or caste lineage. Manoj’s only family lives in the heart of Haryana, and have taken it upon themselves to take their murderers to court. The backlash has been furious — Babli’s parents imposed a social and economic boycott on the two — anyone seen speaking to them would be fined Rs 25,000. The two live under police protection in their village but refuse to give up.

As Sawhney’s camera enters the lives of the women whose stories the news glosses over, cracks appear in the ossified institution of the Khap panchayat. “The media represents these women as hapless, rural folk fighting a losing battle,” says Sawhney, “Only when I met them did I realise their battle is a glorious one.” A telling example is that of Mukesh, a young woman who waited in the next room while her male relatives discussed possible ways to kill her once they gained knowledge of her inter-caste affair. It was only when Mukesh swore she wanted a life of independence, without the boy, that they settled for disowning her instead.

Sawhney interviews several Khap leaders who share their views on upholding caste norms. Among the provocations that cause women to stray, they list co-educational institutes, televisions and cell phones. “Parents could think their daughter is asleep while she is using a cell phone to speak to a boy. How can this be allowed?” a leader asks with desperation in his voice.

Says Sawhney, “The Khaps rely on young Jat boys to provide their muscle for their ideologies, so the battle must be fought by the women. It is their sexualities that are oppressed, because a woman who chooses her partner can also start demanding her property rights.”

The threat of divided land is the most unifying principle of Khaps, whose messages can be dull and deathly. The fulgent voice of Izzatnagari that crackles through their tedium belongs to a schoolgirl in Haryana, a beti not yet asabhya. Her hands tremble but her gaze is steady. “They expect us to do as they say — go to school, come home, get married, stay silent. If they treated us like equals, gave us the freedom we deserve, we’d have no trouble protecting their honour,” she says, ending with the tiniest of smiles.

Nisita Jha is a Correspondent with Tehelka.


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