People's Democracy

(Weekly Organ of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)


Vol. XXXIII

No. 31

August 02, 200

HARYANA

 

Recent Depredations of Caste Panchayats and Their Implications

 

Inderjeet Singh

 

HARYANA is once again in the news. Not as before when the gold medal winning women’s hockey team had as many as four players from Haryana. Those who have seen the well known movie Chak De India know this fact. Haryana is not in the news because of someone like Vijender who won a medal for the country at the Beijing Olympics. Not for someone like Kalpana Chawla either. If Haryana recently got prominence in the news headlines and editorials in TV channels and newspapers, it was for a barbaric act which has lowered the state’s image at the national as well as international level. The reason is some latest decisions by the casteist khap panchayats in the state.  

 

GURADIANS(!)

OF TRADITION

The fatwas issued by these self-declared guardians of tradition and custom have pushed into the background all the excruciating issues like the attack of the drought, the price rise issue, the shortage of water and power, and many other things.

One among the latest acts of these khap panchayats is that a panchayat in Dharana village of Jhajjhar district has ordered several innocent families to go out of the village. But still more heinous was the ruthless murder of a youth, Ved Paul, in Singhwal village of Jind district, on the order of a khap panchayat.

Though these acts have been the talking points in the media, the latter have displayed an imbalance in their reporting of the khap panchayats and their actions. In fact, their reporting has concentrated only on the oppressors and the victims, totally ignoring the mass organisations and progressive individuals who are fighting for justice for the oppressed. As a result, many people inside the state and outside, who are anxious over the latest series of events, are much in dark about but eager to know what the status of rule of law in Haryana is.

A crucial point about the media reports is that they have created a degree of misunderstanding and confusion by telling that the Dharana and Singhwal episodes were centred on the same-gotra marriages. Thus, despite their sincere intentions, the media have helped only the autocratic institutions like the khap panchayats whom they have been correctly depicting as villains.

In fact, the whole discourse raises a number of burning questions which demand consideration and a response, so that there is outlined a strategy to take on the reactionary forces who have been activated by a medieval mentality and who have of late got a new strength. This is posing a big challenge to the democratic movement which has indeed done something to identify the threat, but only of an elementary type. The interventions made by the democratic movement whenever similar episodes took lace in the past were no doubt positive, and the consensus evolved among some organisations and individuals is that piecemeal resistance is not enough; rather the threat demands serious initiatives on a sustained basis.

First of all, one must be absolutely clear about the fact that a same-gotra marriage was not the real cause of dispute in all such cases, though the easy-going media have propagated this very theory. The issue is not as simple as it is presented to be. Whether it is a lack of serious homework or a competition to sensationalise the issue, several reporters have put these cases as ones of inter-caste marriage while others are saying that a khap has issued a fatwa following a person’s marriage within one’s own gotra (clan).       

 

REVIVALISM

ON RAMPAGE

Though a small state, Haryana has its own peculiarities and diversities. Mainly an agricultural state, it is now an example of distorted and imbalanced development with the economic and regional disparities. The state has an ultra-modern physical infrastructure but, at the same time, it suffers from extreme backwardness in the socio-cultural field. This is a peculiar feature of Haryana’s distorted development and gets reflected in all the aspects of collective life. If Gurgaon has dazzling high-rise buildings and malls, the adjacent area of Mewat at only five kilometres presents a pathetic sight. It is no exaggeration to say that these are two quite distinct worlds.  

This does not mean that these two worlds are separated by a Chinese wall and don’t impact each other. Modern gadgets and the means of mass communication have to an extent changed the life styles and modes of thinking. But the pace of change at the socio-cultural level is quite slow in comparison to that of material change. Capitalist development has created its own problems and the wave of senseless consumerism under the recent processes of neo-liberalism has created a set of negative influences. It is thus that the so-called modern value system, being a distorted and retrograde system, cannot be an alternative to the feudal value system. On the other hand, reform movements have been quite weak in this area, while the still weak democratic movement in the state is unable to channelise the sense of discontent and resistance which the neo-liberal wave is generating. It is in such a situation that the forces of casteism and communalism have become hyperactive to exploit this discontent. It is they who are, in order to reinforce the revivalist tendencies, dubbing the rottening customs and traditions as culture and thus legitimising the inegalitarian and oppressive relationships of caste, community, gotra and gender.

This is one aspect of the situation. The other aspect is that the processes of modernity as well as democratic system, education, modern transport, new techniques etc have created the objective ground for positive changes too. Dependence on one’s caste and community has declined and there has been an increase in self-consciousness at the level of individual and family. The tendency to vote for a candidate of one’s own choice instead of doing the bidding of some local bigwig has got strengthened. Women are getting a new consciousness. Some awareness is there in dalit sections as well. Now, if we view the recent episodes involving the khap panchayats in this whole socio-economic context, we come to the conclusion that it is a crisis of their identity. The older identities based on a group of villages, a village a caste or a gotra are getting dimmed, and being replaced by more egalitarian, forward looking, modern identities. But this also means that the position of the traditionally dominant sections is now shaky and the social and economic privileges they have been enjoying so far are now under threat. But these sections are also an integral art of the mainstream politics and have been benefiting from this brand of politics. In this way, the political leadership representing the ruling classes and the extra-legal, casteist khap panchayats are in fact parts of the same discourse of power.

There was a time a marriage was not seen as an individual’s or a family’s affair, but concerned a whole community. The gotra and caste stipulations associated with a marriage relation were meant to maintain the working of the village community itself. These stipulations have also been associated with certain compulsory rites and rituals. But the recent changes in the people’s life styles are also making these rites and rituals increasingly irrelevant. Some of the social groups have rejected certain rituals and some have modified them to an extent. It is thus that old customs go out of vogue and new ones take their place, and the process goes on. For example, a ban on marriage within one’s three gotras has been relaxed, and people have begun to ignore the gotras of a candidate’s maternal and paternal grand mothers. But no permission for these changes were taken from the khaps. People themselves made the change, as deciding about a marriage relation has become extremely difficult because of the existence of several gotras in a single village. The families or the youth having a marriage tie of their choice are increasingly exercising their legal rights.

Thus has there emerged a contradiction between the traditional stipulations and constitutional rights. This has created maximum pressure upon the institution of marriage and changes have become necessary therein.       

 

THE NEED

OF THE DAY

But now there exists an atmosphere of fear for the young boys and girls who are willing to exercise their right to have a life partner of their choice. However, whether the threat comes from the casteist khap panchayats or from one’s parents, the basic question is of the mentality that is in action now. Youth are being murdered in the name of family honour. Some of them commit suicide under mental pressure.

One needs to deeply ponder the comments made by the Punjab and Haryana High Court last year when it heard together several petitions filed by some newly wed couples demanding protection. The judge said a marriage is an occasion of utmost joy for a newly wed couple but now they are seeking a refuge in the lawyers’ chambers or courtrooms, lest their relatives or the police get hold of them and kill them. It further said the government and its administration are now sitting idle as mute spectators. The court opined that there is the need of creating a sensitised system so that those marrying by law are able to get protection.

It is an irony that a prosperous state like Haryana is facing an agrarian crisis, unemployment, malnutrition and other such problems. Social ills like foeticide, dowry and drug addiction are increasingly getting severe. A recent survey says 80 per cent of the children and more than 70 per cent of the women here are suffering from anaemia. But, instead of fighting these problems and ills, people are harassing and raining stones on the houses of innocent families in the name of so-called honour. A fatwa is issued that a young couple must dissolve their own marriage. The High Court sends a warrant officer and police force to reclaim a captive girl, and yet her husband is murdered on the spot in the presence of these very officials who were meant to protect him. It is notable that in March, a gotra panchayat had met in Narwana village, objected to Ved Paul’s marriage with Sonia, and publicly issued a death sentence for the couple.

This is an excruciating situation. All the thinking and justice loving people will have to ponder over it, as the threat is not only to a few lives but to our very civil liberties and democratic institutions. The chief minister and the leaders of the major parties are silent and shirking their constitutional obligations by dubbing such disputes as only a social issue. The executive is thus resorting to an extreme degree of opportunism. But the judiciary has its own limitations in such a system. Thus, there is no alternative to vigorous social intervention. The need of the day is that we adopt a firm stand on all such issues, forge a powerful movement to raise these social issues, isolate the vested interests who are active in the name of khap panchayats, and effect basic changes in the people’s thinking and behaviour.