The word Khap finds its mention in the Rig Veda. The origin of Khap can be traced back to 600 AD, when humans were engaged in nomadic life, with hunting and gathering as their profession. A group of wise and elderly men was chosen to dispense justice, within the clan. Subsequently, this practice continued and evolved into a rigid form such as Khap Panchayat.
Presently, it constitutes of people from dominant classes with socio-political and economic muscle, primarily the Jat community hailing from Rajasthan, Haryana, and western UP. The Jurisdiction of the Khaps varies from a single village, then to districts. The interesting thing is that these panchayats do not enjoy any legal or statutory backing but only social sanction. Khap panchayats can be termed as quasi-judicial bodies aiding and helping the community in dispute resolution and also protects the local customs of the distinct castes.
The main objective of the Khaps is to prevent marriages within the same Gotra (clan), and even within the same village. Moreover, different regions and social groups have their own distinct cultural-social rules and regulations. The Khap Panchayats act as an organized yet informal regulatory body, executing such rules.
Backing the Khap
The following can be described as some of the reasons why Khap Panchayats enjoy such power –
The feeling of unity, among the members of the same caste.
The problems and weaknesses, in the legal implementation of the 73rd and 74th Amendments, further add to the dominance of these informal social institutions, engaging themselves in illegal moral policing.
Vote bank politics and political opportunism of the parties to mess things up.
Caste-based Khaps and their brotherhood strengthens the Khaps and encourages their illegal practices.
Khap panchayats draw their power from the weakness of rural Panchayati Raj institutions. Moreover, the state of Haryana is worst hit by the menace of Khap Panchayats, because of their strong backing among the Jats of Haryana. Jats constitute about 29% of Haryana’s total population. The government too tends to ignore the immoral and illegal actions of the Khaps, in fear of losing the popular vote. Therefore, in the hinterland, the authority and dominance of the Khap Panchayats remain unchallenged and unquestioned.
The Ugly Face
Female Foeticide – The cases of female foeticide were alarming in the post-2000 years, and the role played by Khap Panchayats was very crucial. The state of Haryana was worst hit by the menace of female foeticide, with 722 females per 1000 males. The Khaps propagated the narrative that the girl child is a liability to the parents and the male child as an asset to the family. The birth of a girl child was considered to be a sin, so the normal citizenry resorted to killing the girl child, seriously damaging the sex ratio and gender demography.
Honor Killing – The couples who engaged themselves in intercaste and inter-religious marriages and that too without the consent of their communities and families are subjected to aggravated forms of harassment and barbarity. The females are raped, burned, and murdered by the pseudo-protectors of society in the name of saving family honor. Honor Killings are more prevalent in the villages of Punjab, Haryana, Rajasthan, and western UP.
Forced Marriages – When an individual marries another person, without free will and consent is termed as forced marriage. The khaps play a very important role in pressurizing the families and individuals to marry within the same caste. This pressure is followed by the threats of fear, abduction, coercion, and deception.
Supreme Court’s say on the Khap Panchayat
A PIL was filed by an NGO named Shakti Vahini in order to curb honor crimes. The Apex court ruled that adults are well within the right to marry someone of their choice, and no Khap panchayat can dictate their whims and fancies on any other individual. The bench comprised of Justice Dipak Mishra, Justice AM Khanwilkar, and DY Chandrachud, and ruled in favor of the right to choice of an individual to marry anyone, irrespective of caste and faith; the bench also ruled that the consent of the family and community is not necessary for marriage.
The court also took cognizance of the rising number of cases of Honour Killing and directed the Central government to come up with a statute minimizing the dominance of the Khap panchayats as the illegal quasi-judicial body invariably curbs individual’s, freedom and choice enshrined in Article 19 and 21 of the Indian Constitution. The Apex court also issued guidelines for the protection of inter-faith and inter-religious couples till the time the Government does not enact a proper statute, the court directed the state government to identify the districts worst hit by the menace of the Khap Panchayats.
Moreover, the Police should take note of any instance of inter-caste or inter-religious marriages. The District Magistrate/ superintendent of police should deal with the utmost sensitivity and provide accommodation for nominal charges. The court also held that any case of Honour killing must be dealt with by fast-track courts.
Arguments made by the Khaps
Hindu Marriage Act prohibits the marriage between two individuals of the same gotra or union between sapinda relationships i.e. close blood relationships among the Hindus. But the court rejected their contention and said that the right to marry an individual of his choice is a fundamental right within the folds of Article 21 of the Constitution, and the Khaps cannot decide as to which marriage is legitimate and which is not. If at all there is a case of marriage among sapinda relationships, the court is to decide.
Instances of Khap Brutality
Mehrana Killing 1991 – In western UP, one Jat girl married a Jaatav Dalit with the aid and help of the boy’s friend. The village people caught all the three, and the Khap panchayat ordered the execution of all three, and the verdict was implemented, as the three of them were hanged in front of the village.
Honor Killing of a Journalist – In Jharkhand, a 22-year-old woman journalist of Brahmin caste who loved a man from Dalit origin was brutally murdered following the order of the village Panchayat in front of the whole village.
Murder of Ved Pal and Sonia – Ved Pal was a medical practitioner, who fell in love with Sonia who belonged to the adjoining village, and as per the Jat tradition, villages who share land boundaries cannot have matrimonial relations, irrespective of their gotras. The two got married and were given armed protection too, but the Khap Panchayat viewed them as the carrier of dishonor and ordered to kill them. Subsequently, both of them were murdered despite police protection in order to restore the honor of the families.
All these incidents show the extent to which the Khap Panchayats exercise their terror in the hinterland of rural India, especially in the state of Haryana, Rajasthan, and western UP. The failure of the competent State authorities and system too emboldens these Kangaroo Courts.
In Lakshmi Kachhwaha v. State of Rajasthan, the court ruled in response to a PIL filed that these caste panchayats and maha-panchayat have no jurisdiction or authority to order social boycott or banishment, as these measures violate the fundamental rights enshrined in the Indian Constitution.
In Sujit Kumar v. State of UP, the court criticized the role played by police and bureaucracy and their failure in curbing the atrocities and violence committed by the khap panchayats in the name of traditions and honor.
In Armugam Servai v. State of Tamil Nadu, the court ruled that the khap panchayat’s role in the honor killing of boys and girls who marry outside the caste or inter-religious marriage is highly questionable and deplorable. The judgment categorically said that these extra-judicial verdicts of khaps are wholly illegal and ruthless.
I am against justice whenever it is carried out by a mob.
Mokokoma Mokhonoana, Philosopher and a Social Critic
The Khap Panchayats in ancient and medieval times were quasi-judicial, organized, and informal regulatory bodies that helped and aided the society in dispute resolutions. The Khaps also prevented invasions, fought battles, and ruled the rural hinterland of the country. However, many khap Panchayats are also engaged in positive activism, like Jind’s Khera Khap, recently decided not to use caste or surname in order to do away with caste-based discrimination.
But still, the need of the hour is to eradicate the rigidity of this system, which is entrenched deep in rural society and polity. A uniform definition of honor killing will help in eliminating vagueness and ambiguity and curb the diktats by Khaps. Subsequently, amending the Indian Penal Code to include the crime of honor killing with strict punitive measures. Our Indian Constitution and its golden triangle i.e. Articles 14, 19,21 gives every individual freedom and choice. Therefore, the constitution must be respected and followed by all, and required reforms must be implemented.
The common citizen should also, question the authority of these kangaroo courts, as to who gives them the license to make choice for someone else’s life. This perpetual injustice inflicted by the Khap Panchayat must be checked and corrected but achieving this goal will require something more than just legal jargon but on the contrary a people’s revolution.
Editor’s Note The article talks in length about Khap Panchayats and the menace that has been caused by them. There are certain cases taken into account which resulted in violence and crimes. The author explains the rulings given by the court in a few cases. The article concludes with the solution that there is an immediate need to eradicate the Panchayats that take up honor killing and other crimes to get things done according to them.