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Cover Story

Caste in the stone age

The writ of khap panchayats in Haryana overruns the Constitution in more ways than one. ‘Honour killings’ and caste violence have their choicest blessings...

Ever heard of a body that can not only annul a marriage but also convert husband and wife into brother and sister? Well, an extra-constitutional authority called khap panchayat has been traditionally allowed to exercise such extraordinary powers, destroying families and claiming the lives of innocent couples. And, thanks to the cowardice of the political class, khap panchayats - medieval caste institutions found mostly in Haryana, western Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan - are now also beginning to look like super legislatures.

For, in deference to the numerical strength of khap panchayats, politicians did not dare protest any violation of the freedom to marry a person of one's choice. If anything, former chief minister of Haryana, Om Prakash Chautala, supported their demand to amend the Hindu Marriage Act providing a statutory backing to their traditional ban on marriages within the same gotra and within the same village.

The contention of these retrograde elements is that any marriage that takes place in violation of their restrictions should be deemed to be between brother and sister. Their anxiety to prevent incest is however gratuitous as the law already deals with it adequately through the concept of 'sapinda' (third generation in the line of ascent through mother and fifth in the line of ascent through father). The khap panchayat notion of extending prohibited relationships to the whole gotra and the whole village creates a category of people running into thousands or even lakhs.

Though khap panchayats have traditionally engaged in honour killings in the course of their vigilantism, the judiciary got the full measure of this crime for the first time only on March 30, when it imposed death sentence on five perpetrators and life sentence on one khap member for the double murder in 2007 of Manoj and Babli, a newly married couple belonging to the same gotra in Kaithal. The couple was murdered even after being provided security by the court. If the pattern of impunity in honour killings ended with this one, it is thanks to the exceptional courage displayed by Manoj's mother Chanderpati and the trial judge Vani Gopal Sharma. Thanks to the clout wielded by khap panchayats, Sharma was subsequently forced to seek a transfer fearing for her life.

Besides breaking marriages, khap panchayats have a record of instigating caste atrocities against Dalits. One such case came to light last month in a Haryana village called Mirchpur where Jats, jealous of the growing prosperity of Dalits, especially Valmikis, allegedly engineered an arson attack in which 18 houses of the targeted community were destroyed and, worse, a man and his polio-stricken daughter were burnt alive.

Mercifully, this incident provoked an unusually angry reaction from the political establishment. Congress chief Sonia Gandhi sent a stinker to Haryana chief minister B S Hooda saying it was a "matter of shame and horror" that such an incident occurred at all, that too in the presence of the police. "This cannot be allowed to pass without firm and severe action against those responsible for the crime, " Sonia thundered. Equally significant, her intervention was followed by a visit to Mirchpur by Rahul Gandhi. It is just as well that the first family of the Congress responded to the Mirchpur tragedy as the 20-year-old atrocities law, which is a legacy of Rajiv Gandhi, has been subverted across the nation by local authorities through errors of omission and commission.

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