Mainstream Weekly

Home > Archives (2006 on) > 2010 > Khap Panchayats: Need to Review their Role in Society

Mainstream, Vol XLVIII, No 30, July 17, 2010

Khap Panchayats: Need to Review their Role in Society

Thursday 22 July 2010, by R.S. Dahiya


The issue of same-gotra marriages is regularly in the news these days. Hardly a day passes without a news item about the developments surrounding this issue. Statements from the Gotra Khap Panchayats and Sarv Khap Panchayat spearheading the movement for a change in the Hindu Marriage Act 1955, as also the reactions of the political parties and individual politicians of the State of Haryana have been almost a daily occurrence in the recent past. Sometime back the Arya Pratinidhi Sabha, Haryana and the Vishwa Hindu Parishad too came out openly in support of the stand being taken by these Panchayats. The issue must be addressed, of course, but there is an urgent need to look at it from an objective point of view, also taking into account the historical background, without any ideological or sentimental blinkers.

To begin with, a distinction needs to be made between the Gotra Khap Panchayats and Sarv Khap Panchayats. A Gotra Khap Panchayat is comprised of representatives of a particular gotra (in broad terms, a sub-division of a caste group—for instance, the Dahiya gotra or Khap within the larger category of Jats) spread over a widespread geographical area. A Sarv Khap Panchayat is a broader category, for it would comprise representatives of all gotras within the larger caste group.

The Sarv-Khap (or all-Khap) Panchayats (Councils) have admittedly had a positive role to play in the times gone by. The individual Khaps would elect (nominate) leaders who would send delegates to represent the Khaps at the Sarv-Khap level. This socio-political organisation represented all the Khaps and all the people, irrespective of caste and creed, in its area of influence. In this sense one can say that these Councils had an all-inclusive character, though in a limited sense even it is difficult to say that they had a democratic ethos of their own. These Khap Panchayats are also said to have played a meaningful role in various socio-cultural issues in the historical past—but this is an issue best left to the historians to dwell upon in greater detail. It is significant that these Panchayats probably go far back into history. That, however, is not as important as the nature of issues on which they were, and have been, active. [Reference: Wikipedia—The free Encyclopedia] In terms of authenticity, historians can better examine these claims.

OUR concern, however, is the present, and any contemporary evaluation of these Panchayats has to take into account their interventions on socio-cultural issues in modern times, as also the fact that we are now living not in feudal times but in the period of a democratic polity. I have not had the opportunity of access to any written documents (if available) but have heard of three major gatherings in modern times that can be said to have had wider socio-cultural significance of a positive nature. I have heard of a Panchayat (exact banner not to my knowledge) in village Barona in district Rohtak in 1911 on the issue of education in the area now known as Haryana—an effort that led to the establishment, over a period of time, of the Jat educational institutions in Rohtak. There was, then, a gathering in the sixties of the twentieth century in village Sisana regarding over-the-top expenditures, size of baraats and number of days spent on celebrations in marriages. And then a people’s revolt in Pipli near Kharkhauda (Sonipat) against atrocities related to forced family-planning during the Emergency. Apart from these three major gatherings revolving round issues of great social significance, I have not heard of any other such gatherings that have taken up issues of such scale and significance in the modern times. (It needs to be added that I really can’t say for sure if all of these were Sarv Khap, or Gotra Panchayats or gatherings on an occasion in an adhoc manner.) This, though, can be said—that in the past, these had been bodies of a very adhoc nature. Even now these do not have a well-oiled organisation—rather, they still retain their broadly ad hoc nature. When the all-inclusive nature got reduced to Gotra Panchayats is beyond my exploration.

If we take a view of the last 20 years or so, the issue that overwhelmingly dominates the Gotra Panchayats is that of gotra marriages, and the role of these Panchayats has not really measured up to the demands of the age in which we live. Examples abound with controversies that have become one with the names of the villages involved: Jaundhi, Assandha, Nayabas, Ladawas, Badhra, Dharana, Singhwal—the list can be extended. In all these cases the brunt of the ire has been borne by the couples involved who, while exercising their choice of a life-partner, apparently went against the ‘age-old customs and traditions’ at whose altar these Gotra Panchayats pay their obeisance. The ouster of 21-year-old Karambir and 19-year-old Pooja from village Sundana (around 15 kilometres from Jhajjar) just because they belonged to neighbouring villages; the murder of Vikas of Panipat; the ordeal that Kavita had to go through are just some of these instances. Things came to such a pass that there were threats of social boycott of the parties involved, families were forced out of villages, and married couples were given diktats to treat each other as brother and sister (in one case even after they had had a child!). There have also been honour-killings on which these Panchayats kept silent at the time of their occurrence.. Those active in these Gotra Panchayats extol the dignified and valorous role of their ancestors in Sarv Khap Panchayats in the times gone by. One wonders how they have stooped to the level of endorsing these acts of violent retaliation, both physical and mental, that go against the very grain of a humane existence for which those ancestors of ours are said to have struggled. No wonder, these acts have been widely criticised and looked down upon by all sane members of civil society, for they reek of an authoritarian streak not in consonance with the democratic ethos.

Let us examine the issue a bit closely. Customs and traditions, the necessity to maintain them so that the fabric of society sustains, is one of the major arguments brought forth by those supporting these Khap Panchayats—as if customs and traditions and society are something uninfluenced by the passage of changing times, irrevocable, unchangeable, cast in stone. This is a specious argument that is not likely to stand the test of reason. One can point to customs and traditions that have undergone change—at times drastic change, change that at first sight must have looked earth-shaking—and yet life moves on as before, society re-shapes and re-invigorates itself, sustains itself in ever new ways; the design may have changed but the fabric sustains. Just to take a few examples—there has been, in Haryana, and in Panjab too, the tradition of “latta udhaana” (a widow being given in marriage to her husband’s brother). Now we hear of this being done but rarely. Tradition dictates a thirteen-day mourning on the death of someone—at places this has come down to four days, and yet this does not mean the sadness is any the less than before. In times immemorial, marriage within the tribe was the custom—this is still so at many places but at others it has changed too. There are now also instances of the bride being brought to her in-laws’ immediately after ‘chunni udhaai’, thereby foregoing the traditional custom of taking seven rounds of the ‘holy fire’.

These instances might seem to be ‘trivial’ to some. But there are more substantial examples—examples that come closer to the crux of the issue at stake. Among the Jats, earlier, the tradition was to avoid seven gotras for marriage. Over a period of time this number came down to four—of the father, mother, maternal grandmother, and the paternal grandmother. Now, at places, even the gotra of the maternal grandmother is not left out when considering a proposal for marriage. And many—probably most—of us have accepted this. The same is the case with what are known as bhaichara gotras [the social restriction on marrying into any of the gotras which have bhaichara (brotherhood) with each other—Ohlan, Tehlan and Ahlawat bhaichara]. Exigencies of time, place and circumstance have brought about these changes in customs and traditions. The socio-cultural transformation that the processes of industrialisation, urbanisation, increased mobility of people, break-up of the joint family system have brought about, is the real cause of these changes. The wheel of historical change re-shapes and re-moulds life.

Customs and traditions are thus not to be treated as being a given, ever-constant category that brook no change. An insistence on not to change a tradition or a custom just because it has been there for the last countless years is not a cogent argument. Neither is this a convincing argument that a tradition should remain as it is because a change can disturb the tranquil waters of society. Let us not forget that society is a living organism, and has the strength and capacity to find a new, healthy balance.

Community and the Individual—How these Khaps React

AT the centre of these developments is another important issue—the democratic right of an individual to choose his or her life-partner. Honour-killing in the name of tradition is a heinous crime in this age of the liberal-democratic ethos. It is sad but true that the Khap Panchayats have been supportive of these killings—they have been forced to change their stand and criticise such acts only belatedly under the pressure of civil society. The patriarchal-feudal mindset wishes that it be followed in unswerving obedience – its writ has to run. No voice of dissent is to be allowed – custom and tradition is the shield for defence, it is the cloak that conceals the real mindset. The new wave of young blood, gradually becoming aware of its individual space, influenced as it is by the winds of change brought about by the democratic ethos and liberalisation, is learning to take its own decisions. The right to vote at 18—why not the right to choose your own partner at the legally prescribed age? And there lies the story of two mindsets pitted against each other in the backdrop of a society struggling to emerge from its earlier avatar. The individual’s right at a legally prescribed age should be respected.

This assertion of a legal right has been taken to mean that the youth today has gone out of bounds, that it is unbridled in its choices and acts. This, however, is not the whole truth. There is another side to it too. When the occasion arises, today’s youth does act with responsibility and dignity. For instance, with the advent of the age of liberalisation in the early 1990s, doubts were sometimes expressed as to how patriotic the youth of today is. Kargil, however, proved beyond doubt that the outer trappings of the individualistic liberal ethos have not had any negative effect on our youth in this regard. In a similar vein, by and large, the youth of the Jat heartland, the area in which issues revolving round gotra-marriages have been recurring over the last few years, are cognisant that the custom of marriage within the gotra does not enjoy socio-cultural acceptance, and I am pretty sure that they would not like to cross into forbidden territory. Exceptions, though, will always be there, and they should be treated as such.

For a society to move ahead, a certain degree of elasticity is required on matters that do call for reasonable mutual adjustment in tune with the times. In sharp contrast to the hardened stance taken by the Khap Panchayats within Haryana, within the Jat community we have examples of flexibility too in the context of customs and traditions related to marriage. And we need to learn from them rather than castigate them. This flexibility is to be seen, for instance, in the context of the contentious issue of the Kheda Gotra (that is, the majority gotra in, say, a village ‘A’). Along with the Kheda Gotra (majority gotra) there may be many other gotras in the same village. A boy of Kheda Gotra can marry a girl from another village belonging to other gotras of village ‘A’. But a boy from other gotras of village ‘A’ cannot marry a girl from another village belonging to Kheda Gotra of village ‘A’. There are, however, villages in Haryana where this taboo has been done away with. One such instance is that of village Samchana with more than 15 gotras. Girls from other villages, from any of these gotras, are allowed marriage in Samchana amongst gotras other than their own. Another such example is that of village Guga Heri in which a lot of Dalal families are there. From Mandothi (a Dalal village) many girls are married in Guga Heri in families of other gotras. Given these examples, the question raised in a news item on village Dharana a few years back—‘Shilpa, should we call you Bahu or Beti?’—looks a non-issue. This also raises the question—if it is acceptable in these villages for a girl from outside to marry someone from a gotra other than her own, why can’t a girl from the village itself marry someone within the village belonging to a gotra other than her own? Why can’t something that is already happening in cities also be allowed in villages? In fact, it is already happening in some villages too. In the village Chautala, to marry within the village is not considered taboo, as is the case in other parts of Haryana. About 200 couples have reportedly married within this village over a period of time. (See The Times of India dated April 27, 2010—the report ‘Chautala defies Khap, allows marriage in same village’) This is just one of such villages in Sirsa, Hisar and Fatehabad districts of Haryana. Notably enough, Late Ch. Devi Lal, the ex-Deputy Prime Minister of India, belonged to this village. It is quite obvious that these villages have adopted a flexible approach in such matters—and they have been none the worse for it.

It would appear from the posturing and arguments put forth by those active in the present-day Khap Panchayats as if what they say is an incontrovertible truth with no—or very few—exceptions. The examples quoted above, however, force us to pause and ponder a bit: the customs and traditions that are the custom and traditions for these Panchayats are not really being followed across the board by all. (There is also a possibility that the number of instances that I have given above might well increase if a serious research is undertaken to unravel the reality.) Given this fact, the demand for a change in the Hindu Marriage Act of 1955 on this basis gives a strong impression that these forces are arrogating to themselves the power to decide for all—even for those who follow different customs and traditions. And let us not forget that when we speak of Haryana, it is not just the Jats that constitute it—there are other communities too whose customs and traditions may well be at variance with those being cited by these Khap Panchayats. What would their fate be if the demand for change in certain sections of the Act is met?

Khap Panchyats, Gotra Marriage and Genetics

APART from the issue of marriage within village and amongst the bhaichara gotras, the second major issue—that of marriage within the gotra—is usually brought up not just as a part of the larger argument on customs and traditions but also in the context of aspects related to genetics. One does, though, get the feeling that this is brought in to act like a fig leaf so as to cover up the weakness of the larger argument. Marriage within the same gotra, it is said, would lead to problems related to health on account of issues related to genetics. Though not an expert on genetics, I can say with a certain level of confidence that I have not come across any study of same-gotra marriages in Haryana, based upon which anything can be said either way. I am not at all saying that same-gotra marriages should be encouraged but I do believe that the scientific view be taken into account on the basis of the information we have on studies of first-cousin marriages the world over. Surprisingly enough, the United States of America is not enamoured of first-cousin marriages—to the best of my knowledge, only 19 states of the USA allow first cousin marriages. But the countries in Europe allow such marriages not just as a custom or tradition but also in terms of law. Martin Ottenheimer, Emeritus Professor of Anthropology, Kansas State University (USA) wrote a significant book in 1996—Forbidden Relatives:The American Myth of Cousin Marriages—based on his research on cousin marriages. According to him, ‘physical evidence from modern human biological research does not substantiate the exaggerated fears about the possible genetic dangers of cousin marriages”, and the “American myth of cousin marriages appears to be a modern rationalisation of an ancient custom rather than a conclusion derived from empirical biological research or genetic theory”. He further states that “if cousin marriage really posed a health threat, one would expect all Western countries would recognise the potential hazards and prohibit it” but an “examination of marital laws outside the United States however reveals that cousin marriage is permitted in every country in Europe”. Forty three per cent of the world’s societies permit marriages between some types of first cousins. Most significantly, “in the United States, no state ever forbade third or more distant cousins from marrying….Marriage between second or more distant cousins is permitted everywhere in the United States.”

This research of Martin Ottenheimer reached the conclusion that children of non-related couples have a two-to-three per cent risk of birth defects, as opposed to first cousins having a four-to-six per cent risk. In plain terms first cousins have a 94 per cent + chance of having healthy children. Let me also register here two more research-based revelations: the National Society of Genetic Counsellors in the USA estimated the increased risk for first cousins to be between 1.7 to 2.8 per cent, or about the same as any woman over 40 years of age. Second cousins have little, if any, increased chance of having children with birth defects, as per the “Clinical Genetics Handbook”, courtesy the March of Dimes Foundation that has been working on prevention of birth defects in the United States since 1939.

Hindu Marriage Act 1955 and Gotra Marriages

WE should keep in mind that these are facts for first-cousin marriages, which in any case are prohibited under the Hindu Marriage Act 1955 as per its Section 3 (g) (iv)—“children of brother and sister or of two brothers or of two sisters” come within the purview of “degrees of prohibited relationship”.

Let us now come to the Hindu Marriage Act of 1955, according to which the couple being married should not be “sapindas of each other, unless the custom or usage governing each of them permits a marriage between the two”, where “two persons are said to be ‘sapindas’ of each other if one is a lineal ascendant of the other within the limits of sapinda relationship, or if they have a common lineal ascendant who is within the limits of sapinda relationship with reference to each other”. Further, the “‘sapinda relationship’ with reference to any person extends as far as the third generation (inclusive) in the line of ascent through the mother, and the fifth (inclusive) in the line of ascent through the father, the line being traced upwards in each case from the person concerned, who is to be counted as the first generation”. (Italics mine—R.S.D.)

Given the prescriptions in the Act, and the data for first-cousin marriages given above, it is quite obvious that in our case (that is, marriage within the gotra and in consonance with the Hindu Marriage Act 1955), the genetic risk is most likely to be even less than that for first-cousins. In any case, the genetic aspects of this issue do need to be examined and researched in our specific context—all that I am saying is that the facts available with me point to no cause for great alarm in genetic terms.

I would like to conclude on a note of caution in the larger socio-political context. One, there are much larger social issues crying for our attention, on which the Khap Panchayats can play a positive role—and on which, till now, they have maintained a resounding silence. Domestic violence against women, the scourge of female foeticide, dowry-deaths, the menace of drinking and drug-addiction, the crisis in agriculture, forced occupation of common lands (the shaamlaat in villages)—these, and many more, are issues with which we need to grapple on an urgent basis, for they strike at the very roots of a harmonious society. These Panchayats, however, seem to have turned a blind eye to them—is it that they find it more convenient to overlook such issues because the perpetrators of these social crimes are an inseparable part of these Panchayats? One needs to ponder over this.

More importantly, the saddest part of the story is that the political class of Haryana, barring a very few exceptions, seems to be more concerned about its vote-banks rather than the larger social good. Instead of taking a leading role in countering the forces that are taking a stand detrimental to the interests of an egalitarian and progressive society, the political actors seem to be playing second fiddle to them. One can only hope in these circumstances that a balanced view will be taken, the saner view will prevail, and conclusions reached on the basis of a reasoned judgment of issues.

Dr R.S. Dahiya is a Professor, Department of Surgery, Pandit Bhagwat Dayal Sharma University of Health Sciences, Rohtak. He is also the President, Haryana Vigyan Manch—an organisation working in the field of spreading scientific temper and awareness on issues of science.

ISSN (Mainstream Online) : 2582-7316 | Privacy Policy
Notice: Mainstream Weekly appears online only.