Khap Panchayats and Swagotra Marriages

A couple of moons ago, when Khap Mahapanchayat insisted on amendment in Hindu Marriage Act to outlaw Swagotra (same clan) marriages, and resolved to fight for executors of honour killings, murderers of Manoj-Babli in the latest case, I thought perpetual political silence on the matter has to be blamed most for the mess. But the moment young, foreign educated leaders like Congress MP Navin Jindal start playing to the gallery for purely political reasons, the political lobby ceases to be mere mute observer of the wrongdoings, rather becomes a part-participator.

What Jindal said last month, that Khap Panchayats existing from times of great emperors like Ashoka, Harshwardhan and Kurukshetra have always given a ‘new direction’ to the society, might be true to an extent in gone-by ages, so he can say it in the context of the past, but cannot mean it for the present. Though he soon backtracked and Union Minister M Veerappa Moily outrightly turned down the demands of the caste-councils, other Haryana politicians as Om Prakash Chautala have justified both Khap Panchayats and their wish list, particularly their demand of banning Swagotra marriages.

To be very frank, Chautala and his ilk are only aggravating things by waxing lyrical about caste councils and misconstruing scientific and religious doctrines to oppose same clan marriages. Both Khap Panchayats and Swagotra marriages are two quite distinct things, to be seen separately. While one pertains to the enforcement of certain traditional codes, well, without having constitutional authority; the other is primarily a question of right to freedom of choice, guaranteed in a democracy to everybody as long as it doesn’t intrude into other people’s rights.

In medieval period, Khap Panchayats used to solve village problems and disputes, probably in a democratic way in so much as everyone was free to attend such congregations and to express his views the rein and to vote on a proposal, though council’s decisions were binding on all. Down the ages, society has been reformed of social evils, its value system changed, but caste councils unfortunately entered modern times with certain fixed impressions about a number of social issues as caste, sub-caste, gender, marriage to name a few, and this makes them regressive. Khap Panchayats no longer give ‘new direction’ to society but seeks to obstruct its forward movement.

Lately, as politicians kowtow to caste-lords, some circles of intelligentsia opposed to the functioning of caste-councils have come out with two rather interesting suggestions for them: one, that Khap Panchayats could be more useful and relevant if they adapt to modern times and undergo reforms; and two, that they should rather focus on eradicating social evils like female foeticide. Both these points hardly offer a solution.

While the backwardness and medieval nature of Khap Panchayats is a serious issue, the real problem with them is their ‘Panchayat’ nature. The larger point here is that Indian Constitution doesn’t envisage any entity outside three-tier administrative and judicial machinery ( which includes gram panchayats) for the purpose of administration and adjudication. In our fight against caste-councils, our first and foremost priority is to eliminate their very existence as ‘Panchayats’ and then work for adaptation of these ethnic groups to modern times. This is more so necessary as caste councils, insisting on amendment in Hindu Marriage Act only at present, have next on their wish list a demand to grant constitutional status to their authority.

Supposing that caste-councils undergo reforms, abandon their ‘Panchayat’ nature and turn into a proper social welfare and reform organizations, working for eradication of evils, volunteering services, and so on, there’s still a problem. Caste-based social welfare organizations will only serve to further casteism, another evil, in a way or the other. A true welfare or reform organization has to be representative of all castes, creed, religions, sex etc.

Politicos supporting Khap Panchayats on Swagotra marriage issue citing ‘scientific’ and ‘religious’ reasons have actually misinterpreted the facts. Science and religion argue against close-cousin marriages and north Indian Hindu society has gone too far in following this principle.

Close-cousin marriage, as science has it, results in higher consanguinity, that is to say, the amount of shared (identical) DNA or genetic material. This, on one hand, does away the chances of producing genetically improved off-springs – possible only if partners with different genetic make-up mate – and transmits genetic diseases to the next generation on the other. Down a number of generations, say four or five, cousins have highly reduced consanguinity and negligible probabilities of genetic diseases.

To put it correctly, Hindu religious beliefs on the topic of marriage are grounded on this scientific doctrine and prohibit marriages within seven generations on father’s side and five on mother’s. Some interpreters also believe that Hinduism allows cross-cousins (descendants of father’s uncle, not father’s brother), including first cross-cousins, to marry (so does the science).

Contrary to this, Khaps believe that since each gotra (clan) has descended from a sage (who existed in distant past as Parshuram, Gautam, Shandilya etc), so a boy and a girl belonging to a gotra are brother and sister, not permitted to marry. By any rough estimate, hundreds of generations have passed since saints existed, and each generation so far has been a result of cross-clan marriages; thus treating boys and girls of a clan as brother and sister is illogical. Likewise, opposing Swagotra marriages on the basis of science or religion is actually their over-interpretation.

The Hindu Marriage Act is already scientific and bars close-cousin marriage to the extent necessary, that is, upto five generations on father’s side and three on mother’s, and allows cross-cousin marriages where customs allow them. Khap Panchayats want it to be amended to their liking to extend its scope to Swagotra marriage. Accepting this demand not only means reinforcing a misplaced belief but also encouraging such groups which might believe in other eliminated social evils like purdah, sati, untouchability and so forth, and demand their revival.

The extent to which same clan marriages takes place in the present day society is a crucial point to the debate. Only a couple of instances of same clan marriages come up annually in north India where Khap Panchayats are operative, and going by a recent survey conducted by Hindustan Times in Haryana, some 77% people don’t favour Swagotra marriages. Clearly, the issue is rather trivial and caste-councils are making a mountain out of a mole hill by making unnecessary hue and cry.

In any modern society, right to freedom of choice is above everything, be it religion, tradition and science, until it doesn’t encroach upon other people’s rights. A democratic country and an advanced, reformed society that we have today is an outcome of tough freedom struggle and social revolutions and reforms. The clock cannot be turned back on our hard-achieved value system for the sake of caste-lords

Sourabh Dharmeshwari