A Khap Panchayat is one of the most ancient forms of social and political organization in the North-western provinces of India. Written references to the concept of such a body have been found in the Rig Veda dating as far back as 2500 BC. This system is supposed to be highly democratic, consisting of an elected leader, public gatherings as a forum for debate and a universal right of attendance and expression of views for all those involved. But the final decision of the elected leader is indisputable and it is the opinion of the village elders that has the most weight at any given gathering.
Democracy and Freedom gone awry
In recent times, there have been a slew of ghastly reports in the newspapers that the present day Khap Panchayats are acting as social dictators and ordering or aiding the cold-blooded murder of young couples for going against the social dictum of not marrying within the same gotra that has been followed from time immemorial in such areas. More often than not, it is the kith and kin of the victims that partake in this heinous and misguided crime in collusion with or under pressure from the local Khap Panchayat.
Instead of focusing on the plethora of constructive reforms such as the abolition of dowry and female foeticide, the promotion of education etc. that could be brought about by such a powerful political body, it insists on delving into issues of marriage, family and the control of social norms. It is the sad misfortune of the youth of these areas to be forced to blindly follow the age old rules or else perish at the hands of their own nurturers.
Much Ado about Nothing
While incest may indeed be inimical to future generations, the chances of its occurrence in a same-gotra marriage have been watered down over the centuries, leaving lesser and lesser scope for the Khap Panchayats ‘reasoning’ to stand vindicated. Their stance may have been slightly relevant ages ago when people from the same gotra were considered to belong to the same family tree, since genetic inbreeding has been found to cause birth defects and even retardation, but when people from the same gotra have had no relations, even far – flung, for so many generations, there is hardly a reason to stop them from getting married.
Technically speaking, the South-Indians and Muslims have long had a culture of allowing cousins to marry each other, uncles to marry nieces – these marriages which have a much higher scope for leading to unnecessary genetic abnormalities in children take place under complete social sanction and are even enforced in most cases. It is ironic and quite disgusting that this point receives little or no attention while a willing same – gotra marriage between completely unrelated people can cause such a stir.
Even if there is a chance of problems caused by incestuous alliances, it is ultimately the family’s prerogative to decide whether they want to go ahead or not – politicians and social leaders have no right to interfere in matters where the law is not being broken. At the end of the day, it is a scientific matter related to the well-being of children, not a question of honour. But in their desperate attempts to reign supreme in their land, these leaders of ill-will resort to such unthinkable and unlawful measures as boycotting and killing young members of their own society in the bloody name of ‘honour’. They give up any hope of upholding their own honour. They ruin lives, destroy peace, twist mindsets and are becoming indomitable tyrants – and for no just cause, as is always the case with a tyranny.
A Modern Day Mess
The most shameful part of the situation is that the leaders of the largest democracy in the world have not yet figured out a way to effectively tackle this menace. While they dither, the Khap Panchayats issue threats and force politicians to turn deaf ears to their illegal actions.
Earlier this year, Congress MP Naveen Jindal even expressed his outright support of these terrorist panchayats’ demand for amending the Hindu Marriages Act to ban marriages within the same gotra. This was after Khap Panchayats had announced a siege of Jindal’s home in Kurukshetra in case he did not support their cause. Congress MP Shadi Lal Batra has been working towards banning same gotra marriages by moving a Bill in Parliament as well.
This spineless behaviour from our government is utterly appalling. They are allowing murderers to run Scott-free and are even claiming to support them! What is our country coming to? Is the government really the most powerful body here? Does the rule of law prevail? Or are we inches away from sinking into medieval barbarism because a handful of corrupt politicians with vested interests want to mollify these Khap Panchayats that are resorting to terrorism, not unlike the Taliban?
It is indeed a very sticky situation, requiring much tact, sense and conscience – driven effort on the part of our national leaders to be effectively dealt with. The judiciary has been making attempts to foil the plans of the Khap Panchayats by amending the laws to make them more stringent in the punishment meted out to those who indulge in such crimes. For example, it is in the process of enacting a new law that makes it imperative for the accused to prove their innocence in such cases rather than the leaving the onus on the state to prove them guilty as is the procedure for other criminal cases. It has also made provisions for the entire Khap Panchayat to be tried in the event of an honour killing.
At the end of the day, even if the matter is solved by a fast-track court, the couple in question will already be dead and there is no saying that the Khap Panchayat involved will stop with them. There is an urgent need for social reform in these areas along with strict laws and their stringent implementation. The problem must be nipped in the bud if we aspire to be a democracy with liberty, equality and fraternity. And these grass root level politicians must learn that their place is to lead constructively, not destructively.