Members of an unelected village council of male elders gathered for a meeting recently in
. Sisana, India
India — There are two laws in this dusty village less than 50 miles from ’s capital: the law of the land and the law of the village. And for local residents like Takdir Dahiya, the law of the village councils known as khap panchayats is the only one that matters. India
“We do not know what the law is,” he said on a recent boiling afternoon. “We only know what is decided by the khap panchayat. Here it is not the Supreme Court that decides. It is the khap panchayat that decides.”
For generations, these unelected councils of male elders have dominated life in many villages, mostly across northernIn recent months, an assertive Supreme Court has issued opinions condemning the councils as illegal bodies, and the controversy is expected to spill into this summer’s “monsoon” session of Parliament. Legal advocates are pushing for a comprehensive law establishing criminal penalties to deter the khaps from issuing their edicts.
, exerting social control through edicts that govern everything from marriage to property disputes. But the councils are coming under growing national scrutiny as their extrajudicial rulings — especially those blamed for the spread of so-called honor killings — are challenging the concept of the national rule of law. India
Meanwhile, khap leaders are unrepentant and pushing their own agenda in Parliament by demanding alterations to make Indian marriage laws reflect their conservative traditions.
“They are mobilizing for protests,” said Ranjana Kumari, a women’s rights advocate. “And they are capable of organizing a very huge protest.”
The legal battle is another example of the growing pains in Indian society as the rippling influences of modernity collide with ancient beliefs and practices. Khap panchayats often seem to be trying to stop the advance of the modern world: some khaps have ordered bans on women wearing tight clothing and have even tried to ban the use of mobile phones by people in college or younger, since the devices are tools that couples can use for furtive contact.
Khap leaders contend that their councils create social cohesion and order, while providing speedier justice, in the absence of effective local government. They justify their strict edicts on marriage as being rooted in religious belief and say that their practices have prevented inbreeding and other health issues — claims disputed by their critics as wrongheaded and outdated because village populations are far larger today.
Here in the state of Haryana, khap panchayats dominate many villages and exert heavy influence on the political system. Much of Haryana is populated by Jats, a north Indian caste divided into subgroups known as gotras.
Traditionally, villages are run by a particular gotra with its own khap panchayat, which adjudicates local disputes and upholds marriage customs, including the belief that men and women within the same gotra, and the same village, are considered brothers and sisters and are prohibited from marrying.
It is the khaps’ unyielding position on marriage, which they say derives from ancient Hindu texts, that has thrust them into the heart of a national controversy. Critics blame their edicts for directly or indirectly provoking honor killings of couples who marry within the same gotra or village. In other cases, social pressure has driven young women to commit suicide.
Khap panchayats often order residents of a village to boycott, whether socially or economically, families whose children defy the marriage custom. In some cases, khaps have even ordered that couples be killed, though more often the social pressure they create is the issue; many times, a killing is actually carried out by family members seeking to escape social shame and ostracism within their village.
At a time when a younger generation of women is becoming more independent, many critics believe that the khaps are desperate to maintain traditional controls over women and property, which is intertwined with marriage.
“It’s all about social control and control of the girl,” said Kirti Singh, a lawyer who argues cases before the Supreme Court.
In Sisana, a farming village northwest of
, the local khap panchayat meets periodically on an open concrete platform in the village to consider various disputes. “It is a very sanctified place,” said Surender Dahiya, 47, a member of the khap. “It is assumed no one will tell lies there.” New Delhi
Mr. Dahiya and others in Sisana denied that the khap was an illegal entity, or that it ordered honor killings. He said the khap financed schools and gave cash to poor families. As for their edicts, the khaps, he said, issue fines or call for social boycotts, and also act as arbiters on local crimes.
“If criminal incidents take place, a court will take years and years,” he said. “The khap will sit together and very quickly make a ruling.”
When a violent clash occurred between two families in Sisana, leaving seven people dead in a cross-fire, the khap decided which family was guilty and barred from marrying or working in the area. “Once the khap came to a conclusion, both parties accepted it,” Mr. Dahiya said.
Critics of the councils say local police officers and politicians sometimes work in tandem with the khaps. In some cases, the police have tracked down couples who had eloped, arresting the men on charges of kidnapping and returning the women to their families.
“Local and state-level politicians have been noticeably reluctant to condemn the khap panchayats, since they represent a large and powerful vote bank,” said Rani D. Mullen, an assistant professor at the College of William & Mary and the author of a forthcoming book on village-level democracy in India. “This has created a political environment that essentially condones the khap panchayats, with local politicians and police turning a blind eye. The courts are often left as the only public defenders of the law.”
Since April, the Supreme Court has issued two lacerating rulings about honor killings and has described khap panchayats as products of a “feudal mentality.” “These acts take the law into their own hands and amount to kangaroo courts, which are wholly illegal,” the court wrote on April 19.
Khap leaders placed the blame for honor killings not on their methods of exerting social pressure but on the 1955 Hindu Marriage Act, the national law that contains no prohibition on marriage within gotras. When Parliament meets in July, khap leaders are planning to demand that the law be amended to bar such marriages, an uphill struggle politically.
“The court tells them they are right,” Ishwar Singh, 64, who lives in a village near Sisana, said of the intra-gotra marriages. “The court protects them. We are angry with that. If you are brother and sister, how can you marry?”
Ms. Singh, the Supreme Court lawyer, has drafted legislation that would categorize the khaps’ extrajudicial edicts, including those demanding social boycotts, as crimes of harassment, with punishments of up to 10 years in prison. The bill is expected to be considered by the Parliament in July. “We want to reiterate the right of people in
to enter into a marriage of their choice,” she said. India
Many people here in Sisana say the local councils, which have operated for centuries, will outlive legal and parliamentary challenges to their existence.“We keep a very close eye on our society,” Surender Dahiya, the khap member, said. “Social pressure does not have any legal sanctity. But it is a very powerful tool.”
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