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Arrested Social Transformation: Khap Panchayats Asserting Caste-Gender Hierarchy
04/23/2010
By Ram Puniyani

Khap Panchayats, the age old upholders of caste norms have been in the news for all the wrong reasons. While these Panchayats (assembly) had some role in settling the community disputes, these exclusively male bodies, dominated by village elite have been asserting the values of past, gone by era and stand in the way of the values of Indian Constitution, the values of Liberty Equality and Fraternity. These are very active in Harayana region in particular, the same place where incidents of anti dalit brutalities against Dalits, and the incident where dalits were killed on the pretext that they are killing cows.
 
It is no coincidence that in the nearby Jhajjhar also similar incident had taken place just a few years ago. The recent (April 2010) developments in the aftermath of brutal killing Manoj and Babli are very disturbing and also reflective of the social situation prevailing in large parts of the region in the country. Manoj and Babli, belonging to same Gotra, got married and due to fear of the panchayat, fearing the threat to their lives, sought legal protection. While returning from court with police escort they were caught hold of and taken in a jeep, while police men and others were witnessing the act. The couple was killed mercilessly. The killers were from same village, belonging to the family and close relatives. The abettor was the panchayat chief. The Judge in a forthright judgment gave death punishment to five of them and life imprisonment to one and seven year jail term to anther.
 
The Khap panchayat rather than feeling the guilt and shame of the incident went on offensive and started saying that those youth going on the path of Manoj and Babli will be given similar treatment. Incidentally before this ghastly incident nearly hundred young couples have been done to death or punished in various ways by these Panchayats. After the judgment they called a bigger meeting and demanded that Hindu marriage law be amended to ensure that people from same Gotra (Sub caste) cannot marry. They are deciding to intensify their agitation.
 
There are parallel examples of many Muslim families killing their defiant youth, who preferred to get married on their own choice, transcending the boundaries laid by social customs. These killings are many a times called ‘Honor Killing’. Meaning the choice of girl and boy of their life partner has to conform to the norms of the community-family else killing those defying these norms is an “honor” for the family, caste. It is the make believe honor of the family which is carried forward by close relatives like brothers, uncles etc. One witnesses similar cases coming from Pakistan also as the social rigidities are probably much stronger in parts of the feudal dominated Pakistan society.
 
These incidents reflect the deepening of the process of caste rigidification during last few decades. Varna and jati system has been the norm of Hindu society, legitimized by various Holy Scriptures. The same caste system also affected partly the Muslims and Christians, whose scriptures don’t permit this but surely social practices are not merely guided by the Holy books.
 
The processes of caste and gender transformations always run parallel. These transformations began slowly during British rule, parallel with the growth of freedom struggle. The National movement and more particularly the process of education for dalits and women, initiated the social reformers resulted in the beginning of this transformation. The evil practices existing during that time were opposed and many a social reformers Jotiba Phule, Savitiribai Phule, Dr. Ambedkar, Ram Mohan Roy and Mahatma Gandhi fought against these practices. Ram Mohan Roy's main focus was on the evil of Sati, burning of bride on the funeral pyre of her husband. Gandhi’s major concern was against untouchability, the custom most abominable and deeply reflective of the caste system and the place of Shudras in the social system. While Phule-Ambedkar were demanding and agitating against these practices in a strong and radical way other reformers also chipped in and took the reform process far and wide.
 
These reform processes logically should have been accompanied by land reforms and relegation of the role of clergy to the private realms of social life. National movement did succeed to some extent in bringing forth these issues to social attention. Indian Constitution forthrightly puts forward these provisions. The process of industrialization and education gradually started loosening the grip of caste and gender hierarchy, and the retrograde norms during the first three decades of the republic though the speed of this transformation was slow. Women started entering social arena and dalits came up in good measure in social sphere during this time.
 
From the decade of 1980 the process seems to have been arrested and the economic policies, the adverse effects of globalization, cultural movement accompanying them, the global rise of fundamentalism and the ascendance of politics in the name of religion and Ram Temple agitation in India were the multiple factors due to which the process of transformation faced obstacles. These processes changed the cultural terrain of society and rather then rational progressive thoughts and practices, traditional conservatism started getting stronger. During this time the atrocities against dalits and women went up, samples of which were Roop Kanwar Sati in Deorala and Bhavri Devi case. The atmosphere of cultural terror got intensified. The major focus was on controlling the weaker sections of society in the name of ‘glorious traditions’. This did intimidate the dalits and women. Minorities also faced increasing violence against them during this time, resulting in their ghettoization and strengthening of orthodox elements within the community.
 
When Dr. Ambedkar introduced Hindu code bill, and made efforts to give equality and freedom to women, the bill was diluted before implementing itself. The conservatives in the society stood to oppose the same. Pundit Nehru went on to say that our constitution is progressive but society is in the grip of orthodox traditions. The hope was that these orthodox traditions will weaken with time, and as a matter of fact they actually started weakening during initial decades of the republic when the rational norms and practices started getting respectability.
 
Currently we seem to be seeing an arrest of this process of transformation in the progressive direction. The major causative factor does seem to be the cultural accompaniments of politics in the name of religion. This politics externally targets the minorities but its deeper agenda is that of opposing the equality of dalits and women. What these Khap Panchayats are doing is to put a control on the freedom of adults to choose their life partners and their style of living. Simultaneously they are attempting to control the lives of women, the core of patriarchal politics, a politics which is presented as nationalism and glorious tradition, by those doing politics in the name of religious identity.