Khap Panchayats: Krap or dangerously reasonable

Khap Panchayats have been in the news recently.  Following the conviction of some members for killing a couple who married against the wishes of the Panchayat, leaders of various Khap Panchayats have sounded a defiant note and want changes in marriage laws.  This post tries to look at the validity of their claim.

First, a little background: Khap is a cluster of villages united by caste and geography.  It is as old as 14th century started by upper caste jats to consolidate their power and position.  The main rule is that all boys and girls within a khap are considered siblings. Many village people also defend these caste panchayats as they deliver the verdict in one sitting whereas court cases drag for years.  According to them ,in many cases innocent people get harassed in the court and by police.  Here as everyone is known so they cross check everything to ensure neutrality.

The Court case:  On the 25th of March, 2010, the Karnal Sessions Court held six people guilty of killing a couple who married against the wishes of the khap panchayat.  The couple, Manoj and Babli was murdered in June 2007.  The Times of India reports that the families of the couple also faced social boycotts, and a fine of Rs. 25,000 since the couple were from the same gotra.  Even though a court had granted the two police protection, reportedly, the police constables were in constant contact with one of the Khap members.  One of the killers was protected by the Khap leaders, and it was only when pressure mounted that he surrendered.  Horrifyingly, he was even felicitated at a function for killing Manoj and Babli.

Aftermath: On April13, 2010 in an assembly, Khap Panchayats condemned the court ruling and pledged their support to those convicted.  They had also held an earlier meeting where they decided to set up a core committee to suggest amendments to the Act to disallow same-gotra and same-village marriages as per Jat tradition.  They also demanded an amendment to the Hindu Marriage Act, 1955, terming it unscientific.  Their specific demand is that the Act should be able to check whether the couple should be getting married or not.  It might sound ridiculous, but the fact is that the Act already does so.

The Hindu Marriage Act, 1955 prohibits marriage between Hindus on various grounds.  Two of them pertain to the relation between the two parties:

1.  They should not be Sapindas of each other. A Sapinda relationship is traced through common ancestor.  People within 5 generations of each other on the father’s side and 3 generations of each other on the mother’s side, or having common ancestors within 5 and 3 degrees of separation are treated as Sapindas.

2.  They should not fall within “degrees of a prohibited relationship”.  This includes lineal descendants and close family members.

I doubt these conditions were imposed on a scientific basis.  They are more probably, if not certainly a codification of the dominant Hindu custom which was being followed prior to the enactment of this law.  If so, the Khap Panchayat’s demand to have a law barring marriage within the same gotras is also merely a matter of codifying an existing custom prevalent within their community.

Their other practices of social boycotts, honour killings and fines are completely illegal, but on this one aspect at least, they can claim to have a legitimate issue.  I am not supporting the demand, merely stating that if a law were to be enacted validating their demand, there is precedent to indicate that such a law would be valid.

The issue however is whether such a law would be a good law.  Whether it is reformist, or populist, and whether a populist law is necessarily good law in the first place.  That is an essential contradiction our society will have to deal with.  The law-making process is supposed to be populist by nature, as laws are passed by a majority of our representatives.  Whether the law passed is any good however, is only proven by passage of time, when many people who the law affects have the weight of their horrific experiences to add to their arguments.

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