The tyranny of custom

  • Navneet Sharma, Hindustan Times, Chandigarh
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  • Updated: May 12, 2010 00:03 IST

There is little in common between Naveen Jindal and Om Prakash Chautala. Jindal (40), Congress MP from Kurukshetra, is a US-educated billionaire politician and prominent face of the Generation Next of the Congress. Indian National Lok Dal (INLD) President and former chief minister Chautala (75), who did not read beyond matriculation level, is a battle-hardened Jat.

But they have emerged as the most famous supporters of self-styled khap (clan) panchayats (councils) by backing their demand to amend the Hindu Marriage Act, 1955, to ban marriages among people belonging to the same gotra (sub-caste) and village.

The discourse

They have strong support in their parties on this issue with both the ruling Congress and the opposition INLD competing with each other to woo the Jat community, which is at the centre of the ongoing gotra row. “We will bring a resolution in the assembly regarding this. If the government brings an Amendment Bill, my party will support it,” says Chautala, voicing his opposition to same-gotra marriages.

Congress MP (Rajya Sabha) Shadi Lal Batra, a close confidant of Haryana Chief Minister Bhupinder Singh Hooda, has given notice to the Rajya Sabha secretariat for permission to move an amendment in this regard. “These are age-old customs that most people follow. When these are violated, people feel agitated. Therefore, an amendment is needed,” he says, denying any political motive.

But Congress Spokesman Abhishek Manu Singhvi says: “No customary law, tradition or practice can possibly be excused or condoned in any manner if it violates the law of the land or approves killing of any kind.”

Hooda himself has tried hard to underplay the controversial issue, sticking to the well-rehearsed “law-will-take-its-own-course” one-liner to appease the community. And, it is not difficult to understand why. The Jats constitute roughly 25 per cent of the electorate and are known to be brutally decisive in voting. They play a role in deciding the outcomes in 27 of the 90 seats in the Haryana assembly.

Their clout can be judged from the fact that Jindal, who skipped the khap mahapanchayat on May 2, cancelled his foreign trip and attended their May 10 meeting after khap members threatened to lay a siege to his house. Jats are the single-largest voting group in his constituency, at 17 per cent. There are other castes opposed to the same gotra unions.

The INLD, which saw its political fortunes revived in parts of the Jat heartland in the 2009 assembly elections, had announced support to their demand at the first mahapanchayat. These khap panchayats are considered critical to the political fortunes of the Congress and the INLD in the general municipal and gram panchayat elections in the state. The municipal polls will be held on May 20 and the panchayat elections are likely next month.

Positive side

Though the khaps have drawn flak on gotra-related issues in recent years, they are popular in the Jat heartland with people coming to them for resolving long-pending disputes. In several areas, these groups have helped resolve disputes on land and water, worked for development by getting the people to pool funds for village infrastructure, and even banned liquor and dowry.

Jagmati Sangwan, president, All India Democratic Women’s Association (Haryana), says that political parties have always patronised the khap panchayats for electoral gains —that is why these groups get away after issuing orders to kill young couples or socially boycott their families. After the first ever conviction in an honour killing case, she adds, these panchayats are seeking legal protection and politicians have been forced to support them.

Grameen Adhikaar Manch Convener Col. Chander Singh Dalal (retired) differs. “The Hindu Marriage Act should be amended to ban unions within the same sub-caste and in the same village. If the law can be amended in accordance with the customs of tribals in other states, why the same cannot be done here? The khap has tried to maintain the social fabric of the rural society,” he insists.

Haryana Advocate General Hawa Singh Hooda does not see anything wrong with the khap demand. “These customs are being followed for ages. Marriages in the same gotra can be banned by including them in the prohibited list through an amendment,” he says.

However, an eminent lawyer practising in the Punjab and Haryana High Court, however, feels that any change in the law will cause complications of another kind.

“There is already a clause regarding consanguinity (common bond of blood). If the law is to be amended as is being demanded, what will be the basis? There are gotras with huge numbers. Earlier in seeking matrimonial alliances, seven gotras (of parents, grandparents, etc) of one party were looked at and if the other party had even one in common, the marriage could not take place. Now it has come down to four. How will it work,” he asked.


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