Haryana's Sarva Khap Jat Panchayat, which has been at the forefront of demanding reservations for Jats in government jobs, will now discuss the bizarre suggestion that the marriage age for girls be lowered to curb rising incidents of rape in the state.
The supreme council is an umbrella body of khap panchayats across the state. Khaps have no legal sanction but often function like kangaroo courts and issue social diktats that are enforced in the villages.
A meeting called for Saturday in Sonipat, about 40 km from Delhi, to discuss the reservation issue will focus instead on the marriage age issue and how the government could be compelled to get the bar lowered in Haryana, where at least 15 rapes have been reported in the past month.
"The meeting aims at knowing the views of various khap panchayats about the issue of lowering the marriageable age to prevent rape incidents in the state. Representatives of around 100 khaps across the state will attend the meeting to share their opinion and to present their proposals on the issue," Sube Singh Samain, spokesperson of the Sarva Khap Jat Panchayat said.
Sube Singh had hit the national headlines last week with his suggestion that lowering the marriage age for women would prevent rape. He found backing from Indian National Lok Dal leader and former Haryana chief minister Om Prakash Chautala who said: "I am with the khaps on this issue. This will protect women."
On Saturday, also on the agenda, besides age and reservations for Jats, is the rising incident of heinous crimes in Haryana.
"The role of khap panchayats in checking crime will also be discussed in length at the meeting," Sube Singh said, adding that the khaps wished to play a vital role in controlling crime.
"The meeting was earlier convened to talk about stepping up the Jat reservation movement but the issue of lowering the marriage age will now also be prominently discussed to draw up a consensus among the khaps in this regard," said Sube Singh.
Randhir Singh, chief of the Sarva Khap Panchayat Meham Chaubisi (which represents 24 villages of Meham sub-division in Rohtak), said that the government should not only remove the existing restriction on the marriageable age but leave the decision on this on a girl's parents.
Under the law, girls below 18 years and boys below 21 years cannot legally get married.
"Let the parents decide when they want to marry off their wards. Girls can be married off a couple of years earlier than the stipulated age of 18 years if they have physically grown up," Randhir Singh said.
The view has been met with outrage.
Jagmati Sangwan, national vice president of the Janwadi Mahila Samiti, said: "There is no direct relation between rape and the marriageable age. Hence the suggestion cannot be described as appropriate. Besides other precautionary measures, bringing about a change in the mentality of the people is also required to check crimes against women."
Jagjit Dagar, district president of the Haryana Janhit Congress' youth wing, said: "The suggestion is entirely wrong and it will give a boost to social evils. The government should make some serious efforts for the security and safety of women in the state."