A day after the Supreme Court said that honour killings be treated as the rarest of rare cases deserving the death punishment, we head out to what has turned out to be the breeding ground of honour killings — Haryana.
My interest in the story is journalistic, but it is also prompted by curiosity about my ancestry. Haryanvis may not be the most gentlemanly of races around — they are typecast as volatile and possess a jiski lathi-uski bhains sort of logic that lends itself to humour, making them the butt of jokes from MTV to FM stations. But despite this, and the occasional lathi-wielding shows that make them agents of disruption — threatening to stop the Commonwealth Games, for instance — they were a largely peace-loving, vegetarian community that minded its own business until a series of honour killings — and the alleged role of khap panchayats in instigating them — brought them national infamy in recent years.
As we make our way to Rohtak, I call my uncle, a farmer with land in a remote village near Hissar. “How is it that as children we never heard about these khaps?” Could it be that this seemingly random system of justice is a new creation, arising from new conflicts between urban and rural, exploited by vested interests?
My uncle puts a dampener on the thought. “Khaps have always existed — you didn’t hear about them earlier because these issues did not come up earlier. There were never any marriages within gotras, nor were there reservations. These are new issues.” This is substantiated by Gian Singh, chairperson, Choudhary Ranbir Singh research chair, Maharishi Dayanand University in Rohtak. “Some people call khaps a feudal institution,” he says, “but this a gross falsification of history.” “‘Feudal times’,” continues Singh, “is a period in history when the landowner was supreme and his relationship with those who tilled his land was one of master-slave. But there exists a time before and after feudal India, and khaps have been present in all these times.”
Khaps, or Haryana’s kangaroo courts, can be described as “informal social institutions”. Khap heads are appointed for a period of time, but the members that make up the khap are fluid, as is its formation itself. A khap is convened only when an issue is brought to its leader, and freshly appointed members sit on judgement each time. ‘Justice’ delivered, the khap is dissolved.
Estimates say there are several hundreds of khaps active in Haryana. Khaps can either be gotra (caste) khaps — like the Mallik Khap, where villages with the surname Mallik come under it — or geographical khaps — the Mahim chaubbissi — where villages in and around a certain area fall under a khap. The institution also varies in size. There has to be more than one village (“One vehicle doesn’t make a convoy, you need at least two or three” in the words of an elderly Jat), going up to eight, 12, 24 (or Chaubbisi) to 84 and even 380, which is the Palam Gao Khap in Delhi.
POWER AND INFLUENCE
A clue to the influence of khaps in the region — dating, we are told, even before the time of Raja Harish Chander, whose name is often dropped here by khap supporters — is found in a conversation with Gian Singh, when we sat with him over a meal of daal and vegetables in the University canteen. “The real conflict is between the state and the people,” he says.
“So does that make you anti-state or a-state?”
He is silent. Then, he answers indirectly. “That’s why I believe in the khap system — it is fluid, not structured.”
As a people, Haryanvis have shown a marked disdain for authority. It is a state with a history of high anti-incumbency — governments are voted out with consistent regularity. Khaps work for the people, but are not the state. As they are convened afresh each time, they are faceless and seamless, making their Authority — while unshakable — somewhat fluid.
The other factor that makes khaps powerful is the region’s agrarian culture. In villages where people sustain themselves through agriculture, communities are close knit. Every member of the village is considered a “relative”.
This may seem strange to urban Indians — where we do not even know the names of our neighbours, forget counting them in as cousins and chachas and taus — but the sentiment is strong in villages across Haryana. Marrying within the gotra or the village is akin to incest and a scandal of unbearable proportions.
But with the influence of TV and a general opening up of the culture, some among the young are defying this cultural diktat leading to retaliation from members of the community, and even family members of the “guilty”, resulting in the infamous “honour killings”.
Everywhere, the belief in “bhaichara”, or village members as “family”, is a recurring theme. It is not a noble notion but an unchallenged diktat.
At the Lakhan Majra village in Meham, we stop by farmers enjoying their evening hookah by the lake. We tell them what the SC said. The villagers are aghast. “How can they order death for people who have only delivered justice?”
In Rohtak, Colonel Chander Singh Dalal, advocate, asks: “Because Supreme Court said honour killing is to be considered “rarest of rare”, does the whole of India believe it?” This is a rhetorical question, answered by the good colonel himself. “No! Of course not!” He warms to the theme. “For instance, kisi ne koi agar kuttiya ko danda mar diya (if a man hits a bitch with a stick), and somebody pronounces it as rarest of rare, the judgement is purely his discretion.” Hitting a dog with a stick and murdering innocent human beings in cold blood are not the same, you could argue — but so unshakable is this belief in “community as family” across the board that it seems no logic, anywhere, can counter it.
The Khap brotherhood
Khaps, by themselves, may not be the root of all evil. They have traditionally sat on judgement on cases of domestic and property disputes. Before the Panchayati Raj system, khaps and panchayats were interchangeable. But after Panchayats began to get elected, khaps continued as moral institutions — as opposed to the panchayats which have administrative roles. In the past, they have taken the lead in “social service” by ruling on issues such as education for women, leading to land being donated for the purpose. They continue to be called upon to dole out justice, especially by the poor, for whom it is a cheap, quick and effective way of settling disputes.
There was talk of a law to curtail the powers of these kangaroo courts recently. But while some among khaps may indeed be guilty of inciting communities to murder — as is said happened in the Manoj Babli case — it would be unfair to paint all khaps with the same brush. Many khap heads are distinguished members of community, having served in government jobs. Nor is their work to be dismissed so easily, or their role branded as suspect.
While they are called upon to pronounce judgment on all issues of dispute besides same gotra marriage, they have probably come to be associated with the latter because it is a matter in which they have a different view from the existing legal one. They uphold the “sense of bhaichara” — and will consider same-gotra marriage to be “wrong” — while the courts do not recognise this as punishable. Many khaps in fact have campaigned for an amendment to the Hindu Marriage Act, allowing for a clause that makes within-gotra marriage in the region a legal offence.
Even as the SC’s observations are making news in Delhi, khaps are feeling the after-effects. “It is the misfortune of this country that it has not understood khaps,” says Mahim Chaubbisi Khap panchayat leader Randhir Singh. Singh, 74, is an ex-Section Officer in Irrigation, appointed as leader of this khap about two years ago. “We have no judicial or police powers. Our power is bhaichara. We make warring parties sit together and ask them to reach a compromise.” Many among the khaps feel their role is merely that of settling disputes amicably, and that this role too is diminishing. “Nowadays, many do not even heed our verdict after asking for it,” says Krishna Singh Hooda, head, Hooda Khap, which has 52 villages under it.
All khap leaders we met — and we must emphasise we’re talking only of the ones we met — stressed that they are being wrongly identified with honour killings, and that it is not they, but the families of the “erring lovers” who have them murdered.
Some, like Hooda, welcome the SC stand, saying that “it will put pressure on anti-social elements and deter people from honour killings.” Baljit Singh Mallik, head of the Mallik Khap in Gohana, Sonipat, believing that communities must change with the times, has already announced a relaxation in the rules, reducing the number of gotras a member of the Mallik gotra cannot marry into. Randhir Singh of Meham, too, “welcomes” the move, saying murder is not acceptable under any circumstance and those with such soch (ideas) must change their ways.
Some views, however, are more bone chilling. “The intent of the person committing the crime is always taken into account before pronouncing judgement,” says Colonel Dalal in Rohtak. Dalal has, in the past, been part of khap verdicts. “A mother will not kill her child easily — she is driven to it because her honour, and that of her family, has been forsaken. So the intent of the killing makes it different from any other murder.”
“By holding this view, does not a khap support murder and even instigate it?”
“But we are not saying go and kill. The family is being driven to do it.”
“But by justifying it, is the khap not justifying murder?”
“But how is it murder when you have not taken into account motive and intent?” Round and round we go.
MOTIVE, INTENT, MURDER
In Meham, I ask the gentle-looking Singh, the Chaubbisi pradhan, about this strain of murderous intent, which leaps out unexpectedly everywhere we go, like a mad buffalo in the herd.
“Young people are going against the family everywhere. Why is it that this region seems to think the answer is murder?” I ask. He flashes me a pearly white smile. “These people are descendants of the martial race,” he says “inka khoon jaldi ubal khata hai” (their blood comes to boil rather quickly). They can’t tolerate insult. It is a false sense of ego.”
In urbanised Rohtak, Ram Kumar Bamal, a retired headmaster, says “Lack of education is the problem.” He adds: “What’s to say of insults? Some people even feel insulted about sending girls to school. Is that acceptable?”
Indeed, it seems the Jat in the village hasn’t encountered an insult he hasn’t embraced. “Saha na jaye” are words brandished about at the drop of a lathi. In a village near Meham, we ask villagers that even if same gotra marriages are not acceptable, isn’t social ostracism a more humane punishment than murder? The women, gathering water from the well, say that perhaps killing is too harsh, but then add “but what option is there?” (These ladies of course don’t exactly call the shots here — it’s not for nothing that Haryana has the most skewed gender ratio).
Sitting with the menfolk, Anil, 25, a farmer’s son, reasoned calmly, as if explaining why onions are better than potatoes: “Because as long as they live, you don’t know when their misdeeds will confront you again. Even if they are banished from the village, people will point fingers at your family. Ten years on, if you get into a fight with someone, they can turn around and say “bara chaudhri bane hai, behen toh teri woh behen**** bagha legaya” (you walk about being a Chaudhri, but that sister****** ran off with your sister). Best to kill them and be done with it.”
He smiles for the camera. A chill goes down my spine.