Over a cup of milky tea some months ago in a non-descript hotel in Rohtak, a dusty town of steel and oil mills, colleges and auto repair shops, Santosh Dahiya, 45, reflected on the slow-moving pace of change in the mostly rural state of Haryana.
She is the head of the women’s wing of the Sarv Khap, Sarv Jaatiya Mahapanchayat, an umbrella organisation of khap panchayats, traditionally all-male unelected councils in north India that exercise a great deal of social control.
When she was a girl, she used to watch the men in her native village gather for meetings at which clan leaders and village elders would settle disputes: adultery in the family, domestic violence, even murder.
Though many have come to see the councils as oppressive, Haryana is virtually run by them, and Dahiya recalled marvelling at how quickly the disputes were solved.
“The fear of being shamed before your own people is greater than being put in jail,” she said.
The diktats of the councils, many say, reinforce castebased prejudices and impose a stranglehold over women’s freedom. Some say it has led to honour killings and female foeticide, with Haryana’s sex ratio being among the lowest in the country.
Dahiya, who had a relatively progressive family and husband, was able to get an education and carve out a space for her activism in Haryana. After receiving a doctorate in physical education, she became a professor at Kurukshetra University, where she now works in the university college.
In 2010, she was nominated to be the president of the women’s wing of the umbrella organisation, and she has used her platform to speak out about atrocities against women.
Although she is not a clan leader, a position still held only by men, she is able to speak to the media about women’s issues in Haryana. And though she believes that marriages within the same clan should be avoided, she speaks out against honour killings as a choice of reprisal.
“I hold meetings with villagers three to four times a month. I tell them that murder is not an option in this modern era,” she said. Dahiya advises parents that their children must be allowed to leave their village unharmed.
Dahiya, a Jat, has attempted to change the public’s perception of khap panchayats, particularly among young people, by starting a website dedicated to their history.
But Jagmati Sangwan, a women’s rights activist in Haryana, said that the women’s wing was set up as a reaction to the growing pressure by human rights activists against the “autocratic institution.”
The women’s wing, she said, had not challenged the discriminatory premise of councils. “These are superficial acts that are hiding the true agenda of keeping the caste divisions intact,” she said. “It is good for publicity.”
INDIA INK, NEW YORK TIMES