Having earned notoriety for issuing extra judicial diktats and holding Kangaroo courts, the khap panchayats of Haryana have often been a source of discomfiture for the state. Their unwarranted meddling in inter-caste and within gotra marriages, the ostracising of their families and honour killings had earned them nationwide condemnation and brought disrepute to Haryana.
However, such actions seem to be a thing of the past, with many khaps adopting a more liberal, tolerant and socially reformative approach, keeping in tune with the changing times. The turnaround has come as a whiff of fresh air in what was otherwise a stubborn and hostile outlook demonstrated by khaps over the years.
With several khaps electing educated people as their heads to improve their image, these leaders have in turn started making efforts to eradicate social evils like dowry, the purda system and gender bias and have begun addressing issues like the unchecked use of pesticide in agriculture.
The Bura Khap has taken a strong stance against dowry and has asked the people of the Bura Gotra to not demand dowry. They have also called for limiting the expenses of a wedding and decided that only 21 people can be part of a baarat. They also decided to honour the boys of the gotra who do not accept dowry and couples who have two daughters.
“The decisions have been taken unanimously in a meeting of the members of the Bura Khap and it will be implemented in all 84 villages of the khap”, said Bhale Ram Bura, general secretary of the Bura Khap panchayat.
“We have taken this step as khaps should also change with the time. Now, we need to focus on the education of girls, among other provisions.”
The representatives of the state’s biggest khap, the Satrol Khap, allow inter-caste marriages and allow members of the 43 villages of the khap to marry each other, both of which were earlier banned. The decision has also helped bring about an end to the dowry system as it is not an issue in love marriages.
“We took this decision in April 2014 in the presence of senior members of the Satrol Khap,” said Captain Mahabir Singh, vice president of khap. “If people of the upper caste accept brides of the lower caste, it will end the caste system.”
“Though we do not have judicial powers, we have also asked people of the khap to accept brides without dowry, and if somebody demands dowry, the khap will not allow the marriage of his son,” he added.
The Narwal Khap has started a women helpline to ensure round-the-clock social justice for married and unmarried women, as part of the implementation of the Beti-Bachao, Beti-Padao initiative. The helpline number will enable women in Haryana, Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Jammu & Kashmir to file complains of social injustice and female foeticide.
Bhale Ram Narwal, president of the khap, said, “We have started the helpline to ensure safety and social justice for the daughters of our country. The helpline will also work against female foeticide.”
“We started the helpline in May and since then, we have received more 100 calls from women in the state. We are a group of about 20 people and have set up an office in Gohana, Sonepat and reach out to the complainant within a few hours,” he added.
Other khaps are looking to reform other pressing concerns. The Dhanda Khap has set up a Keet Saksharta Kendra in Nidana village of the Jind district to raise awareness of the excessive use of pesticides amongst farmers. Thousands of farmers from Haryana and Punjab have participated in the workshops being organised by Kuldeep Singh Dhanda, president of the khap. Dhanda, a retired deputy collector of the Haryana Irrigation Department, said, “Farmers are not aware of the impact pesticides have on our environment. We have set up an Insect Awareness Centre to prove that agriculture produce can be increased without use of pesticides.”
“It has been scientifically proved that agriculture is possible without pesticides but is impossible to imagine without inspects,” he added.
Meanwhile, the Dahiya Khap takes steps against deforestation and liquor during weddings
The Dahiya Khap has launched a special campaign to promote organic farming and for planting trees. Several other khaps, including the Hooda and the Sangwan khaps also joined the Dahiya khap panchayat’s movement.
“We have also banned the use of liquor, arms and DJs in marriages to avoid scuffles,” said Surender Dhaiya, president of the Dhaiya Khap.
“We also organise panchayats on Beti-Bachao, Beti Padao and the Ped-Lagao campaigns and lakhs of trees have been planted over the last two years,” he added.
These Khap leaders are worried that their image in the country has been tarnished and the progressive steps taken by them have not been highlighted. Dr Kanwar Singh Chauhan, head of the sociology department of the Maharshi Dayanand University, Rohtak, felt that this was due to many members of the community viewing them as decrees.
“Khap panchayats are now trying to change their image by adopting ‘modern’ values to survive in the modern era, but sections within the khaps see their good jobs as diktats, due to their bad image in the past, which is why they don’t get the required importance,” he said.