Closing their eyes on a 2011 Supreme Court ruling which came down heavily on khap panchayats - likening their act of taking law into their own hands to Kangaroo courts - political parties across the spectrum, including the fledgling Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), continue to keep this self-styled powerful vote bank in good humour.
Days after union finance minister P Chidambaram called the khap panchayats retrograde organisations and not part of country's culture, Haryana chief minister Bhupinder Singh Hooda stepped in to defend them, saying they were very much part of Indian culture and equated their role with that of NGOs and resident welfare associations (RWAs).
All powerful outfits
The dilemma Hooda or for that matter Indian National Lok Dal (INLD) leader Om Prakash Chautala face is palpable. Both being Jat leaders would not want to antagonise the influential khap panchayats - now primarily a conglomeration of Jat clans.
Jats in Haryana are anyway a dominant caste with a 25% share in the state's population. Since 1996, the state has been successively ruled by a Jat chief minister. In fact, one of the reasons behind the ascendancy of Bhupinder Singh Hooda - in his twice being chosen as the chief minister by the Congress high command - was his Jat tag.
While the stance of Jat leaders towards khaps is understandable, the posture adopted by AAP is quite inexplicable. Former Delhi chief minister and AAP leader, Arvind Kejriwal, recently said that he ddidn't see the need to ban khap panchayats because they serve a cultural purpose. AAP's endorsement of khaps is also the outcome of some harsh words used by the khap leaders recently where they told the AAP that the support of khaps cannot be taken for granted. "It is very simple. No political party or leader would like to upset the khaps. That's what AAP is also doing, Except for the CPM which has been critical of the khaps, every other political party has been having a soft stand on khaps,'' says Ranbir Singh, a former professor of political science at Kurukshetra University.
Defiance goes on
On Thursday, national president of Bharatiya Kisan Union (BKU) and pradhan of Balyan khap, Naresh Tikait, questioned an apex court order which allowed the marriageable age youngsters to marry the person of their choice, Tikait asked the apex court not to get entangled with their customs.
"The marriage of our children is our sole business as when we invest over Rs 30-40 lakh on their education and upbringing. But when it comes to their marriage, they run away and live with girl of same gotra or village under protection of police directed by Supreme Court". Tikait said that the order which promoted youngsters to marry within clan, would promote crimes like honour killings, as after their children attempt, parents are forced to take extreme step to save their face in society. Tikait clarified that he was not challenging the Supreme Court, but merely asking them not to entangle itself in it, as it was their personal matter.
While khaps in it their original avatar are not stepping on the electoral scene of the state, several prominent khap chiefs have clear political affiliations and ambitions.
Om Prakash Dhankhar, pradhan of Dhankhar khap, has his affiliation towards Congress and regularly participate in party programmes. Sube Singh Samain, spokesperson of sarv khap panchayat; Santosh Dahiya, national president of women cell of khap panchayat; Tek Ram Kandela, pardhan of Kandel khap, owe their affiliation to Indian National Lok Dal (INLD). Kandela in fact is learnt to be eyeing for the Lok Sabha ticket from Sonepat, while Santosh Dahiya is eyeing an INLD nomination from Rohtak parliamentary constituency. Former pardhan of Nogama khap and sarpanch of Bibipur village, Sunil Jaglan, has his inclination towards the Aam Aadmi Party.
Image makeover activities
Under fire for decreeing honour killings, the khap panchayat had also been in an image-makeover mode. They probably got their first commendation in 2012 when they vowed to fight the menace of female foeticide.
Bibipur village of Jind district organised a mahakhap mahapanchayat to administer oath to end female foeticide. Haryana government also offered `1 crore assistance for correcting the child sex ratio in their area. Bibipur's initiative prompted other khaps to follow them. Recently on January 29, Meham Chaubisi organised a seminar on honour killings, inviting university scholars to brainstorm the issue.
AAP's take on Khap
While the Jat dominated khaps have so far cold shouldered AAP's overtures, deciding not attend to AAP Rohtak rally on February 23, AAP leaders are not discouraged. Haryana convener Ashwant Gupta told HT that be it any individual or organisation doing good work would get their support. But if they violate norms, rules and get involved in illegal activities, AAP would oppose it. "Our aim is not to come in power but to effect a change in the system,'' he said.
Khaps holding influence
Gathwala khap (also called Malik khap)
Biggest khap having influence in Sonepat, Rohtak and Jind. Malik gotra is the biggest gotra in Jat community. Currently Baljeet Singh is the self-styled pradhan of Gathwala khap.
Based in Sonepat district, it is seen as the most progressive khap. Had run several welfare programmes to promote education among women. Santosh Dahiya, who is a professor at KU, is the national president of this khap mahapanchayat.
Ahlawat khap: Based in Jhajjar and Rohtak, it is among the largest khaps in the state.
Sheoran and Sangwan khaps: Based in Bhiwani, both hold clout and hold panchayats to sort out contentious social issues.
Binain and Kandela khaps: Active in Jind.
Meham khap: Regarded as one of the most aggressive khaps that in the past refused to buckle under political pressure. It can also turn violent at the drop of a hat. Meham Chaubishi, openly sheltered and supported by indicted Congress leader Anand Singh Dangi during Om Prakash Chautala's reign.