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Home / Chandigarh / In defence of khaps

In defence of khaps

Besides courting controversies, khaps have of late become a subject of study and research. Politicians do not like to talk about them and the media goes for overkill. Khaps have not been known to be serving only political interests. Rajbir Deswal writes

chandigarh Updated: Feb 11, 2014 10:01 IST
Rajbir Deswal
Rajbir Deswal

Besides courting controversies, khaps have of late become a subject of study and research. Politicians do not like to talk about them and the media goes for overkill. Khaps have not been known to be serving only political interests. In the 1970s, their cumulative strength, coupled with certain 'village combines', experienced being approached by politicians and political parties. Till then, the khaps' concerns had only been social, societal, custom-related, agrarian, matrimonial, gotra-related and cultural. Yes, they are part and parcel of Haryana's culture. During the past decade or so, certain 'undesirable actions' and 'questionable diktat' have been attributed to some local panchayats, which are not khaps.

More sinned against than sinning

Today, the khaps are much maligned institutions. They are being interpreted by different people in their own subjective way - mostly seen from a distance. They are alleged to "ostracise families, declare marriages void, make man and wife brother and sister and order abortions. The guilty can banished from the village, made to drink urine, paraded naked, beaten up or killed." This is an extreme view. People who are ignorant about the concept of khaps are substituting their calling with appellations having connotations only of crime, violence and ruthlessness. The media is mostly 'foreign' and dubs and paints khaps as villains which is a near-skewed and biased projection.

Domain of khaps

Khaps are typical to the geographical chunk on either side of the Yamuna in Haryana and Uttar Pradesh in the main Jat heartland. Some other castes have their own khaps, while gotra khaps also exist. Khaps have not been properly studied in their historical perspective, though these institutions enjoyed unquestionable social authority and influence not very long ago. They had their own indigenous mechanism to address issues where customs and prevalent culture was striven to be protected and projected. Membership is by birth in a certain caste khap or gotra khap. Women have not been known to be members of the khaps which definitely are 'all-male bodies'.

Who commands khaps?

Khaps have their mutually sustainable character with no organisational structure. They are a free-floating body whose members generally adhere to the command of the elders and their chiefs. In the past, their titular head wielded authority as just another elder, contrasted with the present day 'democracy-conscious' khaps. When the congregations were held, the chief would send a letter across to its members, which was called 'chitthi-paadna'. Those at the helm in the historical khaps have not been known to have dissenting views.

Not criminal by nature

The present day attributes of criminality have never been a concern with the khaps. Historically, these bodies have not been known to have handled criminal cases, not to talk of adjudicating. The recent examples where certain undesirable diktats were passed are not in keeping with what the khaps used to be. This Haryanvi writer can say with some sense of conviction that khaps have not been at the back of inciting, provoking, abetting and aiding criminal acts, or violence in the past.

The very structure of khaps has been dependent on, and draws its strength from the respect for, and recognition of the elderly, besides an assured brotherhood, within. Apart from the 'bade-boodhe' (elders), 'bhai-chara' (brothers or the bloodline), even 'rishte-dari' (relatives) used to help in the resolution of conflicts. Present day grandstanding by the rural youth, seeing a political alternative and potential for employment, has robbed the elders' role in khaps. As such what has come to stay in the name of khaps is a directionless, firebrand, self-styled overreach and overkill by the unemployed younger element. This trend is not in keeping with the tradition of the khaps and is disturbing.

Penal provisions

The system of punishment at the khaps was not at all corporal, not even considered to be hugely insulting, but remedial and corrective, which had the general consent of the community. Even the social ostracisation amounted to a comparatively innocuous 'hukka-pani bandh' . No khap was ever heard to have decreed a violent means to punish. Even after a diktat of externment, the victims could still cohabit in the selfsame society without having been caused any bodily harm; of course, the social ridicule and reprimand was there.

A sample of issues

If the brothers did not join the wedding of their sister's child, as was required of a custom, the community took it upon themselves to fulfil the social commitment. If a family accepted more dowry in marriage, when the other families realised that in the marriage of their children, they might not be able to afford it, the community intervened. If sowing a typical crop affected the prospects of other farmers, the panchayats checked it. If for a local measure, the people thought of a boycott or non-cooperation, one by one they put salt in a vessel filled with water, seeking and ensuring a common commitment by way of 'lota-noon' practice.

These communities, panchayats and khaps have been known to have intervened in such like issues. At times, they averted bloody wars between rivals; settled inter-village disputes and other land disputes. They have been known to be seeking and ensuring a ban on certain undesirable things, including liquor, drugs, gambling and wedding expenditures. There is a need to study the historical perspective of the khaps' social relevance. They need to be cleansed of the criminal and anti-social elements and vested political interests.

(Rajbir Deswal, an IPS officer, is a commentator on social issues of Haryana)