BJP’s dominance, weak Oppn put khaps on backfoot in Haryana
For decades, they controlled the social life of thousands of villagers in Haryana’s hinterland with the might of caste-based diktats and influenced the political choices of thousands in every election.
But now, khaps, the once controversial self-styled caste bodies in Haryana, are gradually withdrawing from the political arena as they make concerted efforts to improve their image and present a moderate face.
Moreover, the dominance of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and a weakened Opposition has further hurt the influence of khaps. This time around, the only candidates with the backing of the khap are people who are long-time members of the particular body.
WHEN JATS HELD SWAY
There are 90-odd khaps spread mainly across eight districts dominated by the Jat community, which makes up a fourth of the state’s population.
Among the most powerful of them is the Meham Chaubisi, which controls 24 villages and holds sway in at least five assembly seats in Rohtak, Jind, Hisar and Bhiwani districts. Meham Chaubisi came under focus in the late 1960s, when its backing helped Congress candidate Ram Dhari win twice. In the ’80s, the body supported former chief minister Devi Lal thrice.
But in the 1989 assembly election, the khap split over supporting Lal’s son Om Prakash Chautala, leading to widespread violence that forced the authorities to defer the bypoll twice. “Meham Chaubisi has not unanimously supported any one candidate since. Either politics or the politicians caused this disunity,” said Tulsi Grewal, president of the body.
Some other khap leaders said they were focused on social issues in an effort to shed the image of being a hardline caste-based organisation. Surender Dahiya, head of the Dahiya (a Jat sub-caste) khap, said his body played a vital role in former chief minister Bansi Lal’s political career but have sworn off politics since then. Mahender Nandal, head of the Nandal khap, agreed. “Our main aim is to promote brotherhood among people,” he said.
In their heydays, khaps would pass a resolution supporting a particular party or candidate and it was an unwritten diktat to all villages falling under the body’s control to vote accordingly. Rajendra Sharma, head of the political science department, Maharishi Dayanand University (MDU), said most Khaps chose to not pass diktats for political support anymore in an effort to stave off any cracks in its unity.
There are other reasons behind the dwindling influence of the khaps, said KC Yadav, who taught history in Kurukshetra University and has authored several books history and culture of Haryana. “It is awareness and self interests of people belonging to different castes or community. People have also seen though political parties or politicians’ shift in loyalties after getting elected.”
An example of the khap’s waning influence was seen in September, when negotiation talks initiated by about a dozen khaps between the Indian National Lok Dal and the Jannayak Janata Party (JJP) broke down. Both regional parties are headed by factions of the influential Chautala family, who have deep roots and support base in many Jat-dominated khaps.
But other experts point out that though the influence of khaps has waned, they are still powerful bodies and many political parties continue to nominate senior khap leaders for the elections.
For example, the BJP nominated Baljit Singh Malik, head of the Gathwala khap, from the Baroda assembly seat in Sonepat district in 2014. This time, the BJP has fielded Shamsher Kharkara of Meham khap from Meham, the Bahujan Samaj Party has named Ramesh Dalal of Dalal Khap from Beri and JJP has nominated Santosh Dahiya, a member of Dahiya Khap in Ladwa.
“Khaps are still a pressure group on various social issues, though politically not many are active,” said Ramji Lal, former principal of a college in Karnal.