ABSTRACT: Khap Panchayats, which are community-based social institutions governing aspects of social and cultural life in certain parts of north-western India, have been quite long-standing socio-political institutions. Tracing the development of this institution is incomplete without a thorough examining of its socio-political intricacies. This article is going to focus on the history as well as the political and sociological interpretation of khap panchayats from their speculative inception to contemporary times in Indian society.
Understanding the Khap Panchayats with a Sociological Perspective
An Overview of Khap Panchayat as a Social Institution
The emergence of panchayats in general, as unofficial, yet sophisticated social institutions can be traced back to 14th and 15th century AD. Based on the manner of their functioning, khap panchayats are believed to have had a similarity with the then-prevalent tribal and agrarian societies of ancient India. (Kumar, 2012) A khap is simply an alliance of several elder community members usually belonging to one endogenous social group within a geographical area (like a village or a small town). In current times, decisions concerning multiple aspects of civil life such as marriages, inheritance, land disputes and general surveillance of societal behaviour within the community often come under the austere jurisdiction of the khap panchayats.
Broadly, khaps are formed in two categories. The first one usually consists of a council of elders all belonging to often the same gotra or clan from a particular caste and the second type consists of elders from a group of different villages, but exclusively of the same gotra. However, in certain instances, there have been multiple castes and gotras being represented within a khap. (Sangwan, 2008 as cited in Kumar, 2012) While the general rules about the formation of a khap are not very rigid, there is a strong focus on kinship or sentiment of fraternity or ‘bhaichaara’, when it comes to the constitution of a khap.
Khaps are unique to the Jat community originating in Haryana, western Uttar Pradesh and parts of Rajasthan. Here, the Jats have been a dominant community for a very long time, especially since they have had important positions in the regulation of land revenue-related activities right from the period of the Mughals. Influential Jats within a khap were employed even by the British for their colonial land acquisitions.
However, it is quite interesting to note that the existence of khaps before the period of Mughals is quite debatable because there is no written record to suggest that khap panchayats were held in those days. (Bharadwaj, 2012) The Jats, through their social standing and ability to exercise power, have historically had great control over the social life of members not just within the community but also, on those outside it, that is, people from the lower castes. Naturally, this control can be considered representative of caste-based hierarchies and privileges in Indian society.
Kinship within the Jat community and Its Impact on Khaps
For the Jat community, kinship rules are dependent on the social identity factor called gotra or clan, wherein it is believed that members belonging to the same gotra all have a common ancestor. Usually, a single khap consists of members belonging to the same gotra. Accordingly, the Jat community comprises multiple gotras, all of which result in the formation of individual khaps. A confederation of multiple khaps results in the formation of what is known as a ‘sarva-khap’ and the extent of their power supersedes that of individual khaps.
The traditional kinship patterns enforce strict rules of gotra exogamy within the Jat community. In terms of rules of marriage, it is believed that members within one single gotra are considered to be brothers and sisters. Marriage within the same gotra is considered to be incest and therefore, these marriages are always viewed as immoral and undesirable. As in many parts of the world, the Jat community follows a patrilineal pattern of kinship, so the head of the household as well as of the community at large will always be a man. It is quite interesting, therefore, how the sense of community is mediated through a very hypermasculine understanding, manifesting in the notion of ‘brotherhood.’
The system of khaps is a classic example of kinship within a patriarchal society. Not only are there very strict rules concerning marriage, the question of inheritance of land and property and other forms of socio-cultural interactions between the villagers, but also these rules are established in a manner that specifically harms the social position of women in the society. Furthermore, the Jat community, although quite diverse within itself in terms of caste representation, is also known to function along with the insidious rules of caste apartheid.
Also Read: Kinship Organization in India
The Hegemony of Jats and their influence of Khap Panchayats
By establishing a very stronghold in the north-western belt of India, the Jat community has created a deep-seated hegemony that functions on the ideals of upholding community honour and an often-draconian understanding of morality, particularly at the cost of women and members of other marginalised communities. As mentioned earlier in this article, most of ‘judgements’ passed by the khap panchayat in recent times have been related to inter-caste or intra-gotra marriages. Several of these marriages been simply broken off or the couple has been a target of ostracism and the use of violent acts like a reminder for all members of the community about the extent of the power of the khap panchayats.
However, just the judgments themselves are only a part of the problem. The main concern in the case of the khap panchayats is the punishment that is meted out to the ‘culprits.’ The violence or ‘honour killings’ which are rampant in north-western India are actually the sentencing that ‘deviant’ individuals are given. This is a known fact, thanks to the unbridled sensationalizing that these incidents are met with through news channels and other forms of media. Violence in the form of public lynching, death by stoning or simply murder (that often gets masqueraded as suicide) is the fate that awaits any individual who challenges the social norms prescribed by the khap panchayats.
The community sanctioning of this kind of brutality is quite reminiscent of hegemonic and complicit masculinity (Connell, 1995 as cited in Thapar- Björkert, 2014) While not all members necessarily engage in violence, they still act as mute spectators in these incidents. Collectively, members of the khap panchayat continue to uphold a very orthodox perspective of communal harmony and equilibrium, which is enabled by keeping all members under a watch for any wrongdoing.
Social Sanctioning of the Khap Panchayats and the Need to Address it as a Sociological Problem
Despite the deadly reputation that they have earned in recent times, khap panchayats continue to be treated like time-honoured institutions, not only within the community but also by many elements of the local state machinery. So, many of their rulings are not only obeyed by people but even seen as more binding than laws stipulated by the state. There is a general sentiment of reverence when it comes to any decision being made by the khaps. But the fact that remains is that the socio-political power the khap panchayats enjoy is not sanctioned by the Indian state. However, there are several reasons why their authority goes unchallenged.
Firstly, it is important to know that in crucial periods in history such as in the Mughal era and the British colonial period, the khap panchayats were viewed as desirable by several officers in the respective periods, mainly because of civil disputes and local matters were voluntarily being handled by the elders of the community. Over time, this system of settling quarrels within the community itself, came to form a much more sophisticated entity in the form of the panchayat. (Singh, 2010; Bharadwaj, 2012; Kumar, 2012)
However, khap panchayats, unlike the gram panchayats which are state-governed bodies in Indian villages, are extra-judicial bodies without any basis within the judicial framework of India. Combining the sophistication of the khaps with the feeling of fraternity or ‘bhaichaara’ amongst the different gotras has led to the Jat community developing a greater sense of reliability towards the rulings of the khap panchayats, owing to which, in all matters, their ‘advice’ is viewed as most infallible.
Moreover, the male-dominated demographic of the khap panchayat not only excludes women from any decision-making process, but also presumes to decide how they must behave within the community. Women hardly figure into the constitution of the khap panchayats, meaning that any decision concerning their lives being made by the khap panchayat would just aggravate their marginalisation and vulnerable position in society.
The activities of the khap panchayat often occur in broad daylight and yet, state machinery, local authorities and judicial institutions never intervene into the matters of the khap panchayat. In fact, there have been several MPs and ministers in Haryana, who have openly condoned the violence being wreaked by the khaps. Many of the state representatives and ministers are themselves part of the community and also, defying or challenging the khaps would mean that they would lose their vote-banks in these regions.
Thus, a cultural, social and even judicial hegemony ensures that the Jat community dominates the regions of north-western India, creating a culture of orthodoxy and conservatism at the cost of the human rights of individuals within the community. But does it mean that people facing the ubiquity of the khap panchayats are completely dispensable? In India, even with the ever-increasing number of challenges thrown at the integrity of national harmony and socio-cultural equality of all citizens, most people like to proudly claim that there is democracy for all citizens. But clearly, the victims of the khap panchayat seem to fall beyond the purview of the Indian constitution as they are constantly denied the basic fundamental rights promised by the Indian state.
The only way to move forward here is to primarily, acknowledge the quasi-judicial status of the khap panchayats. Challenging any kind of hegemony is barely an easy task. However, a much more robust and objective judicial system and law-and-order institutions can strive for a better redressal mechanism when it comes to the violence instigated by the khaps. Furthermore, the gram panchayats at the village level tend to take a backseat when it comes to addressing local disputes. There is a strong need to create an ecosystem of authority that emboldens the power of these gram panchayats so that the hold by the khaps gets slackened.
Lastly, the root cause of most socio-cultural problems in India is the deep-rooted presence of the caste system in nearly every area of life. Acknowledging that the dominance of khap panchayats is a result of ignoring their caste-specific rulings can go a long way in addressing the issue of khap panchayats.
- Bharadwaj, S. (2012). Myth and Reality of the Khap Panchayats: A Historical Analysis of the Panchayat and Khap Panchayat*. Studies in History, 28(1), 43-67. DOI: 10.1177/0257643013477250
- Connell, R. (1995) Masculinities (Cambridge: Polity Press) in Thapar-Björkert S. (2014) ‘If there were no khaps […] everything will go haywire […] young boys and girls will start marrying into the same gotra’: Understanding Khap-Directed ‘Honour Killings’ in Northern India. In: Gill A.K., Strange C., Roberts K. (eds) ‘Honour’ Killing and Violence. Palgrave Macmillan, London. https://doi.org/10.1057/9781137289568_8
- Kumar, A. (2012). Khap Panchayat. Economic and Political Weekly, 47(4), 59-64.
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- Singh, R. (2010). The Need to Tame the Khap Panchayats. Economic and Political Weekly, 47(21), 17-18.
- Vakharia, P. (2018). Legal Justice and The Fault in Our Khap Panchayats. Retrieved 22 April 2021, from https://feminisminindia.com/2018/03/22/legal-justice-panchayats/