One can hardly miss an invite for afternoon tea at the Bharatiyam, a swank restaurant at New Delhi’s Constitution Club, with a man whose beliefs put tradition over the Constitution. ‘I will be the only one in the room in a white turban – you will have no problem recognising me,’ the voice on the phone chuckled beforehand. Sure enough, in his 60s and over six feet tall, Chaudhary Ramkaran Solanki stands out against the office-goers at the restaurant, dressed in the traditional garb of the Jat – a spotless white shirt, turban, dhoti, with a matching white moustache (see pic). I was curious to meet Solanki, the head of a body of khap panchayats (caste councils) whose coverage extends to 360 villages in and around Delhi. The khaps are social institutions that date back centuries but lack sanction under Indian law. This year, however, khaps have been increasingly in the news due to their tacit support for the recent spate of killings, in the name of ‘honour’, across several states in North India – as well as the realisation of their influence over local-level politics.
Khaps might strike many as anachronistic, defying reason in the eyes of the liberal, urban observer in India and elsewhere. But there is little that is particularly eccentric about Solanki. He wields the latest cell-phone model and is clearly media-savvy – hence our meeting in the heart of Lutyens’s Delhi. Khaps are battling forces ‘bent on undermining ancient practices’, Solanki stresses, and over the course of our conversation he is willing to give little ground. I try to steer the conversation towards the recent ‘honour killings’ – brutal murders of young men and women who wanted to marry for love, defying community norms – and the widely held view that village elders, who make up the khap panchayats, support such crimes. Solanki makes it clear that he does not want to comment on the honour killings. But he would like a government crackdown on couples who dare to engage in same-gotra (clan) marriage.
In July, Solanki says, he organised a meeting of community elders from villages in and around Delhi to deliberate the issue. At the end, they gave an ultimatum to both the central government and the state government of Haryana: amend the Hindu Marriage Act of 1955 to ban marriages within the same gotra and within the same village, in deference to local custom. In November, there will be another meeting to take a final decision on the issue, he says. Yet the focus on ‘same-gotra marriage’ seems a shrewd attempt to deflect attention from the broader issue of marriages of choice, of which same gotra-marriages are a subset.
When pushed to speak his mind on the honour killings, Solanki gets testy. ‘Why should I talk about it?’ he asks, his voice rising. ‘No such case has been referred to us. All the noise about honour killing is being made by NGOs and the media. Khaps have nothing to do with any killing – these are individual matters of families, and the vast majority of young people listen to us. Ninety-nine percent of people in India have arranged marriages: they respect tradition.’
Eventually, Surendra, his younger son, comes up to our table. ‘If we don’t uphold Hindu tradition, then Hindustan will disappear,’ he says, echoing his father. Yet when I ask whether I can take a photograph of father and son together, Surendra declines. It turns out that he is a businessman and a member of the Indian Youth Congress, the youth wing of the Congress party, and worries about the consequences of publicly aligning too closely with his father. Oddly, the senior Solanki’s parting thoughts are about the Commonwealth Games, being held in October. While the country at large is disgusted by the myriad corruption scandals involving the Games, the khap leader pledges his unstinting support for the event. ‘Villagers in my area are ready to provide transport and free accommodation for our guests. We have no issue with the Commonwealth Games. All we want is for the government to accept our demands on same-gotra weddings.’
As New Delhi mulls over measures to tackle honour killings, khap panchayats remain defiant. Khaps were not in the line of fire in the case of the murder of Nirupama Pathak, a young Delhi-based journalist, at her home in Jharkhand in late April. But neither did they condemn it. The case brought the horror of such killings to the capital’s professional elite. The most disturbing aspect of the Pathak case was the realisation that staunch opponents of marriage of choice and personal freedom were not confined to the ranks of the uneducated and those living in the rural backwaters.
Nirupama had wanted to marry a former classmate, who was of another caste. A debate raged in the media over whether she was murdered to preserve the ‘honour’ of her family, or whether she had committed suicide. Strangely, an educated woman such as Nirupama could choose her career but not her partner, nor the nature of her relationship with him. To her bank-manager father, educated mother and brothers with postgraduate qualifications, nothing, not even India’s Constitution, seemed to matter. ‘We did not educate her so that she could do everything of her own choice,’ said Dharmendra, Nirupama’s father.
Several such deaths, each under suspicious circumstances, have indicated a rising trend of killings over ‘honour’, and forced the central government to start work on a special law. At the time of writing, though, the future of the proposed legislation is shrouded in uncertainty. The United Progressive Alliance (UPA) in New Delhi had announced planned amendments and passage of appropriate legislation banning honour killings. But quickly thereafter, the government said it would need to discuss the matter with the respective state governments before taking any action. New Delhi has set up a Group of Ministers (GoM) tasked to look into the issue and suggest measures to deal with such crimes. But thus far there is no consensus on future course of action. According to newspaper reports, Bhupinder Singh Hooda, chief minister of Haryana, has told the GoM about the difficulties his state would face in implementing any proposed law curbing honour killings. Other states in North India are also said to be unenthusiastic about the proposed law.
The decision to let a Group of Ministers deliberate on this contentious matter is seen by some as a delaying tactic by politicians worried over the bulk votes typically delivered by the khaps. No politician who canvases for votes in the ‘Jat belt’ (comprising Delhi, Haryana, Punjab, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh) has yet unequivocally condemned the casteist, regressive responses given by clan leaders and family members of the victims. In fact, none has even specifically condemned these murders, nor come out in support of young people who transgress boundaries of caste, religion or clan in pursuit of love. Some have even come out in full support of the khaps – Naveen Jindal, for instance, a Congress MP from Kurukshetra in Haryana, and Om Prakash Chautala, head of the Indian National Lok Dal.
The spurt of killings in the name of ‘honour’ might appear to be a battle between tradition and modernity. But activists at the forefront of this issue point to reasons that are not so obvious – power, patriarchy and property. ‘You have to ask why society hates those who marry for love. There are many factors at play here … and it is only partially about preservation of tradition,’ says Jagmati Sangwan, an academic specialising in women’s studies and Haryana state president of the All India Democratic Women’s Association. Sangwan. Haryana is among the states worst hit by the recent spate of ‘honour’ crimes. ‘Haryana, for example, is predominantly an agricultural society with feudal mores,’ Sangwan says. ‘For most people, land has been the only source of income and predictably, social relations are intertwined with land ownership.’ Today, however, this is changing quickly, with young people moving out of the villages en masse. ‘Relationships are naturally affected,’ Sangwan continues. ‘The young boys and girls who have more exposure are more educated and aware, and want the right to make personal choices – including choice of partner. This awareness and assertiveness is resented by those who have been in control all this time.’
If a woman chooses her own partner, Sangwan says, she is also saying she will lead her own life. ‘What happens then?’ she asks. ‘Upper castes have land and property. The law gives women equal rights, and their names are often mentioned in the property deeds. But if a woman tries to actually take control of her share of land and property, she meets with violence, even death.’ Further, such conflicts are intensifying because land transactions are rising in areas such as Haryana and western Uttar Pradesh, where land prices have skyrocketed in recent years. Thus, Sangwan says, ‘The woman who wants her way in marriage is seen as someone who could potentially stake her claim on land and property. The fear is that if she is allowed to marry for love, she may marry someone out of caste, perhaps lower caste, and her children could also demand a share of family assets.’
Judicial, not political
Supreme Court lawyer and activist Ravi Kant agrees with Sangwan that the issue of gotra is increasingly being used as a strategic issue. ‘Out of 2000 cases reported to the Punjab and Haryana High Court over the last five years by couples who have sought legal protection because they fear death or injury from their families, less than one percent are alliances within the same gotra,’ he says. ‘But gotra is being made into an issue because it can be used to mobilise masses.’ Kant believes the fundamental problem is the ‘tyranny’ of the community elders in upholding community norms – and disciplining transgressors.
The surge in honour killings can also be seen as a backlash against judicial indictments of culprits who were used to getting away. In March, a judgement in Haryana’s Karnal district sentenced five people, including a khap leader, to death by hanging for the June 2007 murder of Manoj and Babli, a young couple who had married within the same gotra. The case marked the first such verdict for an ‘honour killing’ case in Haryana. The caste councils reacted to the judgement with fury, passing a resolution declaring they were ‘above judicial courts as they were ensuring rules and regulation to run societies smoothly well before courts came into existence.’ In early August, India’s Supreme Court gave life sentences to three people who had killed six members of a family in Uttar Pradesh in the name of honour.
In India, the judicial system has been stepping in where politicians have failed. In Sangwan’s view, such quick decisions and strong punishments in ‘honour’ cases will go a long way in redressing the problem. For now, however, politics seems to have stymied new legislation that could deal resoundingly with the increased belligerence of the khap panchayats.