This blog has been authored by Parishti Kaushik a first year student at GNLU, Gandhinagar as part of the IRALR Priming and Assistance Programme.
The topic of Khap Panchayats has been in the news off late. To mobilize support for the farmers, protest against the Farm Laws— Farmers’ Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Act, Farmers (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement on Price Assurance and Farm Services Act, and the Essential Commodities (Amendment) Act, in the states of Haryana and Western Uttar Pradesh, these Panchayats are being approached. These Panchayats are infamous for being unreasonably violent in cases of honour-killings in cases of inter-caste marriages and Kangaroo courts. Khaps are kind of rural councils and generally consists of Jats and sub-clans of Jats. As this is the community that has the power and means to control the large pockets of rural voters.
Most of the members of Khaps are farmers so they are clearly drawn towards the agitation as well. They have been a crucial part of Haryana’s politics whenever there has been a Jat Chief Minister in the state. However, with a non-jat individual being the Chief Minister, these panchayats have been off the stage for quite a while. Now, with the farmers agitation Khaps are back to the centre-stage of Haryana’s politics. In this article, the author will discuss the history of these Panchayats and their role in farmer protests.
HISTORY OF KHAPS
It is interesting to know that word ‘Khap’ was primarily used in 1890-91 in Jodhpur. Though, there is not a lot of authentic data available on Khaps which is one of the major challenges in its study. The word ‘Khap’ has come from the word ‘Khatrap’ which came from Sakha language. It basically means an area inhabited by a clan.
Khaps are historical communities of clans or related clans. It is a council that consists of people from the village usually from the one dominant caste. The dominant gotra/caste/clan is the one that has the majority control over the agricultural lands.
Though, when this concept started it consisted of various castes or sarv-jatiya. But with time, Jats have become dominant in this setting. A Khap panchayat includes the elders of the community who are considered the protectors of its socio-cultural traditions and norms. Unlike the village panchayats, it is not an elected body but employs quasi-judicial powers and authority much like a gram panchayat.
People usually have biased opinion of them. The ones who support it are of the opinion that it is a misunderstood social institution. On the flip side, the critics have said that they are not modern enough. The fact remains that other than the people living in rural Haryana and Uttar Pradesh, there is no understanding of Khap Panchayats. There has not been a lot of study over the aspects of Khap Panchayats but MC Pradhan is considered to be the one who did the earliest study on the systematic system of Khap Panchayats.
Information about the history of the Khap Panchayat is also found from an unpublished, handwritten document, commonly known as ‘pothi’, thus the ‘pothi’ of Pandit Kanha Ram, which goes into giving a detailed account of the locations and dates of Khap Panchayat meetings in early times. According to the ‘pothi’, the Khap Panchayats came together to fight against the atrocities of various medieval rulers. But no evidence could be traced in validation of the authenticity of this ‘pothi’.
Basically, one can say that these are loose social institutions as they have no proper election or any rules and regulations for their working. They work according to the majority opinion or mostly according to the ones who have the power and means. They came into existence to broadly perform three kinds of functions. First, to settle dispute amongst members of the community. Second, to act as a defendant for religious faith. Third, to protect the protect the Khap area from outside invasion.This used to happen in the medieval era but in modern times we have seen that these panchayats are being used as political tools cutting across party lines.
KHAPS AND FARMERS’ PROTESTS
The Khaps have a deep relation with their pride for their community. They have been providing food, supplies, organising materials and delegating duties in the name of supporting a common cause. Many past experiences have shown that Khap panchayats are at an exclusive space as ambassadors of reactionary politics whether it was imposing patriarchal gender norms on women, such as what not to eat, what not to wear, what technology not to use, whom not to marry, or enforcing castiest norms, such as cases of social boycott of Dalits and OBCs, Dalit atrocities and killings in inter-caste marriages or sagotra (same clan) or religious anxieties like western Uttar Pradesh’s communal riots. These incidents might not be directly done by Khap Panchayats but these cases often have their blessings or are backed up by the same sentiments.
In this fight against the authorities for demanding to revoke the three farm laws, the marshalling of commanding castes like Jats and their Khaps need to be recast in the context of the present circumstances. The trajectory of current farmers’ movement has presented a broad canvas that has challenged caste, gender and caste barriers and biases. The extensive participation of landless Dalits and women bear evidence to this.
These factors and the near-synonymous connection between Jat and Kisan, demands are breaking the conventional limits of Khap Panchayats that have so far carefully guarded the scope of their institution. The important question is that at the core of this farmers movement resides different identities of individuals. These identities of Dalits especially Dalit women pose anxious questions for these Khap Panchayats.
The institution that suppresses castes and supports gender bias since such a long time is now at crossroads. The stage is set for some very difficult question regarding the rights of women over land and the rights of landless Dalits and their exploitation. It is high time now that these issues are heard, discussed, criticised and resolved.
Khaps inherently have had a lot of power and authority in their communities and their decisions are usually considered final. People who question their verdicts are usually ousted out of the village or the family is faces boycott from the society or in worst case killed. As a pivotal performer in the above context, they have a handful of responsibilities. The hard truth is that farmers look up to these Khaps to do justice more than the government.
The power and support of farmers to the Khap panchayats is unquestionable. Their point of view is orthodox in nature and their mindsets are extremely rigid. With all the power they have, there are also responsibilities attached to it. With the farmers protest, they have become a national figure and now to maintain this position they have to become inclusive, democratic and open to change. This may seem like a colossal task but the history is the witness that with time changes are necessary. The present situation also gives them sufficient chance to set their foot in and the orchestration of farmers protest sets the clear path for them.
There is a dire need to involve women, Dalits and Muslims (the sections of the society who have mostly been the receivers of the Khaps directions.) These are desperate times and they demand a thorough inspection of events of the past, to put cautious steps towards the future. The outcomes of the farmers’ movement are unknown, but the social institutions like Khap panchayats must make the best of use this situation to resolve the question of agriculture etc. from the sphere of dominating castes and to the path eventually strengthening the farmers’ movement in its true and real sense.