New Delhi: Famous for being distrustful of technology, khap panchayats seem to be coming around and exploring its benefits, especially with the Covid-19 pandemic ruling out large gatherings.
On 24 May, as many as 57 khaps spread across Delhi, Haryana, Punjab, Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan participated in a first-of-its-kind online khap via Zoom, the videoconferencing app.
The meeting is now a weekly affair, with the third ‘get-together’ planned for the coming Sunday. The issues discussed include some of the most grievous social ills, from retaliation against inter-caste marriage to domestic violence. Videos of these sessions are later shared through WhatsApp groups.
The initiative is being led by Sunil Jaglan, the convener of the Rashtriya MahaKhap Panchayat, a Haryana-based organisation that coordinates among khaps and also operates in Uttar Pradesh, who said he brought together the representatives of various khap panchayats to address the rise in domestic violence cases and the sporadic incidents of honour killing during the lockdown.
Apart from the khap representatives, the two online sessions held so far have included social workers and young couples who eloped.
“After the nationwide lockdown, I received calls from several women who were victims of domestic violence. I forwarded their complaints to the National Commission for Women. Telephone numbers of the superintendents of police (SP) of the districts concerned were also shared with these women. However, none of these steps helped a lot,” Jaglan told ThePrint.
“Therefore, we thought about including the khaps from all the states. Due to the lockdown conditions, the only mode of such a meet or assembly was online,” he said, adding that it was “a herculean task to digitally connect people who were once staunchly opposed to the idea of a digital world”.
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“It was an enormous challenge to include khaps, who were once totally opposed to mobile phones, in a gender discourse with the help of these phones.”
But the idea is catching on. Ramakaran Solanki of Palam 360 khap, which represents 360 Delhi villages, said modernity needs to be embraced. “There was a time when the khaps were opposed to the world of internet but now they also feel the need of it. You must embrace modernity for the sake of progress,” he added.
‘Maximum participation of women’
In the first online khap session, Jaglan said, they discussed topics like incompatible marriages, the practice of not spending much on girls’ education, rising atrocities against women caused by intoxication, and growing unemployment. There were about 22-25 women speakers in the session, he added.
“Our aim is to ensure maximum participation of women in these sessions,” Jaglan said.
The second session was organised on 31 May, and the topic discussed was inter-caste marriages, which has been reported as one of the key motives of honour killings. Representatives of 49 khaps from three states participated in this session, as did several married inter-caste couples. The session involved a discussion between the two sides on their viewpoints.
The participants included a youth from a backward caste who eloped with an upper caste woman last year. “The biggest problem is faced by upper caste women getting married into lower caste families. My spouse’s family told us that we will not kill you, but we will also not maintain any relationship with you,” he told ThePrint.
His wife told the khap panchayats that it was often pressure from society that drove parents to kill their own children. If khap panchayats cease to oppose inter-caste marriages, she said, then “families will not feel the pressure to indulge in honour killing”.
Tulsi Grewal of Rohtak’s Meham Chaubisi was one of many khap leaders who agreed with the couple. Grewal added, “The pressure also comes from the unequal distribution of wealth among different castes. So, the real culprit here is the class difference between castes. Poverty and unemployment are among the biggest fears that keep families from not marrying their daughters/sons into other castes.”
Jaglan said upcoming sessions will deal with discussions on the Hindu Marriage Act and its legal provisions, so that the khaps can overcome their “notorious image” and an amenable society can be developed.
A grassroots advocate
Jaglan, a resident of Bibipur village in Haryana’s Jind district, has been at the forefront of tackling gender bias at the grassroots level for years now. He is the one who inspired PM Narendra Modi’s “Selfie with Daughter” campaign, which was aimed at addressing orthodox notions that associate the birth of a girl child with misfortune.
In 2012, during a MahaKhap held at Bibipur village of Jind district, he called for the participation of women in the discussions. At the time, his idea was vehemently opposed by several delegates, but his sister Ritu Jaglan subsequently became the first woman to get a chance to speak at a khap panchayat in 2012.
Following in Ritu’s footsteps, several other women have also managed to present their views at khap panchayats over the years.
“At first when I started speaking, it felt a bit strange. But after addressing the meet, it felt that I should have started it long ago. In 2012, we were talking about stopping female foeticide. However, in 2020, we are now talking about (letting women marry) the boys of their choice,” she said.
“This much change is quite visible. But if the khaps only engage in pleasant talk during these online sessions in order to improve their image, while remaining ignorant about the honour killings taking place on the ground, there is no use of going digital,” she added.
“Khaps need to openly oppose it and village-level awareness campaigns should be organised to increase awareness against it.”
Ritu is currently working as a khap coordinator. Speaking to ThePrint, she said efforts were being made to take these online sessions to the masses through campaigns on Facebook and other digital mediums.
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