Squatting on the floor of her courtyard cleaning dishes, Chandrapati’s face lights up at the mention of her son Manoj. “Bahut intelligent ladka tha ji, hamesha hasta rehta tha (He was a very intelligent boy, always smiling).”In June 2007, Manoj, 24, was killed, along with wife Babli, 22. Both residents of Karora village in Haryana’s Kaithal district, they fell foul of the same ‘gotra (clan)’ rule of the Banwala khap panchayat.
In 2010, the Karnal District Court handed the death penalty to Babli’s brother Suresh, cousins Gurdev and Satish, paternal uncle Rajender, and maternal uncle Baru Ram. Her grandfather and khap leader Gangaraj was given life imprisonment. The driver of the vehicle allegedly used in the crime, Mandeep Singh, was sentenced to seven years.
“It was a first. Never before was such a judgment given in the case of an honour killing dictated by the khap,” recalls Seema, 30, Manoj’s sister who is a constable now.
With the family still fighting the case in the Supreme Court, she is guarded while talking about her eldest sibling. But the Supreme Court’s remarks on January 16, observing that “any adult” has “the right to marry anyone”, makes her wonder — Could Manoj and Babli have lived?
Now, over 10 years after the two killings, speaking on behalf of the khaps of Haryana in the Supreme Court, Lt Gen D P Vats (retd) claimed that threatening a boy or a girl over marriage is “a thing of the past”. “Things are changing. There is a need for an educational, persuasive and participative approach in dealing with the khaps, and not one which is coercive and punitive,” he says. In the SC, Vats also said that khaps are open to inter-caste marriages now because of the state’s skewed sex ratio and to keep up with the times.
Covering 42 villages across four tappas (blocks), the Satrol khap of Hisar is Haryana’s biggest khap panchayat. It is also the first reflection of the ‘change’ that Vats refers to. In 2014, it “made history” by allowing inter-caste marriages and marriages within the khap, provided the bride and the groom didn’t share the 3 ‘Gs’ — “gotra, gaon and govand (clan, village and neighbouring village)”.
The 74-year-old president of Satrol khap, Inder Singh Mor, at whose behest the change was initiated, says it was the only way to stay relevant. “Haryana has a poor sex ratio and there are not enough brides for our men. Female foeticide is a problem. Several youths came to us raising concerns about their marriage,” says Mor, at his house in Baas village in Hisar district. “It took me over two years. Finally 90 per cent of the tappas agreed, and we changed the rules.”
Hisar district has a sex ratio of 860 females per 1,000 males. Since 2014, there have been 25 “intra-khap” and two inter-caste marriages in villages under Satrol khap.
Jagjeet Jhakhar’s was one such marriage. On November 26 last year, the 25-year-old of Kheri Gagan village married Saroj, 20, from Saman Puthi; both villages are part of the Satrol khap. While acknowledging that the 2014 change made the marriage possible, Jhakhar, a farmer, is all for khaps. “Khaps should never allow marriage within the same gotra. A brother-sister should never be allowed to marry,” he asserts.
Like Jhakhar, Sudesh Choudhary is a beneficiary of the new rules. She is the president of the women’s wing of Satrol khap, the only such body in the khap belt.
Choudhary, 50, recalls a time when women were not allowed to even enter the village chaupal. “They could not talk about their grievances with the men. The women needed a separate body,” she says.
While she admits this is rare, Choudhary insists that appointments like hers are proof that the khaps are moving forward. “The restrictions on phones, jeans for girls are all a thing of the past because even members of khaps have children and they can’t stop them. Why would they then impose such rules on society?” she says.
However, Jagmati Sangwan, the former general secretary of the All India Democratic Women’s Association, who has been fighting for enactment of a law against honour killings, claims that cases of it have increased and khaps have been “emboldened by the appeasement of the government”.
“In 2014, when Prime Minister Narendra Modi came to Haryana to campaign, his opening line was ‘Mai khapon ki bhoomi ko naman karta hoon (I salute the khap land)’. The present state government has given tickets to khap members,” says Sangwan. “We are now planning to have a private member’s Bill introduced in Parliament for a law against honour killings.”
In 2010, Naveen Jindal, the then Congress MP from Kurukshetra had praised the khaps at a mahapanchayat in Kaithal, and extended support to their demand to amend the Hindu Marriage Act to prohibit same gotra marriages. Former Haryana CM Om Prakash Chautala too backed the demand.
Advocate Lal Bahadur Khowal, who has been representing Manoj’s family in court since 2007, says the apex court’s observations are important. “The khaps will always be there, but remarks like these give confidence to victims and their families. People are now coming forward and filing complaints against khap violence,” he says.
In Karora village, Manoj’s family members continue to be boycotted, allegedly on the khap’s orders. “We have fought for the smallest of things since,” says Seema who is preparing for her judiciary exams. The family relies on Seema’s salary (Rs 28,000 per month) and her father’s pension now. Her younger sister Rekha, 28, has completed her Class 12 and brother Vinod, 25, is preparing for the civil services in Chandigarh.
About the Supreme Court’s remarks, Seema says that’s not enough. “The courts issues orders everyday, who listens? It is people who are part of the khaps, who will change their beliefs?” On her brother’s case, she adds, “People from TV came, books were written… But people in this country have a habit of forgetting things.”