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The purposes of ‘tradition’

Khaps are a cover for the crisis of patriarchal authority in northwest India

Written by Surinder S Jodhka |
October 15, 2012 3:03:44 am

Khaps are a cover for the crisis of patriarchal authority in northwest India

Middle-class Indians generally have an ambivalent attitude towards tradition — while they like to be seen as “modern”,they are reluctant to make a decisive break with custom.

Perhaps the starting point of the problem is the very binary of “traditional” and “modern”. Since the years of the colonial enlightenment project,middle-class Indians have been educated to believe that cultures,economies and social relations can be classified into two categories,the “modern” signifying the kind of society that the West became after the industrial revolution. While community,caste and joint family were examples of traditional social life,modern societies were organised around individualism and based on rationality. The idea of modernity also carried with it a theory of history. Modernity was not only a culture of the West,it was also our future,desirable and inevitable.

Notwithstanding its power and influence across the world,the idea of modernity has been contested and critiqued. And yet,it is surprising that we have barely interrogated the idea of tradition,which is simply assumed to be the baggage of the past. While some practices had to be discarded with time,other traditions could/ should be retained and constantly revitalised. As the social reformers of the 19th century would have it,sati and purdah were “bad” traditions,while Indian family values were “good” and must be preserved.

Though we have a come a long way from the impulses of the 19th century in other ways,the modern-traditional binary has endured in a fundamental way — as a “common sense” framing metaphor. The problem with this approach to our past and present is that it blocks us from engaging with questions of power and politics of personal relations and the contemporary dynamics of institutions like caste,kinship and family. For example,there is indeed an element of tradition in institutions like the caste system and kinship relations. However,they are not frozen in time. They have their own dynamics,their politics and possibilities.

It is in this context that we need to understand the connection that khap leaders have tried to suggest between rape and some notion of tradition and family. Rape is simply a criminal act. No civilised society would treat it otherwise. How could anyone even think of providing an apology or explanation for rape? The attempt of khap leaders to connect it with the “age of marriage” of girls seems shocking as an attempt to justify a criminal act and project the rapist as a victim of circumstances.

The khap leaders were obviously not contemplating a legal change only for the dominant caste community they represent,but their primary concern is kinship,the boys and girls of their own caste. The current khap “activism” around the question of the age at which girls marry is closely connected to what they have been pushing for over the last several years,their move to restrict intra-gotra marriages and their positions on “honour killings”. The underlying purpose is the reassertion of patriarchal authority and control over the sexuality of “their” women.

The decline of patriarchal authority must seen in the context of our recent history. The green revolution of the 1970s significantly increased the economic might and political power of the landowning dominant castes in northwest India. As has been shown by empirical studies,it was from these dominant caste communities that a new breed of regional elites emerged during the post-Independence period. Their power in regional politics came directly from their control over the local agrarian economy and the local social order of caste.

However,economic development also opened up the village to larger national narratives. As the poor began to move out of village for more dignified employment,the rich invested part of their surplus on education of their children. Initially it was only the boys who went on to study in the towns and universities outside the village. By the late 1990s,as urban life appeared more attractive,even daughters were allowed to pursue higher studies,which would help them find urban grooms. However,once educated,these women wished to exercise their agency in shaping their lives. It is this urge among the upwardly mobile from amongst the dominant caste communities to move beyond the village that creates a crisis of authority within the families,which makes the “older” patriarchs simply irrelevant. However,they are unwilling to forgo their traditional authority. The khap provides them a “legitimate” platform to reassert their authority,even if it implies finding excuses for heinous crimes like rape in the name of “tradition”

The writer is professor of sociology at Jawaharlal Nehru University,New Delhi

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