Women dare the dreaded khap panchayat in their fight against honour killings and the larger praxis of caste discrimination
Prabhat Shunglu | April 6, 2010
This is the story of two women. This is the story of India in transition. This is the story of Chandrapati. This is the story of Vani Gopal Sharma. The former is a 55-year-old widow from a Haryana village who steadfastly took on the dreaded system of ‘khap panchayat,’ in her fight for justice against the brutal killing of her son by his in-laws. The latter a judge who did not blink pointing out the rot in the system and signing out the death warrant of those who run kangaroo courts sitting on judgement on anything not palatable to their egos.
Some north Indian states, including Haryana, are notoriously famous for violent ruling by khap ( caste ) panchayats particularly in matters of same ‘gotra’ ( lineage ) marriage. In conservative Hindu customs, as practiced in certain rural societies of North India, same ‘gotra’ marriage is considered akin to marriage between a brother and a sister. The khap panchayat steps in to assume the role of an adjudicator and invariably strike out the marriage as null and void. They threaten family members of dire consequences if they failed to call off this ‘unholy’ alliance. Often the threat is more direct and crude. The khap panchayat issues a death warrant against the married couples on the run. Armed with khap panchayat fatwas the family members of the couple launch a massive hunt for their children with an intent to extinguishing their lives. Chandrapati’s son Manoj was similarly put to a violent death. His body was found hanging by a village tree. His wife, Babli, was also murdered by her family members.
Manoj’s mother Chandrapati was not to be cowed down by terrorists roaming in the guise of men of ‘honour.’ She wanted her son’s killers behind the bars. Two and a half years later Chandrapati’s efforts bore fruit when karnal’s District Sessions Judge Vani Gopal Sharma granted capital punishment to five of the accused. Underlining the menace she wrote in her judgement: Honour killings need to be curbed by legislation categorizing such crimes as a separate offence, giving a clear message.
The judge, Vani Sharma’s, message was loud and clear. An act of crime will only be read as one and that no body is above law. The subtle arguments put forth by Vani Sharma in her 96-page judgement only goes to reflect the state of mind of mothers ( both Manoj and Babli’s mothers, Chandrapati and Ompati respectively ): The present case is a classic example and reflects a long standing tradition of oppression against women. It has to be curbed by legislation categorizing such honour killing as a separate offence. Chandrapati’s untiring crusade and Vani Gopal Sharma’s fearless ruling come as a fresh whiff of air that holds out promise of hope and change. While the grit and gumption of Chandrapati was in the mould of Rani Jhansi the latter’s argument in her judgement were patterened on the lines of intellectual reasoning and sharpness that so described Gargi in the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad as an outstanding argumentative Indian.
Incidentally, while these two courageous women emerged as the tableau of courage, dignity and justice those at the helm of political power frittered away their chances to rise to the occasion. The khap panchayat’s unhindered free run was ably matched by the apathy of the administration which shied away from arresting the menace. The chief minister of this Congress-ruled state, instead, promised to build shelter homes for married couples on the run out of fear of khap panchayats. And by doing so he sought to also shelter the dreaded men of ‘honour,’ when, instead, an act of law against ‘honour killings’ was the need of the hour.
Interestingly enough, the UPA chairperson Sonia Gandhi who remote-controls a hand-picked team of Congress ministers, including the prime minister, was seemingly oblivious to the spate of ‘honour’ killings in her backyard ( Haryana almost juts into Delhi from three sides ) as more and more young couples were subjected to Talibani diktats in the name of defending family honour. The level of Congress brand of double standards was almost in proportion at both power centres: New Delhi and Chandigarh. While Mr Hooda sought to built ‘shelter homes’ Sonia Gandhi sought to ‘empower’ women by reserving seats for them in Parliament by ushering in the most controversial bill of the decade.
In states where khap panchayats rule the roast and a weak-willed political administration looks the other way merely talking numbers in terms of reservation in Parliament is certainly a bad idea for empowering women. The idea behind panchayati raj, where power lay with elected members of the village, was also to undercut the illegal sweep of khap panchayats. Unfortunately, past 25 years khap panchayats ( caste courts ) have only grown to menacing proportions challenging the democratic system of Panchayati Raj itself.
Social empowerment will have to precede political empowerment in a society fed on male chavunism, a society divided deeply on caste lines ( women suffering most of the brunt of caste divides and social mores ) a society where a girl child is killed unceremoniously in her mother’s womb, ( Haryana has one of the lowest sex ratio among Indian states ) where a girl child suffers discrimination in favour of her brother in matters of education, health and nutrition. Social empowerment through education will naturally flower into demand for political empowerment.
A law to curb the menace of violent diktats of kangaroo courts such as khap panchayat is always welcome; in fact, should have come much earlier as a piece of Union legislation. But again, legislations do not and cannot work in vacuum. The intent behind drafting any legislation should be above reproach. No legislation can work if the will to implement it is weak and when the law makers themselves silently conspire to asphyxiate the law to further their own political constituency. An iron will to empowering the last person on the social ladder will be the most potent argument the State can put forth as a genuine display of honour and tribute to mothers of India - Chandrapati and Ompati.
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