Khap Panchayats in India

Khap Panchayats, which find their origin from ancient India, are the traditional social institutions engaged in dispute resolution in village communities. They are formally distinct from the lawfully elected village panchayats and their rulings have no legal sanctity in the eyes of court.

The exact origin of Khap is not known yet it is believed that they started as back as 600AD. They are not exactly the caste panchayats. Instead, they are units of number of villages organized into a political council of the elders for the purpose of societal control and decision making on issues of social importance.

Organization of Khap Panchayats

Khaps are most prevalent in the Jat Community of Haryana and Western UP. A khap is all male organization and its leaders are unelected but based on their social clout. A khap can be based on single caste and single gotra; or single caste and multiple gotras or multiple castes and multiple gotras.

  • The single-caste-single-gotra khaps are found in areas where a single gotra dominates a sizable geographical area. Examples of such Khaps include Dahiya Khap; Huda Khap; Sangwan Khap or Haryana and Balyan Khap of western UP. All these are Khaps of gotras belonging to Jat clans.
  • The single-caste-multiple-gotra clans are found in areas where several villages are dominated by different gotras of same caste. The 24 villages of Meham in Rohtak of Haryana is example of such Khap.
  • The multi-caste-multi-gotra khaps are found in areas where some villages are dominated by a particular caste and other areas by other castes. The Bawal Khap of Chaurasi in Rewari district of Haryana is example of such Khap.

A Khap is consisted of 84 villages or 12 Thambas. Each Thamba is a group of seven villages. The Sarva Khap is a Khap of Khaps and is the supreme Khap council.

Events that bring Khaps in limelight

Khap Panchayats have been in the news for functioning as extra-constitutional authorities, often delivering pronouncements amounting to human rights violations. They have been linked to honour killings; forced marriages; female foeticide; and whimsical ways of delivering justice. The decision to ex-communicate the families results in torture and humiliation.

Honour Killings

The Khap verdicts of honour killings came into limelight in 1991 with the Mehrana Killings when a Jat girl and Jatav boy were executed on order of a Khap. In 2007, the Manoj-Babli murder was also carried on order of Khap. The perceived dishonour which leads to such decisions include marriage in same gotra, marriage with other caste person, marriage against wish of family, unacceptable sexual behaviour etc.

Forced Marriages

Sometimes, forced marriages are done by pressurizing one of the partners who might be an adult or minor. The victim of such marriage undergoes fear, threat, abduction and torture, sometimes resulting in suicide also.

Executive, Legislative and Judicial Actions

Executive, Legislative Actions

The political parties have no courage to speak openly against Khaps as they can alter their fate in elections. However, two bills were suggested and drafted by law commission towards banning / criminalizing honour killings.  So far, we have no specific law on honour killings and all such executions are covered in murders and homicide related laws. In 2012, the Law Commission had drafted a bill titled “Prohibition of Unlawful Assembly (Interference with the Freedom of Matrimonial Alliances) Bill, 2011”. This bill proposed to prohibit people from congregating together to condemn a legal marriage on the ground that the said marriage has brought dishonour to the caste or community. However, so far this bill has not moved forward from being a proposal only. This may be because of an inherent deficiency in the bill. The constitution of India gives freedom for peaceful assembly and the provisions of the bill might be challenged on this ground. Further, the criminal justice system presumed the accused innocent until proven guilty. That bill would reverse that presumption because it provides that if accused person participated in an unlawful assembly, then it will be presumed that the accused intended to commit an offence under the Bill.

Another such bill drafted by law commission was Endangerment of life and Liberty (Protection, Prosecution and other measures) Act, 2011. This bill proposed to prosecute persons or group involved in threat, encouragement, commending, exhorting and creating an environment whereby loss of life and liberty is imminent or threatened.

The two bills are just proposals and so far no concrete legislative reform has been done by executive / legislature to curb the clout of Khaps. A few suggested legislative measures include: constitution of fast track courts to deal with honour killings; amendments to Special Marriage Act to reduce duration of registration of marriage; provide enough protection to couple engaged in inter-caste marriage.

Judiciary Actions

Some of the actions of judiciary are directed towards bringing down the clouts of these Kangaroo courts.

  • In Laxmi Kahhwaha vs. The State of Rajasthan the Rajasthan High Court held that the Caste Panchayats have no jurisdiction whatsoever and cannot impose fine or social boycott on anyone.
  • State of UP vs. Krishna Master, Supreme Court awarded life sentence to the three accused of the honour killing.
  • In Manoj And Babli Murder case, five of the seven convicts was sentenced to life imprisonment by the Punjab and Haryana High Court.
  • In Armugam Servai vs. State of Tamil Nadu, Supreme Court said that Khaps are illegal and must be rooted / stamped out.

Reforms in Khaps

It is not easy to undermine Khap institution which is much older than our democracy and constitution. The Khaps have deep roots, based on principles of Bhaichara and Hukka-Pani {Interdining} and it is the kinship feeling or cultural relativism that gives them strength. They deliver justice quickly unlike our regular courts which keep a huge backlog. They are strong enough to change the fate of contestants in elections so are supported by political parties. The inherent weakness of Panchayati Raj System gives them more strength. Further, despite of too many extravagant and illogical diktats, these panchayats have frequently made pronouncements on social issues in an attempt to combat problems like female abortions, alcohol abuse, dowry, and to promote education. Thus, it’s high time for the Khaps themselves to change and reform themselves with the changing times lest the court stamps them out. The government / judiciary also can make a way so that Khaps may work as alternative dispute Redressal bodies and in accordance with the law of the land.