Khap panchayats have had a long innings in the Jatdominated
areas of north-western India and some of
their decisions that go against individual rights have led
to heated controversy. This paper gives a brief account of
how these informal social institutions for conflict
resolution took root and the reasons for their continuing
influence. It also looks into how big landlords have come
to use khaps for their own interests and the causes that
prompt these bodies to interfere in marriages that do
not conform to traditional norms. Interrogating the
modern state’s failure to check the unwritten powers of
khap panchayats, it suggests some remedial measures
that could be taken.
This article is a revised, condensed and translated version of the paper “Khap Panchayat: Ek Samajik Etihasik Avlokan” presented at the seminar “Modernity and Changing Social Fabric of Punjab and Haryana” organised by the Indian Institute of Advanced Studies, Shimla, in September 2010. The article has been translated from Hindi by Ritupan who did his PhD in history at JNU, Delhi.
Ajay Kumar (firstname.lastname@example.org) has been associated with Bharatiya Kisan Union and is based in Haryana.
These days, the very mention of khap panchayats brings to
mind images of the horrific faces of murdered couples who
married for love or the burnt dwellings of dalit villagers.
Sections of Indian society and the media have for some time been demanding that these panchayats, modern-day avatars of traditional social assemblies in rural north-western India that were
primarily engaged in resolving disputes and ensuring adherence to custom, be restrained. Characteristically, the government has chosen to treat the issue as a law and order problem, rather than seeking to understand how and why khaps and their decisionmaking powers came into being and have continued to persist,
which would have made handling the issue in a more prudent
manner possible. For, an understanding of the material basis for the existence of khap panchayats and the socio-economic context of their decisions are necessary to arrive at appropriate remedies. Historically speaking, khap panchayats are very old, with
various scholars tracing their origins to tribal times. Sources of information on khaps before the advent of feudalism and even during it are few and far between. But we do know that they
were, by around the 14th and 15th centuries, an informal but well-established social institution in the Jat-dominated areas that fall in present-day Haryana, western Uttar Pradesh and
parts of Rajasthan. Broadly speaking, all khaps comprised a
number of villages organised into a council, but they were of various types. The territory of some khaps was dominated by a single gotra (clan) of a particular caste that had control over most of its agricultural land. People of other gotras and castes also lived in these villages, but they were fewer in number and held far less land. Other khaps consisted of entire villages dominated by a single caste, but some of its villages had various gotras. Yet others were multi-caste and multi-gotra, with some villages
dominated by a particular caste and other villages by other
castes, all of different gotras (Sangwan 2008).
As can be gathered from this, there was (and still is) no hard and fast rule that covered all khaps, which, in the course of evolving in different geographical areas took forms shaped by a range of socio-economic factors. Of these, other than the kinship tie of clan, the two most important were caste and ownership of land. In structure and functioning, khap panchayats were “participatory” in spirit and served as public forums where differences
could be sorted out by direct negotiated settlements between both parties without wasting too much time or money. They also acted to enforce a measure of social control if the traditional moral code of conduct was violated. Decisions taken by them...