Friday, 24 April 2015

Stirrings beneath the peepul

In recent years khaps (groups of elected village elders, or headmen) have induced horror in the public eye with what are called their kangaroo courts and barbaric judgments. In the debates around violence against women gaining prominence everyday, they have recurred as a figure that represents the worst kind of regression when it comes to gender equality. A Supreme Court judgment declared their orders unlawful, and they have been at the end of much criticism from activist organisations and many sections of the general public. 

Then began reports of  some khaps banning foeticide or stating that it is an outdated custom to ban inter-caste marriages. There was talk of their wanting to contest elections and it was said that some of them are trying to change their public perception in order to gain votes, or to maintain their relevance in changing times. Some said that maybe public disapproval has actually made them aware that they were wrong and now they are trying to make amends. Meanwhile, crimes against women continued and in February 2015 one of the most brutal ones was the rape and murder of a mentally challenged Nepali woman in Rohtak district of Haryana. Next week, I interviewed some khap pradhans to hear them talk about how they see their role, and also the role of women, in present day society.

'I am not fit to stand next to my wife. I have ill-treated her.'
Ram Mehar Singh Hooda
Erstwhile pradhan, Hooda khap

The ex-pradhan started with a background of khaps. 'It is a job involving immense responsibility as God is our witness.' Khaps, he says, started so people could solve their own problems, related to property, marriage or debt, and did not have to go to court. 'Going to court involves several expenses, and money could be used to influence witnesses. A khap is formed by different people's recommendations. The khap pradhan cannot lie or it would be a weight on his conscience. In his decisions he would not observe enmities or friendships. If he errs, his community would correct him.

'A khap is a group of multiple villages. A khap pradhan can preside over matters of members of his community living in different villages. The pradhan [leader] has to be from the village which is the origin of the community. For instance, Hoodas came from Khidwali village and so the Hooda pradhan has to be from the same village each time. From that village, the choice of the pradhan thereafter depends on his familial repute, his leadership qualities and the absence of a criminal background.'

When asked to share what he feels about gender equality, he says it is unfortunate that despite campaigns to save the girl child, politicians do not implement the laws because they do not want to upset people. 'Panchayats have favoured girls. Also earlier women had no property rights but now they do. I can say from experience that a man is nothing in front of a woman. Women fulfil so many roles while men struggle in one.' I thought of how talking of women as superior, god-like beings stereotypes them as much as imposing inferiority on them does.

He states that men have dominated society and exploited women because they know that women are 'kind, forgiving and generous'. Adding to the praise that has often kept women trapped in their oppression, he says, 'A woman has qualities that sustain the world. The moment a mother sees a child, her breast overflows with milk.'

Sharing his experience over marital disputes, he talks of a possible situation where the girl does not want to return to her marital house but the boy wants to bring her back. 'There are some things the girl finds unspeakable and so she shares only a portion of her troubles with her mother. The mother, who is from an even older generation, finds some of the troubles trivial. So when she goes to the panchayat she represents only a portion of what her daughter has told her. The panchayat too, unable to empathise with the girl's predicament, may find some things “normal” and asks the boy's parents to correct their son's behaviour. The son, who is the culprit, is not even present in the hearing so he does not get to realise what he has done to really be able to correct it. The girl takes recourse to her last option, suicide.'

Expressing his regret over such cases, he says that in order to deliver justice, khaps have to go deep into the circumstances. It is tough to take a decision, and tougher to ensure its implementation. 'To follow up is my duty. Otherwise I should not have a right to preside over these disputes. After seven-fifteen days of announcing the decision, the pradhan should ideally follow up by speaking to the petitioners' neighbours for their testimonies. In fifty-sixty cases, the women were found to be happy as the men had corrected themselves after our orders. In one case when the man failed to comply, we got a police complaint registered against him and he spent a year and a half in jail.'

He talks of three kinds of people who come to khaps with their cases. 'Those illiterate may have done many wrongs but apologise easily. Those who are literate are superior. But the toughest cases are the ones where people are semi-literate. They keep cases hanging and the worst sufferer is the girl. We say that if there cannot be a reconciliation, let the couple separate. But do not keep the girl waiting forever. It is additionally unfortunate that boys remarry easily but girls who remarry are scorned.'

His wife, Rajdulari, is sitting quietly listening to the conversation. The pradhan goes on, 'Once there was a case of fraud when the boy had given the girl's family a false impression of his assets. We said if there is to be a separation the boy should give the girl a divorce so that when she works outside, her marital family does not come to trouble her again. Later the boy came to say he did not want a divorce. He was from our village and the girl was from another. Though some people criticised us for it, we stood by the girl. Girls are naturally weak and they deserve all the support they can get.' I find it ironic that a little while ago he had called women superior. 

'In one case the girl came back from her marital house on the third day of the marriage and refused to go back. She said if she is asked to go back she would give up her life. Both sides were ready for a separation. I could sense that there is some serious problem that the girl is uncomfortable in sharing. But how could I ask her?' 

He got to know of a close friend of hers and called her to give her version of the events. The friend was reluctant. The pradhan urged her to treat him like her elder and reveal the truth as many people's happiness was at stake. 'She finally agreed to speak to me privately. It was then discovered that the boy had said to the girl on the night of the wedding that till both of them find jobs the relationship would not be consummated and that they would stay in the house as “brother and sister”. 

'Upon knowing this, I called the families aside and asked them to decide if they wanted a divorce. I said, “If the girl dies I will too, so make sure of what she wants.”' Since both agreed to separate, he had the wedding gifts returned. 

'Later there was another problem. The girl's parents could not find anyone. They said, “Even though she is pure, nobody will believe that.” They looked towards me to find a boy. I knew a decent guy from a good family. His family had told me that he should listen to me and agree to whatever I say. The boy said he is willing to accept my decision. I said the people who are going to spend their lives together should take the decision themselves. 

'The first time I arranged their meeting they did not talk at all. I said this was not a matter to be shy about. Things needed to be clear before one decided to marry. I told the boy, “You know for a fact that the girl has been married once. You should never repeat this in front of the girl.” The girl's condition was that she could not do the housework but wanted to start her own medical clinic. I asked both the families to contribute to the setting up of the clinic, though the girl's parents willingly gave more. The couple is very happy today and keeps coming to see me. I support girls because I want to follow nature; nature favours and blesses girls.' 

I request him and his spouse to stand together for a photograph. He obliges but fidgets, 'I am not fit to stand next to my wife. Maine iske saath bahut durachar kiya hai (I have ill-treated her).'

Ram Mehar Singh Hooda, Rajdulari

'Some  boys involved in the act were totally spoilt, cruel. Others were innocent who got blinded by lust.'

Hardeep Singh Ahlawat
Pradhan, Ahlawat khap

'The media portrays us as Taliban. But no khap has got any honour killing done till now. As for some of the things we believe in, they are not without reason. I am not a doctor but I have met doctors, professors. To marry within the gotra [clan] has scientific problems. We can only try to save our society and traditions.

'Nowadays boys have become so scared that they dare not harass a girl. Look at the case of the Rohtak sisters [who had been first applauded for their courage in fighting sexual harassment and later accused of having fabricated the case]. They have done wrong. The media clips prove this. Yet the girls and their families are not ready to withdraw the case. The girls wanted to get popular and get government jobs through the bravery awards.' 

How then do we move towards eliminating sexual harassment and regrettable public safety for women?

'People do not know anything in their youth, from the age of 14 to 20. They are blind. Earlier there were people like Dayanand Saraswati who tried to bring in some samaskara [virtues] like brahmacharya [oath of abstinence] in society. Now such values are not imparted either in homes or schools. My wife could be inside working and my child could pick up the phone and see anything on the Internet. A young body is always ready to make a mistake.'

When asked about sex education, he says, 'I agree that all our definitions about good and bad in society are not correct. If I talk to anyone about sex education, I would be called shameless. The health of one boy in our family had been falling and we could not fathom the reason. One day his father accidentally discovered that the boy had been masturbating. We counselled the boy and told him how it could make him weak. He understood and gave up the bad habit, and recovered his health. So yes, I agree, that sex education can guide young people properly.

'If you take the example of the Nepali woman who was raped and killed, you'd find some boys involved in the act were totally spoilt, cruel. Others were innocent who got blinded by lust. You know how it is. Some of these spoilt boys go out to party, call other, more naive, boys from their mobile, and they just join. Because of the mobile phone networking all the boys were caught. One section of people would say they should be hanged. But would it help in the long term?'

I think of how tradition, or rather orthodoxy, transmutes in the weirdest of ways to fit inside a narrative of progress. It is one thing to say that boys rape because they are not aware of the consequences, of the punishment. But what about feeling compassion and respect for another human being? 'That differs from person to person. I am the kind who would not hurt a fly. My brother is completely different. The Taliban is cruel. I cannot even slap a person. One can't say why people's souls are different. Even for the 16 December Delhi rape case, I had said that the juvenile should not have been let off so easily. He was the cruellest.'

Some people come to ask for donation for an organisation that saves cows and other animals. The pradhan says that he cannot pledge too big an amount because khap pradhans do not get paid. They have to bear the expenses of their work themselves.

He then gets back to the follies of youth, talking of how thirty years ago there was a fight between 'Harijan' (Dalit) and Jat boys just because they bumped against each other while walking, an incident which led to killings. As to whether the folly was the murderous instinct of caste purity, he does not clarify. 

'We ask people to do many good things: not to flaunt the dowry they give or take; to have simple weddings; to marry in the day so that money can be saved and there is less drinking and, therefore, fewer drunken brawls. People don't listen to us.' I wonder if the force of 'moralising' is as powerful as the force of the commands, the edicts people have come to know and condemn khaps for. 

Right outside the living room where the interview is taking place, Hardeep Ahlawat's wife is cleaning the cattle shed. I ask her if I could speak to her too. She enters tentatively and takes a seat. We talk about girls' education and she shares, 'I studied a bit when I was growing up. Now people are educating their daughters more and so are we. But yes if she has to go for tuitions in the evening, we cannot allow her to go alone. That kind of environment is still not there.' Ahlawat says, 'Only 20-30 per cent people do not educate their girls now. The rest do. And after marriage if her marital family allows she can work also.' As is common in society, in the Ahlawat family too it seems that till the girl is married the father would be her chief guardian/custodian and after marriage her life decisions would be taken by her spouse and marital family.

For the photograph, when Ahlawat's wife comes to stand next to him, he says she will look too short standing next to him. I show the photograph I have clicked and the wife looks unsure. When I start clicking again, Ahlawat tells his wife impatiently that one cannot really change the way she looks, that photographs can only reflect what's out there.

The Ahlawat pradhan and his spouse

'If you uplift a Dalit, within a week his tone would change.'
Kidar Singh Kadyan
Pradhan, Kadyan khap

When I introduce myself, he ritualistically raises his hand to bless me like priests do, assuming all who come close would want to be blessed, and I stagger in discomfort. He too shares the mechanics of the ritual justice system of his khap. 'Usually women and the elderly are not called to panchayats. Someone is deputed to go and get their statements. That person has to be conscientious and honestly report to us. As for the culprit, he has to come with his family. If the culprit is absconding, the family comes. But if the guy does not make an appearance we can also report him to the police.'

Perhaps anxious if my attention is wavering, he asks me if I am looking at something. I point to his little grandson peeping from behind the curtains. He calls the child, 'Jat ka balak hoke sharma raha hai?' (You're feeling shy despite being the son of a jat?) Then he turns to me, 'Even when there are cases of people known or related to us, we have to pronounce fair judgments. Once a boy's parent I knew created a furore over how his son was being implicated. But when I investigated and asked him why his son's shoe was found at the crime scene, he had no answer.

'Each community is different and so are their rules. For example Dalits work in the fields while we do not. The same goes for rural and urban spaces. In cities people come home as late as 11 pm. Here even in the day if someone comes back late by an hour or two, we ask for the reason. Members of our communities who have migrated to cities easily agree to an intercaste marriage while here in villages, it is only under compulsion - when someone within the community is not found. 

'There are practical problems with intercaste marriages. If you uplift a Dalit, within a week his tone would change. He would become disrespectful towards you. People would tell him that he has been exploited by upper castes so he would always be wary of them. In such a situation even if he marries someone from that community, he would always be mocking and taunting her.

So exogamy is a problem. What about endogamy? 'Years ago there was a double murder of a same gotra couple by the family. They were arrested but the police kept struggling to find witnesses. Villagers also agree that people within a gotra share a brother-sister relationship. It is not that we ostracise such people. These families feel ashamed to go out and interact with others. If someone does something wrong, naturally the person would feel ashamed. 

'As for mobile phones and ways of dressing, rather than imposing bans our stress is on doing things within control. Some people issue a farman [decree] threatening consequences if their orders are not followed. Who follows them? They just get photographed and make fools of themselves in the media. Go and check their homes. Are they or their families following what they are preaching? 

'If girls are pure, they cannot be harmed.' An air of heaviness punctuates our conversation. 'They should be gutsy enough to slap the person. But it is sad to look at cases like the Rohtak sisters' where they bashed up a boy with prior planning.'

I ask for his views on the most recent failure of all. 'What happened with the Nepali woman was worse than the other rape cases because she was not mentally fit. The boys deserve to be hanged for the pain they caused her. What they committed was a blunder, not a mistake. It is our responsibility to ensure such things do not get repeated.'

On the subject of women's education, he says, 'Our granddaughter studies in another city. We wanted her to study in the best place. I approached so many ministers at the time of her admission. None of it worked. Then she cleared the entrance test and got admitted. Just like that! Both my daughters-in-law are teachers. My wife is class 2 pass.

'Education has become so important. A best mother award was given to a “Harijan” woman who worked as a labourer and taught her children. My mother studied till class 2. She could have taught in a school. But my grandfather said no. Nobody suggested to him that she need not have taken the salary; she could have just taught.' The mention of the salary comes from a context where even today many men feel 'emasculated' if the women in the family go out to earn, fearing it questions their, the men's, ability to feed the family.

His wife comes in and says she was busy keeping the children quiet while we talked. Vimla Devi looks easy and confident. Kadyan warmly introduces me to her and continues, 'Khaps must continue. Our youth can then be saved. Khaps will keep them under check.' He asks me to note down that the youth today is averse to guidance. 'Road accidents mostly occur due to young people who have a lot of their parents' money.'

He reiterates, 'As for intercaste and intra-gotra marriages, we are clearly opposed to them. There have been interstate marriages outside the community which are fine. These are to women who come from other states. Their natal families are not here. So the question of taunting her or her family for her caste does not arise.

Coming back to his family, he says, 'We would encourage our granddaughter to pursue what she wants. Yet there are some things we would not allow like going to nightclubs.'

Kidar Singh Kadyan and Vimla Devi

Listening to the stakeholders


In an effort to see how it is for women in the cities, I spend some time with two families in the city of Rohtak. In one of them, the woman, possibly in her late twenties, one of the gentlest I have met, remembers she never did any work while living with her parents. 'My father would tell my mother, “Do not give her any work. Who knows what sort of a household she gets after marriage? She may have to work there. At least here she should have some rest.' 

She has two sons, 'Once I wasn't well and my husband asked for a second cup of tea. I was irritable and refused. He said something sharp in turn. That day my son did not finish his lunch. His teacher called to say he was extremely quiet in school. My husband and I decided never to speak loudly with the children around.' 

When I ask why her spouse did not want to her to complete her graduation, she is annoyed, 'Meri toh ab nibh gayi' (I have adjusted now). After a pause, she asks, 'You have a job. You are independent. Why are you thinking of marrying?'

In another home where education and high profile government jobs came four generations earlier, the woman I talk to is much more vocal. 'Khaps may tell you they do not do honour killings. But their pressure of ostracisation is so strong on families that couples are killed or commit suicide.' She had her first child, a daughter, now in primary school, after almost twenty years of marriage. 'First they asked me to have a child. Then they said I should have a son and I did too, in the next few years. Now people say I could have one more. 

'When we didn't have a child, my mother-in-law would tell me she would get her son married to my younger sister. I asked if they would do the same for me if my husband turned out to be the one with a medical issue. This created a storm and my natal family was summoned to show them how “rude and indecent” I was. Today I tell them they are welcome to bring another woman into the house. I am not a child producing machine.

'I am criticised for paying more attention to my daughter, and it is true that I am more protective of her. My son is pampered by everyone. My daughter has got only me. But, maybe because I have been overprotective, now without me she doesn't want to go anywhere or make friends. I should change that. I want her to grow into a confident person.'

I ask the mother-in-law if she feels people shouldn't differentiate between sons and daughters. 'How can I lie to you about something I didn't do myself? After two daughters, my husband suggested an operation. But I and my mother-in-law did not agree. The chief minister asks people to have only two children. But his own relatives are unable to follow that.'

And the world

As infamous it is for its skewed sex ratio with men hugely outnumbering women, Haryana's name also comes up regularly during major national and international sports championships when women players from Haryana feature among the winners. On the main sports ground of Rohtak city, I meet a batch of women wrestlers practising. Some also wrestle with men. When I ask about their experience at the time that they started training, one of them, Nikki Jatain, shares, 'Our parents were told, “Teach your son, feed your son. What is the use of feeding daughters so much? If you feed the sons, they would grow muscular.” Our parents did not care for such comments.' 

I recall my phone conversation with Anuradha Beniwal, a chess player from Haryana who has been playing in international tournaments since a child and now teaches and plays the game in London. She feels lucky to have parents who nurtured her talent and never pressurised her to marry or do a certain job or a course. She says that she remembers khaps as a benevolent body while she was growing up, who would give prizes to girls when they won sports competitions. I ask the group of wrestlers about their opinion on khaps, and the unanimous answer comes that they should cease to exist. 

Anuradha Beniwal: Checkmating the masters

I told them about how pradhans feel they are not obeyed anyway. Kanta Jatain answers with exasperation, 'Tell me, how can anyone listen to them looking at the kind of things they say? They say girls should not wear jeans. Are we expected to wrestle in salwar kurtas?' Another one, Rekha Kadyan, pitches in, 'We are worried that if the sarpanch gets to know that some girls are currently preparing a dance programme for the school function, he would ban that as well.' The fourth one says, 'We are wrestlers. We have physical strength. Yet we are afraid to be out in the dark.'

Have the strongholds of patriarchy really started giving way?

During my trip, I went to attend a khap hearing where the Rohtak rape-murder case was to be discussed. Upon reaching the meeting place, I was told the meet was cancelled because the pradhan had to rush back to the village where a woman got burnt. I met the pradhans I interviewed individually, where they spoke in the privacy and comfort of their homes. Would their statements have been any different if they had met collectively or while performing their 'official' functions as khap pradhans? 

One common factor binding them was that they tried to use logic to explain their stand on issues. Whether that logic appeals to others or not is a different question. But are they making this effort to justify and explain their position in order to gain relevance in present times? Or is this simply defence of spurious logic in order to secure more people's obedience arising out of belief and not merely from fear? Or is it due to the most common reason for changing one's position, to gain electoral power?

In any of the situations, if the final aim is to win more ayes, khaps in the state would do well by directly engaging in a conversation with the Rekhas, Kantas and Nikkis of Haryana, instead of denying them the right to be who they have already become.

Krishan Singh Beniwal participated in conducting some of the interviews.

An edited version of this piece was first published in The Equator Line, Apr-Jun 2015, under the title 'No Country for the New Woman'.

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