MEERUT, India (TrustLaw) - They are illegal, undemocratic and widely vilified for their regressive decrees against women - so much so that human rights activists call them the “Taliban of India”.
Yet for centuries, these village councils - comprised of rich, upper-caste, elderly men wearing long white tunics - have governed India’s northern countryside, exerting social control through patriarchal diktats that not only clash with a country moving towards more liberal attitudes, but also challenge the law of the land.
Acting as de-facto courts for millions of Indians, the councils, or “Khap Panchayats”, settle disputes on everything from land and cattle to matrimony and murder, helping maintain social order in a country where access to justice can be difficult for the poor and uneducated.
But India’s “khaps” are coming under growing scrutiny as their punitive edicts grow more regressive - ranging from banning women from wearing western clothing and using mobile phones to supporting child marriage and sanctioning the lynching of young couples in so-called “honour killings”.
“If you look at all the regions where there are the worst gender indicators for girls and women - female foeticide, dowry deaths, rapes - they are the same regions where khaps exist,” says Ranjana Kumari, director of the Centre for Social Research, a Delhi-based gender rights think-tank.
“Khaps are all-feudal entities and are reflective of the mindset of the medieval times. They are the biggest barrier to the development of girls and women in terms of education, modernisation, autonomy and independence. We are breeding the Taliban in this country,” she added.
Khap councils dominate the mud-and-brick villages and fertile farmlands of India’s Haryana, western Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan regions. Each khap is divided on the basis of “gotra” or clan and their stated aim is to protect honour and purity of ancestry.
But the media is filled with stories of khap councils linked to the murder of couples who marry within the same gotra - an act considered incestuous by khaps and therefore forbidden.
In some cases, khap members have been directly involved in killings, while in others, the shame khaps attach to families whose children indulge in same-gotra marriages has driven parents to murder their own offspring or face ostracism - they can be forced out of their homes and villages and off their land.
More recently, the councils have even demanded that the legal age of marriage be lowered to 16 from 18 years for girls and 21 for boys as a way to fight increasing cases of rape in a country that is the worst place for women among the world’s most industrialised nations, according to a recent survey.
While they have been condemned by the Supreme Court, criticised by the media, slammed by feminists and even deemed unlawful by the country’s most powerful politician, Sonia Gandhi, khaps continue to act with impunity, unchallenged by police and government, largely due to the sway they have over voters in this conservative belt of India.
“These khap panchayats are unconstitutional bodies. They are not legally recognised. They are self-made, self-regulatory, undemocratic all-male bodies,” says Reicha Tanwar, director of the Women’s Studies Research Centre at Kurekshetra University in Haryana.
“Yet there is no political will to do anything about them,’’ she added. These khaps rule by a combination of fear and financial power over poorer villagers and, in such a way, manage to control large vote banks. No political party wants to seriously tackle them as they could cause a dent.”
Just a few hours drive west of New Delhi, in the bustling city of Meerut, newly-weds Sachin Tyagi, 25, and Pooja, 20, are in hiding.
Moving 20 times around three cities over the last six months, they are on the run from Pooja’s family, which opposed their same-gotra marriage and has issued death threats against them.
The couple fell in love two years ago, conducting their relationship in secret. They married in January in a Hindu temple and eloped. Since then, Sachin’s mother has been kidnapped and beaten, his brother shot at.
“When they found out, they went after my own family and threw my parents out of the village. They burnt our farmland to the ground and seized our home,” says Sachin, sitting next to Pooja on the edge of a bed in a rented room in the quiet back lanes of Meerut.
“The people in the village think this is wrong ... but we are all human beings and have the right to love who we want. That’s what the Supreme Court of India says,” he added.
At least 5,000 “honour killings” are carried out globally every year, the United Nations says - murders by families or communities to avenge perceived dishonour, often because a local society disapproves of a marriage.
In India, there are no official figures on the number of honour killings linked to khaps. But activists believe hundreds of men and women have been shot, lynched, stabbed or poisoned by their families or communities in recent years.
In 2007, the mutilated bodies of Manoj Banwala and his young wife Babli were fished out of a canal in Hisar in Haryana, not far from New Delhi. Three years later, a court sentenced five people to death in a landmark ruling against honour killings.
“It (the case) is important as it not only linked khaps to this heinous crime, but also awarded strict punishments to the perpetrators,” says Jagmati Sangwan, vice president of the All India Democratic Women’s Association, a group that works for women’s development.
In almost all cases, the intransigence of khaps springs from a fear that modernity will overwhelm local traditions, thus eroding their hold over communities. The internet and mobile phones are seen as tools that cause moral degradation by allowing boys and girls furtive contact.
Khap councils have existed for more than 1200 years, members say, and were originally formed by Jats - a powerful land-owning community and strong vote bank - to resolve disagreements where there were no authorities or courts.
After independence from Britain in 1947, India promoted democratically elected councils in every village. But in most of the country’s north, the illegal writs of the khaps remain.
In April last year, India’s Supreme Court ruled that their diktats were illegal and called for strict punishments for those responsible for honour killings.
“There is no honour in killing. It is the most dishonourable. The death sentence should be imposed. We must stamp out this barbaric practice,” says former Supreme Court judge Markandey Katju, who deemed khaps to be unlawful when he was in office.
Yet the khaps, who refute this feudal, patriarchal image, continue to convene and say they are playing an important social and political role in the community.
At a tollgate on a busy highway on the outskirts of Meerut, scores of farmers gather to demand a waiver on toll fees for local people to transport their goods to and from Delhi in a month-long protest organised by khap councils.
“Khaps are not what is being portrayed by the media. We are not the Taliban. It is our fundamental right to believe in the tradition that we do not marry within the same gotra,” said Rakesh Tikait, 41, a member of the Baliyan khap panchayat, as fellow farmers nodded in agreement.
“If someone does that, then yes, I admit there are some murders. But that’s not because of khaps. Their own families do it. If someone’s daughter runs away with a boy of the same gotra, the family’s reputation is tainted, so you can understand how much honour is linked to this.”
In response to increasing reports of honour killings and growing pressure from civil society activists, the law commission has proposed making such murders a non-bailable offence.
The commission has proposed a seven-year jail term for khap council members who are found guilty of persecuting couples. It has also suggested banning khap councils and other such groups who assemble to condemn marriages not prohibited by law.
But women’s rights groups say this does not go far enough and all khaps must be completely dismantled.
Tikait, whose supporters crowd around him, hanging on his every word, rubbishes the idea: “We khaps have organised armies that have fought all the invaders ... the Muslims, the British ... off this land. Let them try and ban us,” he says.
“The Supreme Court and politicians should stay within their limits. The support we get from our people can topple governments.”