Rani Rohini Raman, a JNU researcher working on honour killings, writes on the significance of a recent verdict of a Haryana district court, awarding death sentence to those guilty of killing a young couple - Manoj and Babli.
The recent verdict given by the additional sessions judge of Karnal district, Haryana on Manoj and Babli honour killing case is a milestone in the fight against patriarchal and feudal khap panchayats. The khap panchayats have come vociferously against the verdict and recently organised a maha khap in Uttar Pradesh to show their might. News of more honor killings are also pouring in. The following is a brief attempt to identify the different forces behind the political clout of the khaps in light of the issue of honor killings.
Manoj and Babli, married couple and residents of Kaithal in Haryana, were killed in June 2007 after they married on the basis of their own choice and ran away from their village. They were blamed of breaking the village exogamy and gotra rule imposed by the khap panchayats. According to this rule the boy and girl of same village and same gotra could not marry as they were part of a "brother and sister" relationship. When Manoj and Babli eloped and married, a false complaint against Manoj was lodged that he had kidnapped Babli. When the couple was hiding, police used to come to Manoj’s house in search of them regularly and used to abuse Manoj’s widowed mother and his two young sisters. Because of this Manoj and Babli had to come out in public and had to appear in front of the district magistrate to whom Babli explained that she had married Manoj out of her own will. After this, the magistrate had ordered proper police protection for the couple. Yet when they were returning home, their bus was stopped and they were abducted and later killed. Their bodies were thrown into a canal.
There are several cases like Manoj and Babli in Haryana which came to light, while many more have been hushed. Several couples are being harassed by these caste (Khap) panchayats. In Haryana, U.P, Punjab and Rajasthan these khap panchayats are functioning from a very long time. There are certain codes developed by these caste panchayats which needs to be followed while two persons are marrying. Caste endogamy, village exogamy and gotra (sub caste) exogamy are some of the codes made by these caste panchayats, which they want to implement effectively. Any married couple who broke such codes while marrying are punished by the order of khaps. These panchayats are based on caste groupings and membership to these panchayats is exclusively for male members of that particular caste. Decisions taken by these caste panchayats are always patriarchal and casteist in nature. These caste panchayats have a record of giving very insensitive judgments and especially for the backward castes and people belonging to lower economic strata.
Many argue that these khap panchayats were functioning in a very positive manner in past and judgments given by them were for the betterment of the society. If one agrees to their constructive approach of the past, a question naturally arises that why the same caste panchayats are giving such regressive judgments now? In-spite of being illegal bodies, these khap panchayats are functioning openly and violating law and order of the country. From where are they deriving so much of power? Why are they not afraid of police and law? These are some of the questions that need to be answered.
Identity politics is now very well rooted in Indian democracy. Many regional parties and as well as national parties at regional level are using identity politics as a source for vote banks. These khap panchayats are nothing other than sources for votes and parties depend heavily on diktats issued by them during elections. That’s why none of the major political parties ever condemned these honour killings. Present Chief Minister Bhupinder Hooda of Haryana, ent one step ahead and called such matters as family matters, where government can't interfere. These are the polticians in Haryana who at the time of elections go and take pagdis from their khap panchayats which is considered to be a honour. These conducts answers for the silence observed by many political parties in Haryana following the verdict in the Manoj Babli case.
Such kind of support by political parties is making these khap panchayats more powerful. At the time when they should rethink about their decisions regarding 'honour crimes', they had called for an all khap meeting in U.P where they reached the highest level of audacity by reiterating their demand to amend the Hindu Marriage Act (HMA). They have threatened for more violent actions if the Act is not amended. They are also going to challenge the verdict in higher courts and have asked all Jat families to contribute 10 rupees each to fight this case ahead. This was not the first time when these khaps had demanded amendments in the HMA. Just before the last Lok Sabha elections a similar all-khap meeting had demanded and declared that they will vote for the party which amends the HMA. It is clear that whatever the Home Minister of the Congress party led UPA central government says inside the Parliament against the practice of 'honour crimes', in Haryana their party needs to rethink about their linkages with khaps.
In complete contrast to the main political parties, the grassroots women’s movements have played an exemplary role in the Manoj- Bubli case. In Haryana these practices are not new and post 1990s we can see repetition of such cases of honour killings. Many cases come to media and those are highlighted to a certain extent. This is the first time that such a serious punishment has come out and also a member of a caste panchayat has been punished. The Manoj and Babli murder case was fought by Manoj’s mother and sister. When they decided that they want to fight this case they were ostracized by the village leaders. Nobody came in support of this family. In an interview given to media, Manoj’s sister acknowledged the fact that at that time only the All India Democratic Women’s Association (AIDWA) came forward to support and help them. They started generating public support for them and their case. Firstly the battle was to ensure that a FIR is lodged. I recall my memories of the AIDWA office in Rohtak, during visits, with several placards written with the message “arrest Ganga Raj”. AIDWA had organized a huge protest demo to ensure that all these culprits are arrested - especially Ganga Raj.
One more thing that needs to be higlighted in the case of Manoj and Babli honour killing is the role of media. During past years we have seen the media playing a crucial role in dealing with some sensitive issues and highlighting it in order to create pressure for justice. But these cases of honour killings never got the much needed attention from the national media. When such cases happen in Delhi or any other metro cities it is highlighted and such news are sustained for a very longer time. The Arushi murder case is one of the examples where the media gave undue attention to the case which was creating problems for inquiry and was insensitive for the family which lost their daughter. The media’s urban bias is reflected from the fact that it does not hesitate to broadcast and highlight the so called candle light fight of urban middle class, while ignoring many pressing issues of rural india. The fight for justice by Chandrapati (Manoj’s mother) was never entertained by national media till this verdict came. Today every news paper is trying to show the courage of Manoj’s mother, but the time when she needed the support of the larger community, none of the media organs, except for some honourable exceptions, were projecting her fight against these feudal and patriarchal khap panchayats.
The media should not ignore any fight against injustice. Nor should not it be blind towards forms of injustice, and take it up only when the issue reaches a culmination in the form of justice given in the highest court. Every honourable fight for justice, fought in villages deserve more than symbolic coverage, for they carry important and transformative political messages against the feudal order in most villages, and thus the nation. There is a need for the media to be more vigilant even in this case; as the sessions judge adjudicating this case has asked for her own transfer following threats by the patriarchal khap panchayats.
The fight against such patriarchal and feudal khap panchayats is much necessary at this present juncture when more and more young couples want to exert their right of choice. These couples should be given proper protection and at the larger level, an environment needs to be created which is caste and gender just. For this the role of government, political parties and organizations which are working at grass root level becomes very important. AIDWA is one of the women’s organizations which due to their constant intervention in Haryana where such cases are at a maximum, had ensured that the home minister had to give a statement that ‘Honour Killings’ should be treated as a separate crime. The recent verdict by a district court in Haryana in the Manoj- Babli case is one step ahead for a gender and caste just society.