Not my Khap of Tea.

The Khap Panchayat issue that blew up after an MP reportedly agreed to represent their views to his party, has a basis not in any social perversion but in the politics that the Congress spawned and the Lohia-ites perverted. But at a time when this country is acquiescing to caste based census – hey, what’s the fuss about!

Public discourse over the last few weeks of the Khap Panchayat issue has resonated with abhorrence for the kind of insidious abnormality that seems to blight what could under normal circumstances be termed a village level social association. But the transformation of the Khap from a purely social to a socio-political and finally a socio-politico-judicial instrument needs a little more study, before we throw the baby out with the bath water, and start dictating the kind of babies they should have.

The Khap has a rather ancient lineage and it came from a functional necessity in times when there was no formal democracy and public opinion was traced according to villages, clusters, regions and a scientific geographical contiguity. And so a Khap would basically be a clan based, or caste council of a cluster of 84 villages, and the Panchayat, who represent the nominated members, would contemplate issues brought before it and these would naturally be – at least in their opinion – important enough to merit activating the extended paraphernalia of as complex a system as the Khap, which at its next level would be the sarv-khap, or the all-Khap panchayat, if the matter was not resolved at their level and needed escalation.

There are various accounts of the Khap’s evolution into an entity that is today recalled with considerable contempt by those not familiar with the traditional social structures of the north and north west of India or the temper of its people, but suffice to say, the Khap shoots into prominence these days only when there is an inter-caste marriage issue at hand or rightly, when a dastardly macabre end is meted out to disobedient members of the caste, a culmination often routed back to the Khap’s decisions.

However, logic suggests that the Khap would be in relevant operation on other days too, on other issues too and that it would serve a serious purpose for the other advantages it provides else it would have withered, like everything useless does. But that maybe an issue for debate some other day.

So why does the Khap still exist, and why does its writ still run?

Does it exist because other systems of social order have failed or don’t match up? Quasi-judicial activism on behalf of civilians raises its head only when the system of normal judicial process is seen to be either unfair, or unresponsive or apathetic to community sensitivities. Caste still holds sway because other progressive models have either not found their way to these villages or that percolation of new ideas and breakdown of traditional mores is taking time, or more  probably, that there is a constant under writing of the theme of caste by local politics.

It is very well to wax eloquent on the rightness or wrongness of things when you have finished your anglo-indian education, but it might do good to remember that our country is dominantly populated by people not like us. And if that is not a sobering thought, it might also do good to try and see this entire episode from the perspective of current or recent political trends and ask whether we should at all be surprised that the Khap exists, nay, is more emboldened than before.

Just two points would suffice.

This country and its people have learned to accept that there are two constitutions on many occasions. On the issue of a common civil code, the Congress Government famously threw us back a hundred years and what could have been a beacon of hope to seekers of equality and fairness, became a symbol of partisanship, the stain of which continues to show even after three decades and shames us even as Islamic nations in the neighbourhood stride forward more progressively on such matters. The question that is poised asks, if a community can enjoy a separate civil code on the basis of religion, why can’t the same rule apply to another community on grounds of specificity. Or do you want them to declare themselves a separate religion first? What is called interference in the case of a religious minority can also be termed similarly in the case of a regional minority or, to put it in more easily understandable language, to a caste minority. An entire political class that serves up caste distinction on a daily basis to this nation is not going to get away with a simple shrug of their shoulder on this one.

Which brings us to the most splendid double talking we have heard in decades from the Congress party thanks mainly to one of their own MP’s innocent quip about taking the plaint of the Khap to the centre. Coming from Naveen Jindal – this was seen by many to mean a silent acquiescence to the tradition and all hell broke loose – mostly within the snooty membership of his own party and of course, punctilious media, who like me have fashioned their moral attitudes after Rousseau. This was followed by the opposition party leader O.P. Chautala stepping in for a duet.

As a neutral observer, it seemed to me that Jindal was acting out of his responsibility as a representative of the people and in which capacity he promised to communicate his constituents’ views to the Congress bosses. He made it repeatedly clear that he was not holding an opinion on the subject and was merely acting as a messenger on an issue his constituents felt very strongly about.

Irrespective, he became the recipient of some fine advice from everyone, including his own party. Most others saw it as a betrayal of his young, progressive Congress poster boy image.

Now juxtapose against this the behaviour of Sachin Pilot, another young MP of the Congress – poster boy if you will – who was supposed to represent the new youth of India but actually partnered a dialogue with the Gujjars in his home state when they demanded reservations based on caste in Rajasthan. That was cool, right! And when the poster boy incarnate of the Congress, Rahul Gandhi, does the same – saunters repeatedly into Dalit homes in UP to shore up his party’s fortunes in the next election, he is even more cool. No problem there. No advice offered.

So why pick on Naveen Jindal. He is being forthright and straight forward. This is the job he took on and as a representative of his constituency it is his function to try and bring about a resolution of the issue. Besides, he is not a Jat by caste, unlike Mr. Chautala whose interest in the subject is both personal and acutely political.

Eventually it is about the people and their instincts on such issues. If this is medieval, it is because Haryana, and most of this country is medieval in many ways, unless you were so busy attending beauty pageants that you didn’t notice. If this is how they live, then this is how it works and the people of Haryana will hardly be looking to the Pope for directions on this. This is their tradition and this is their culture – for good or bad. That is not to condone the ghastly act of killing a young couple. That is not the issue under debate and that is being taken care of by law. This is about the maintenance of caste hierarchies in our villages and as much as I am against it, I have to ask the Congress why it is turning up its nose on an issue they have exploited to the hilt, continue to do and have even trained their youngest members to buy into.

How can you be okay with caste based reservations and have a problem with one of its minor manifestations, like the Khap panchayat. It is like being fine with the Tiger’s whiskers but have an issue with its tail. When the genie is out of the bottle, you can’t pick and choose your favourite part of the genie – you gotta take it all.

I am also willing to wager that given a few more months and a little more investment into the issue by other Jat leaders of Haryana, the Hooda government in the state will do an about turn and blend sooner than later into the same opinion that  Mr. Chautala exhibited. You only have to get on the internet and see what the young Jat is saying. You will notice then that the principled stand of the Congress party will melt faster than a strawberry ice cream in Amethi. The ghost of caste manipulation will come back to haunt those who employ it day after day.

Caste, or religious dissection has now become a genetic feature of our politics and even avowed socialists [or Lohia-ites as they are more commonly called due to their relationship with Ram Manohar Lohia, a renowned socialist of the time] along with a dozen other caste-centric parties today only exist by exciting fissiparous tendencies within communities, within constituencies, within electorates and within pockets of electors to subtract their pound of votes in the matrix of electoral maths. They don’t gain power by addition, but by attrition; not by union, but by erosion and division.

Rajiv Gandhi’s capitulation to islamic clergy in view of Muslim support to his party, Rahul Gandhi’s wooing of Dalits in UP, Sachin Pilot’s dalliances with the Gujjars in Rajasthan and Naveen Jindal’s acceptance of the reality of the Khap in Haryana –are all equal in essence.

If you did not have a view on Rajiv Gandhi’s volta face on the Shah Bano case, or the junior Gandhi’s underwriting the caste factor in UP, or Pilot’s in Rajasthan, let us all please desist from any more advice to Jindal in Haryana.

Instead, let us focus on what we should have done, when we could have done it and did not do because it disturbed the mathematics of winning elections.

One Response to “Not my Khap of Tea.”
  1. Anita says:

    You make your points well.
    But don’t you think we need to focus not on what could-have-would-have-been but what can be done now, in the present…
    What is your advice on how best to deal with this Medieval mind-set for obviously, there are problems – steps to be taken in the short term and then what to work towards for the future?

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