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Khap Panchayats in H aryana: Sites of Legal Pluralism

K.S. Sangwan

INTRODUCTION

The Khap Panchayat, like the caste system and joint family systems, is a traditional institution engaged primarily in dispute resolution and in regulating the behaviour of individuals or groups in rural North India. While the smaller issues are taken up by the village panchayats, the Khap Panchayats resolve disputes of wider concern within their operative territory. Sometimes activein the political sphere, they have mainly been confi ned to social issues. Historically speaking, the Khap Panchayats are very old. But they attracted the attention of scholars only when the electronic media highlighted certain of their decisions which violated the human rights of individuals. These decisions were mainly related to marriages which violated the traditional moral code of conduct, especially the concept of village bhaichara (brotherhood), gotra2 bhaichara (clan brotherhood) or Khap bhaichara (brotherhood of persons belonging to same khap, signifying equality within the Khap), which form the basis of community harmony in Indian villages, especially those in northern India. After Independence, the authority of these Khap Panchayats has been challenged by modern institutions of justice such as courts, which function on the principle of rule of law.

Despite this formal transition, Khap Panchayats remain popular among the people for a numberof reasons: they do not involve any money; they are less time-consuming; there is a direct negotiated settlement between both parties before a large audience that includes persons of authority in thepanchayat; they help to maintain social order among people of different castes; and they act as animportant agency of social control. These factors have been responsible for its survival over a long period of time. The State and the local administration normally do not interfere in the functioningof the Khap Panchayats, avoiding any confrontation with them even when the courts decide againstthem, which is a pointer to the entrenchment of the Khap Panchayat in rural society. Sometimes, however, the decisions of the Khap Panchayats militate against the modern law of the land, and, therefore, violate human rights. This creates a contradiction between traditional system of dispute resolution and modern institutions such as the judiciary and the administration. In this chapter,I would like to focus on the Khap Panchayats, their brief history, structure and functioning through a comparative analysis of decisions between Khap Panchayats and the formal legalities.There is lack of literature on the origin of the Khap Panchayat, but there are certain referencesin some studies that indicate the existence of multi-village organisations which are structurally similar to Khap Panchayats. There are records which provide evidence of a cluster of villagesfunctioning as a single unit which was demarcated, in different instances, on the basis on clan(gotra), caste, administrative units or political allegiance.3

In the Ludhiana Settlement Report,4 Gordon Walker writes that in the Samrala tehsil, the multiplicity of got (clan) among the Hindu Jat was a remarkable feature. The adjoining villages not only belonged to different gotras but inside each village, there were generally two or three sections

(patti) of distinct clans. Going by their appearances, the village founders came from different parts of the country and belonged to different gots. The basis of village unity was perhaps a sense of belonging to the same general tribe. In the southwest of the district in some cases, however, theJats settled in large but homogeneous groups. The existence of small villages in the eastern parts owed itself to the protection provided by an imperial authority strong enough to protect its subjects.In the other areas, on the contrary, no such protection was felt, and the people of a single tribehad to collect in large contiguous villages for protection. Grewal and Gill Jats had a cluster of50 villages each near Ludhiana town and in the Jagraon tehsil, respectively, and they might not have needed any protection, since the Jat villages and others showed a sense of clan organisation. They tended to band together for social comfort and self-defence.

The existence and role of the Khap Panchayats were recognised during the Mughal period in much clearer terms. Emperor Akbar granted freedom to the Khaps in matters of religion and internal administration. They were exempt from taxes and the Khaps were allowed to perform their internal functions with full freedom.5 Another mandate by Emperor Akbar said that every community and the Khap of the Doab have the freedom to carry out their functions accordingto their old custom and laws within their respective Khaps. He further stated that these differentKhaps may unite in one group and live in peace with each other (Mandate of 8th Ramzan 987Hizri [AD 1578] emperor Akbar). Such royal mandates were issued by various Mughal emperors from time to time. One of the last mandates issued in 1157 Hijri (AD 1748) to the Khap Wazirwas regarding the raising of a military force to help the emperor in maintaining peace in the area;it also simultaneously warned the Khap Wazir that strict action would be taken against any section that revolted against him.

The Wazir of the Khap Balyan, in the Muzaffarnager district in Uttar Pradesh, was recognisedas the leader of the Khap through a mandate issued by Emperor Akbar. Another mandate issuedKhap Panchayats in Haryana 333 by Bahadur Shah on 13th Rajab 1116 Hijri (AD 1707) stated that the Wazir of the Khap Balyan was given the right to fi x and collect the land revenue from the Khap villages on behalf of the government.6 On certain occasions, the Emperor used to invite the chaudhris of various Khaps to visit him, feasting them and offering gifts to create mutual trust. He also assured them ofnon-interference in their internal affairs. The Mughal emperors dependency on the Khap and Sarv KhapPanchayat provided legitimacy to the Khaps in terms of the protection of the religious faith of the Hindu castes that fell under the jurisdiction of the various Khaps. This also enabled the Khap Panchayat to raise large armies to defend their given area and, indeed, putting up resistance to the Mughal rulers.Historical records indicate that the territorial units of certain villages are very old and canbe traced to the Vedic and the post-Vedic periods. Whenever and wherever a large tract of land was found available, a tribe moved in and occupied it. As a result, in particular areas some tribesestablished their dominance over other tribes. The subsequent change in the composition ofsuch sedentarised groups seem to have been motivated by demographic and political factors. The emergence of multi-clan multi-caste units such as the Chaubisi (the 24), the Baawani(the 52) and the Chaurasi (the 84), should be seen in this context alone. The Mughals and theBritish, instead of interfering in the functioning of such organisations, chose to use them to serve their own interests. Simultaneously, these organisations continued to provide a common platform to their constituents in order to resolve their various problems.

Broadly speaking, the criteria for the organisation of the villages appear to be:(1) The villages were united on the basis of gotra, or descent from one common ancestorfor example, the Dahiya Khap, the Sangwan Khap, the Sheoran Khap, the Dalal and the Hooda Khap.(2) The villages were also organised on the basis of single-caste dominance but with multiplegotrasfor example, the Chaubisi of Meham, the Chaurasi of Baawal, etc.

(3) Groups of villages based on different castes and clans were combined into units for revenue purposes and also to provide defenders of the ruler or the revenue-in-charge of these villages.

Although the villages existed as self-suffi cient and autonomous bodies in the past, it doesnot mean that they existed in complete isolation from one another. Panchayats or assemblies of different villages, belonging either to the same clan or to different clans but living in a particular geographical area, were common. Malviya, while commenting on the relationship between theState and village communities, points out that villages in ancient India were important in the administrative machinery mainly because of the close unity with which they were knit throughthe institution of the panchayat. The State gave the village body complete authority and rights over all village affairs.7 It is through this institution that the populace exercised its rights and duties.The panchayats were expected to ensure a high level of justice, fair play and effi ciency, in the absenceof which the panchayats could not command respect from the villagers.

While there is not much literature available on Khap Panchayats, the dispute resolutions by multi-village panchayats in other parts of the country can be equated with the Khap Panchayats of northern India.

Lewis8 found the existence of multi-village panchayats of 20 villages, popularly known asBisgama (Bis = 20, gama = village), which was further divided into smaller units of two, three and four villages popularly known as Daugama, Tigama and Chaugama. These villages were dominated by people of the Dabas gotra.9 Lewis also noted that other castes also had their caste organisations on the pattern of the Dabas. He observed that while this multi-village panchayat was active, its effectiveness had declined due to the emergence of new institutions of dispute resolution.Chauhan, in his study of a Rajasthan village, has tried to analyse a multi-village panchayat popularly known as chokhla.10 He has discussed the nature and working of the chokhla of different castes and found that, through collective action, the chokhla helped to maintain some controlover