In any country ---- at least in the ones that are not so feudal ---- a marriage between two consenting adults is usually an acceptable practice. Not so in many parts of India, especially in the north, where Jat community groups, comprising elderly men (khap panchayats) , can question and stop sub-caste marriages and marriages within the same clan (or gotra). They can also punish couples and their families for overstepping stifling social boundaries, even though their decisions have no legal backing. Last week, the Supreme Court made this clear and ruled that it is illegal for khap panchayats to interfere in a marriage between two consenting adults, and also to summon and punish them physically. In many cases, such punishments mean death. The court has also laid down preventive, remedial and punitive measures to stop such so-called honour killings. The initial reaction of khaps in western Uttar Pradesh to the court ruling has been one of defiance. This isn’t just bluff and bluster; it is fuelled by the fact that these khaps have strong political support because they control huge vote banks.
While the Supreme Court’s order is important and can probably push state governments to take measures to deter khaps from pronouncing such arbitrary sentences and provide a safe environment for couples, it will not stop attacks on couples altogether. To stop the custom, patriarchal mindsets that view women as property and intrinsic to a code of honour that needs safeguarding, have to change. This will not happen unless families change their own belief systems, and boys and young men are taught to respect women (and included in structured gender sensitisation programmes).
What is equally important is to impress upon these khap panchayats that they will face the full force of the law if they overstep the legal boundaries. Last but not the least, political parties should not let electoral concerns prevail over social ones. They should speak up strongly and unequivocally against the regressive khaps.