Khap Panchayats at a Crossroads

Written by Praveen Verma

The ongoing farmers’ protests have seen the return of khap panchayats to the arena of political mobilisation. In the intersection of the farmers’ movement and khaps, there is a need to reflect on what questions face khap panchayats and what they can learn from the former. At one of the many massive mobilisations — part of the series of mahapanchayats called across the Indo-Gangetic agrarian belt — Rakesh Tikait, Bhartiya Kisan Union (BKU) leader and hereditary chief of the Baliyan Khap said at the Bahadurgarh panchayat, “Iss liye to khap banayi gayi thi! khap yahi to karti hain! Zamin ka mudda yahi panchayat mein hi suljhaya jaayega” (This is why khaps have been established here. That is what they do. The issue of land will be resolved here in the panchayats). There was a bold assertion in his voice. The confidence was collective as if he was back to where he belonged. Panchayats have been put on the centre stage once again and Tikait emerged as one of the prominent faces of the farmers’ protest.

On January 27, an emotional Tikait broke down on national television and appealed to farmers to join him at the Kisan dharna at Ghazipur. His comment summarised the heart of the matter: “BJP ne kissanon ke saath dhoka kiya hai” (BJP has betrayed the farmers). Dhoka, or betrayal, is not a new term in the farmers’ dictionary. They have invoked the idiom of betrayal at various moments in history from the colonial period onwards. Whether in 1905-06 when the British government in Punjab increased water rates for irrigation, or in the 1950s when the Hindu Code Bill was passed by the post-Independence state, claiming modern values, but which attacked some of the marital practices of Jats, such as restriction on marrying within one’s gotra (clan), or in the failure of the state to grant OBC (Other Backward Classes) status to Jats. The context was different in each case, but the expression remained the same, that of betrayal.

The kisan mahapanchayats have been organised predominantly by Jats in general and various khaps or sub-clans of Jats in particular. While the overarching term kisan (farmers) is highlighted, mobilisation and leadership are principally Jat. Not many castes other than Jats have the power or means to call for these kinds of meetings in rural north India. Meanwhile, khap panchayats have been around for decades, especially among Jats in Haryana and Uttar Pradesh and, to some degree, in Rajasthan and Punjab. In these parts the term kisan has been almost synonymous with Jats for more than a hundred years, the community forming a bulk of farmers and being socially dominant. It is for this reason that the Unionist Party, represented by Sir Chhotu Ram, the most prominent Jat leader, could succeed here. Khap panchayats have been crucial in the quotidian life of the rural landscape, and their impact is beyond caste.

The emotional appeal by Tikait did three things. It re-energised many of these khap panchayats, rejuvenated Jat brotherhood in a context where dominant caste sensibilities were challenged and brought harmony between various khaps. For instance, the Desh khap and Baliyan khap had not shared a dais in the last 32 years, but were brought together by Tikait’s tears. However, many past experiences indicate that khap panchayats have been an exclusive space representing reactionary politics — whether it was imposing patriarchal gender norms on women, such as what not to wear, what not to eat, whom not to marry, what technology not to use, or enforcing casteist norms, such as the social boycott of Dalits and OBCs, cases of Dalit atrocities, killings in sagotra (same clan) or inter-caste marriages or religious anxieties (the communal riots in western Uttar Pradesh). Khap panchayats might not directly be involved, but these cases are often backed by their blessings or share the same sentiments. There is little space here for women or people from other castes, especially Dalits.

In the fight against the government in demanding a repeal of the three farm laws, the mobilisation of dominant castes like Jats and their khap panchayats needs to be recast in the context of the present moment. The nature of the current farmers’ movement has demonstrated a broad canvas that has challenged caste, class and gender barriers. The enormous participation of women and landless Dalits bear testimony to this. This context, and the close, near-synonymous, relationship between Jat and kisan, demands breaking the traditional boundaries of (khap) panchayats that have so far carefully guarded the ambit of the institution.

The identity question is at the centre of the farmers’ movement and incorporating different identities (farmer, landless labour, Dalit, women, etc.) is one of its achievements. However, some of these identities — Dalits and women, in particular — have posed an anxious question for khap panchayats. The question of landless labour, as well as women’s land rights, has also been a defining feature of the farmers’ movement and it is high time that these difficult questions are raised and discussed and criticism is accepted. As a crucial actor and space in this context, khap panchayats are at an important crossroads and have significant responsibilities. There is a need to make them more inclusive and democratic. This may seem like a mammoth task, but history demands it and the present context provides ample opportunity. The direction for this has already been set by the farmers’ movement. Specifically, they need to be made more inclusive for women (until recently, women were not allowed to be part of the khap panchayat meetings), and Dalits and Muslims (who were mostly at the receiving end of the panchayats’’ directives). This critical moment demands scrutiny of events of the past, as well as careful thought towards actions in the future. What lies ahead for the farmers’ movement cannot be known, but institutions like the khap panchayat must use this moment to untangle the question of agriculture and land from the domain of dominant castes and eventually strengthen the farmers’ movement in its true sense.

(The writer is a doctoral scholar at the Department of History, Delhi University)

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