Hisar: The winds of change are gently blowing through Haryana, but, ironically, it is the state’s skewed sex ratio rather than social revolution that is making this possible.
In a state where men are increasingly finding it difficult to find wives because of a sex ratio of just 877 girls for 1,000 boys—the worst in the country, according to the 2011 Census—a khap (caste) panchayat’s recent ruling permitting inter-caste marriages is less radical shift and more pragmatic solution.
Termed historic, courageous and even revolutionary by the media, this decision is a practical necessity, concedes Inder Singh Mor, the pradhan (head) of the Satrol khap panchayat, one of Haryana’s largest, which oversees social and cultural behaviour of 42 villages in Hisar district.
“This is not social change,” scoffs advocate Rajat Kalsan. “This is compulsion because Haryana has killed off its betis (daughters) and now can’t find bahus (wives).”
On 20 April, a meeting of the Satrol khap attended by over 1,000 members and headed by Mor, ruled to allow inter-caste marriages. This deviation from a rule that Mor says goes back 650 years might indeed have been revolutionary but for the fact that same gotra (lineage) marriages, or marriages within the same village and even marriages within neighbouring villages, continue to be banned. Moreover, inter-caste marriages would be allowed only if they have parental approval, says Mor.
In 21st-century Haryana, marriages and relationships between men and women continue to be controlled by khap panchayats. Although they have no legal jurisdiction, khaps set out codes of conduct and use social boycott and, in extreme cases, so-called honour killings to deal with transgressions. In an attempt to rein in their inordinate power, the Supreme Court in 2011 observed that khaps were illegal and should be ruthlessly stamped out.
The Satrol khap’s decision to allow inter-caste marriages has not been unanimously welcomed. Calling it a Talibani firmaan that goes against the grain of tradition, an angry Bir Singh Kaushik, a former chairman of the block council in Hansi in Hisar district, said: “If girls are given so much independence, they will start marrying in accordance with their wishes.” This, he adds, “will ruin society and all concepts of maryaada (dignity)”.
In a counter-khap panchayat meeting led by Kaushik and the representatives of 12 villages on 22 April, the Satrol khap’s decision was condemned and a social boycott was ordered of Mor. “The Satrol khap will have to take back its decision,” said Kaushik.
But Mor, a former subedar-major in the Indian Army, is not inclined to back down. He claims his khap’s decision came after he personally undertook a survey of the villages in 2011. The majority of the people he spoke to were in favour of inter-caste marriages, he says. “We can only go forward. I will not take a single step back,” he says.
In any case, says Mor, the shortage of marriageable girls has resulted in the import of brides from states as far away as Assam and Tripura, and even Nepal. In Mor’s own village of Bass that has a population of 18,000, he says there are at least 200 brides from the North-East. “They have adjusted very well to our customs. So where is the question of opposing inter-caste marriages?” he asks.
Meena Yadav, originally from West Bengal and married for 15 years to a bus conductor in Jamawari village, said she had no problem adjusting to her new life or customs. “In Bengal, we don’t cover our heads the way they do here. But I had no problem, not even for a day, in getting used to my new life,” says the daughter of a daily-wage earner. She adds that two of her cousins have also married men in Haryana.
None of Yadav’s three children speak Bengali and Yadav herself speaks Hindi with the rustic accent of her adopted home. “I decided that if I had to live here, it just made more sense for me to adapt to the customs, language and rituals of my husband’s state,” she says.
Kaushik says he has no problems in accepting or acknowledging the need to bring in brides from other states since there is a “shortage of girls” in Haryana. “I have no problem in welcoming girls from other states. But when young people are allowed to marry across castes within the state, then our tradition of bhaichara (brotherhood) will be lost,” he says.
Worse, when girls marry boys from neighbouring villages, they will go home with complaints of ill treatment. “It will ruin the social fabric of society if parents were to get involved with their daughters’ complaints after they are married off,” he says.
For the khaps, same gotra marriages and marriages within the village are anathema because of the concept of bhaichara. “How can a brother and sister get married?” asks Bir Singh. Even Mor is opposed to same-gotra marriages and agrees with Bir Singh that the Hindu Marriage Act should be amended to prohibit same-gotra marriages, a long-standing demand of the khap panchayats.
Bir Singh and Mor also agree female foeticide and honour killings are “very bad”, but do not take place in their villages.
For some, the decision to allow inter-caste marriages is too little, too late. In a tiny town in Hisar district, 20-year-old Lakshmi Jangra lives under police protection after falling in love with Manoj Narwal, 28, a Dalit and a physical training teacher, from her own village of Puthisaman that comes under the Satrol khap.
In May 2012, Lakshmi says she was forced to marry Subhash Jangra, a man with criminal antecedents but from her own caste following a khap panchayat decision. A day later, Narwal was summoned before the panchayat where his face was blackened, he was made to pay a Rs.21,000 fine and excommunicated from the village for 11 years.
Lakshmi managed to escape from her matrimonial home nine months later and file a police complaint on grounds of kidnapping, rape and trafficking. Her father was arrested and remains in jail while Jangra is out on bail. Narwal, too, has filed a police complaint, but neither can return to their village.
While Lakshmi and Narwal await a court judgement before they can marry, they are aware of the danger that stalks their lives. “My family has no objection to Lakshmi, but I cannot return as those who continue to threaten me have not even been arrested,” he says.
“We are fighting for justice,” says Lakshmi. Adds Narwal: “I am a sportsman and I don’t get scared easily, so I will not back down.”
In Haryana, where falling in love can have deadly consequences, it will take more than a panchayat decision to usher in real social change.