Can a village council force a happily married couple to annul their marriage? A spate of recent incidents in India show that caste-based village councils - as opposed to officially elected village councils - are increasingly enforcing their edicts on unwilling couples. The most recent case took place in Haryana.
On October 10, 2004, Sonia Dahia (nee Hooda), 20, resident of Asanda village in Haryana's Jhajjar district, was ordered by the traditional councils of three villages (khap panchayat) to annul her marriage. Sonia and Rampal were married for over a year and were expecting their first child. As many as 700 men attended the khap panchayat - women are not allowed to participate - and compelled Rampal to sign the divorce papers. The plucky Sonia, however, refused to obey the khap's orders. "I will neither divorce Rampal Dahia nor leave his village; I prefer death to that," Sonia said when she was informed about the "verdict".
Traditionally, jati (caste) panchayats have played a powerful role at the village level in several states of the country (in Haryana, when more than one caste-based panchayat meets, the term used is khap). However, jati or khap pnchayats are not elected bodies and their decisions are not enforceable by law. Sonia's determined refusal to obey the khap's orders, along with the support of women's activist groups and her family, has resulted in a rare occurrence in Haryana. The khap was forced to withdraw its "order" 18 days after it was passed.
The khap's "verdict" was based on the claim that Sonia and Rampal belonged to the same gotra (clan), and that their marriage amounted to incest. However, investigations in the past few weeks have revealed that the khap's decision may have been engineered for political gain in the panchayat elections that are due in Haryana, and by Rampal's relatives who had an eye on Rampal's five acres of agricultural land.
The machinations were begun by spreading the rumor that Sonia belonged to the Rathi gotra, which is deemed to be fraternally linked to Rampal's Dahia gotra in the villages of Asanda, Baproda and Khahar in Jhajjar district. The protests of Sonia and her father, Satpal, that they belonged to the Hooda gotra (and not the Rathi gotra) had no effect on the apparently premeditated plans of the khap panchayat. The fact that Satpal is an Assistant Sub-Inspector with the Haryana police force also did not seem to matter.
By way of background, Satpal Hooda was opposed to the marriage of Sonia and Rampal. The couple had registered their marriage in court in 2003, and Sonia's parents eventually came around.
According to Sonia, Rampal's relatives have been eyeing his property because Rampal's older brother is handicapped, his father is considered a simpleton, and his three sisters are all married. When they learned that Sonia was pregnant, Rampal's relatives felt their chances of eventually getting his property were under threat. Therefore, they wanted to manipulate the clan issue through the khap panchayat in order to disinherit Sonia and Rampal's unborn child.
At the khap panchayat of October 10, Dharam Singh, the head of the Rathi clan, and Naresh Sharma, the ex-sarpanch (head of the elected village council), played the key roles. By making the annulment of Sonia and Rampal's marriage a prestige issue for the Rathi clan, Dharam Singh probably thought he would be able to mobilize enough votes - should a fellow Rathi (or himself) contest the forthcoming panchayat elections in Haryana.
Significantly, the current (elected) sarpanch of Asanda, Rajesh Kumar, a dalit (the lowest in the caste hierarchy) was not invited to the khap panchayat.
On the clan issue, Singh, Sharma and Rampal's relatives apparently gambled on the possibility that Satpal would not come forward to defend and clarify Sonia's clan as they believed that he was still opposed to his daughter's marriage to Rampal.
About 40 people descended on Sonia's home to inform her of the khap's "verdict". "I told them I belonged to the Hooda clan but nobody listened to me. I refused to accept it (the khap's decision). Then Naresh Sharma said that if my father would not remarry me to someone else they would ensure that it happened," said Sonia.
Traumatised and three months pregnant, Sonia was admitted to the Rohtak Medical college with the help of Jagmati, president of the Haryana unit of AIDWA (All India Democratic Women's Association). Besides providing emotional support to Rampal's family, AIDWA and other organizations like the Democratic Forum and the Sampuran Kranti Manch pressurized the local administration to provide security to the family. At the same time, they demanded that the police initiate action.
In response to a public interest litigation (PIL) filed by the Haryana unit of the People's Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL), the state's High Court directed the government (on October 15) to protect the life and liberty of this couple at all costs. The high court also directed the authorities to ensure that nobody coerced the couple to change the status of their marriage.
Meanwhile in Delhi, AIDWA appealed to the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) to intervene in this matter. Pressurized by social organizations, the high court and the NHRC, the local leaders then met the khap panchayat leaders. On October 28, Dharam Singh (who had chaired the October 10 panchayat) called another panchayat meeting, which was attended by 70-odd people. At this meeting, Satpal Hooda stated his own and his daughter's gotra. And in the presence of the Superintendent of Police (Jhajjar district), Dharam Singh announced that the marriage of Sonia and Rampal would remain valid, that they would continue to live in Asanda, and that her safety would be ensured.
"This decision is a setback to jati panchayats of Haryana which have a powerful influence in its socially and culturally backward villages. But Sonia's courage and the combined efforts of others have sent a positive signal for the future," said Dr Suraj Bhan, president of the Democratic Forum in Rohtak.
According to Jagmati, this case is a definite success, but the terror of jati panchayats will continue unless such panchayats are banned. In the PIL filed in the Haryana high court, AIDWA has recently asked for a statewide ban on the undemocratic and anti-constitutional activities of these traditional caste-based panchayats.