Sudesh Chaudhary heads the only women’s wing in all of Haryana’s khap panchayats, which are self-instituted councils that govern clans and have considerable social power in parts of north India.
Sitting in her living room in her three-storeyed house in an affluent neighbourhood in Hisar, she looked through photos on her mobile phone. They included images of her that have appeared in newspapers and magazines, and video clips of her appearances on television. Chaudhary, who is in her mid-40s and is part of the Satrol Khap, one of the state’s largest such bodies, has attracted attention for her unique position in Haryana.
“Do you know other women who have the power to take decisions like me?” Chaudhary asked me in Hindi when I visited Hisar, 230 kilometre southwest of the state capital Chandigarh, on Feb. 16. “I want to be the Mother Teresa of the villages [over which the clan controlled by the khap is spread].”
Just four days earlier, her khap had issued a warning to its constituency that anyone who became embroiled in an honour killing, foeticide or rape would be ostracised. This might sound like a risible punishment for such grave offences, but it was a noteworthy announcement only because khaps routinely condone honour killings and foeticides in a state that has India’s lowest sex ratio.
Following the Satrol Khap’s pronouncement, two other khaps also said that women needed a voice in governance and lifted a prohibition on marriages within khaps, which goes back more than six centuries.
The Satrol Khap, whose jurisdiction straddles 42 villages spread across the two districts of Hisar and Jind, was the first to lift this ban, almost a year ago. At that time, this step evoked pleasant surprise, given that the fully male-governed khaps were notorious for their regressive strictures against women and regarding social relations in general. It had then also established a women’s wing, which Chaudhary now runs.
But a deeper look at these reformist moves suggests that they spring not from a progressive impulse but a conservative attempt to retain control in a rapidly changing India, where industrialisation and consumerism are eroding feudal social structures. Also, many khap leaders have political ambitions, and hope that these moves will reap them electoral benefits at a time when some of their rulings have elicited an outcry even in a socially conservative state such as Haryana.
In Hisar, change is visible everywhere. A stretch of the Hisar highway is lined with malls that have cinema theatres, fast-food restaurants and luxury car showrooms. One mall even has a shop dedicated to Chivas Regal whisky.
“For now, people still fear society, but soon they will do whatever they want. It is a generational change,” said Inder Singh Mor, the pradhan, or head, of the Satrol Khap, revealing his anxiety. “We’ve been like frogs in the well.”
Indeed, behind the Satrol Khap’s recent measures lies a desire to stem radical changes that are already taking place.
Haryana’s abysmal sex ratio of 879 women for 1,000 men means that brides are in short supply. Because of this, many of Haryana’s men, some of whom leave the state to study or find work, are marrying women from other states, as far off as Assam, a trend that worries Mor. “It leads to undesirable social changes,” he said.
“It is the marriage squeeze,” said Ravinder Kaur, a professor of sociology at Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), Delhi, referring to the reasons for the reforms. The Satrol Khap’s moves merely “recognise marriages that they see as a necessity [to prevent what they believe are worse transgressions]. It is just about accommodating change that is already happening.”
Satrol’s measures are anyway also not as far-reaching as they seem. It still won’t allow marriages within the same village, between people in adjacent villages and within the samegotra, or sub-caste. It still insists that couples who want to marry must have the consent of their parents.
“We are on the side of the law when it comes to intra-khap marriages but on society’s side when it comes to intra-gotra and intra-village ones,” Mor said. “We will never allow those.”
The khaps continue to vehemently discourage marriages between Jats, the dominant upper caste, and Dalits, formerly the untouchables. “How many such marriages have taken place?” asked Jagmati Sangwan, the general secretary of the All India Democratic Women’s Association (AIDWA), the women’s wing of the Communist Party of India (Marxist). In the past, khaps have been particularly brutal about preventing such marriages.
When Chaudhary was growing up in Badli village, her in-laws didn’t allow her to play sports. She attributes her own more progressive outlook to this early discrimination.
“I felt freedom when I climbed the steps to the community square of the Satrol Khap for the first time,” she said, her turns of phrase making her sound like a seasoned politician trying to inspire the masses. “With each step I climbed, I sensed more possibilities.”
Chaudhary, who is married to a contractor, has big plans: to boost the sex ratio within Satrol Khap to 1,200 women per 1,000 men, to build schools and toilets for girls, and to bring state funds to the village with the best sex ratio.
How she will do this is far from clear. On the ground, women continue to be cowed down.
“Can we raise our voices at khap meetings?” asked Anjali Duhan, 21, a student in the village of Jamni Kheda, who wanted to go to a better college in Jind, a nearby town, but could not because her family did not allow her to. “No, we can’t. It takes a lot of courage. If we do, then the men say we don’t show respect, are uncultured and have been brought up badly. They use the tactic of shaming.” She cannot leave the home unescorted; her father accompanies her even to the exam centre.
Men’s attitudes have not changed much. Baljeet Singh Malik, who heads the Malik Khap, praised the Satrol Khap’s measures. At the same time, Malik, who lost on a Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) ticket in the state election last year, claimed women had no interest in participating in the governing councils. “They don’t have free time,” he said.
Women’s rights and empowerment, however, have political currency. Both Chaudhry and Malik kept referring to the BJP-led central government’s Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao (Protect And Educate Your Daughter) campaign launched in January.
Sceptics say khaps know that giving women a role, even just a symbolic one, is one way of catching the attention of political parties. Chaudhry makes no secret of her political ambitions.
In the recent Delhi election, she campaigned for the BJP and said she hoped the party would give her “more responsibility” in Haryana. She joined the BJP last year, defecting from the Om Prakash Chautala-led Indian National Lok Dal (INLD) because it did not give her a ticket in the state election in 2014. She had joined the INLD in 2002.
The only other woman on a khap council is Santosh Dahiya, head of the women’s wing of the Sarv Jatiya Sarv Khap Mahapanchayat, an umbrella body of Haryana khaps. Unlike Chaudhary, Dahiya fought on an Indian National Lok Dal ticket last year but lost. Chaudhary does not think Dahiya counts as a woman leader within the khaps. “She just says she is one,” Chaudhary said dismissively, their inimical political affiliations perhaps having something to do with her opinion.
Last week, Chaudhry went around a few villages talking to locals much like a politician would, shaking hands and asking them about their daily needs. At Baans village, she stepped out of her car dressed in a lemon-green kurta and a pink sweater. Her beige pumps clicked on the cobbled street as she walked up to a group of six women sitting outside a house. She chatted with them for a while.
“To be politically successful, you have to be out there,” she said. “Everyone should be able to recognise you and your image.”
AIDWA’s Sangwan said the khaps’ announcements had given them and their leaders politically valuable publicity. She said the khaps were creating women’s wings to try and mollify critics like her, but then appointing pliant women. Chaudhary, too, admitted that khaps were realising the political importance of making these recent moves.
IIT Delhi’s Kaur said that whatever the initial motive, appointing women to khaps could eventually lead to real change. “In panchayats, too, in the beginning, women were proxy candidates,” she said. “But it has had a positive effect over a period of time. True, it is symbolic. But it is also a recognition of what is happening on the ground. There is also resistance and challenge. Mothers and sisters stood up against honour killings. It is an ongoing scuffle.”
The Haryana assembly has 13 women legislators, the largest number in its history. The number of women who contested the election, 116, was also the largest. In that election four khap leaders contested and lost. “It’s a good thing they did,” Kaur said. “It means that they don’t have the clout they think they do. The political gamble [of appearing liberal] is part of their fight to stay relevant.”
This post first appeared on Scroll.in