Kh(y)ap(a) Panchayat

The word khyapa in Bengali means eccentric. It does not mean insane for that is a strong word. The khyapa is more unpredictable, given to mood swings and varying responses to familiar stimuli. For a long time I used to think that the Haryanvi term khap signifying the caste is a variation of the Bengali word khyapa. In the recent agitation of the khap panchayats in Haryana my consternations about the meaning of the term seem vindicated. The caste panchayat has openly desired a change in the Hindu marriage act in which they wish to debar the same gotra marriage. Gotra is an imaginary line of descent from a sage in unspecified antiquity and constitutes an internal division within the same caste groups. The banning of gotra marriages were instituted to limit in-breeding that caste marriages seemed to be promoting. In a way the banning of same gotra marriage is to encourage some kind of an inter group marriages that intra caste marriages belied. While the reason for promoting diversity in marriage is appreciated, what one cannot really appreciate is the fact that the idea of the gotra is imaginary with no empirical basis. Truer to the spirit of science would then have been an active encouragement of inter caste marriage that would help genuine diversity of genetic properties among the population and not ideas of cross breeding that emanate out of ahistorical and mythological imaginations.
India’s Freedom Movement is the largest mass movement that the modern world has ever seen. This movement was largely non-violent and almost universally participative. What made this Freedom Struggle so universal was that it encouraged individuals to rise against whatever form of oppression she found. Thus women sought freedom from male domination, the youth asserted against the old, the Dalit rose against the upper caste, peasants fought zamindars, workers asserted against the mill owners, and in short people rose against every kind of oppression to find for themselves a space for individual rights and choices. Thus more than a mere political anti-incumbency or a cultural assertion, the Freedom Struggle was also embroiled in removing social oppression that a long and unbroken tradition had foisted on the people. Modernity was therefore looked upon as an intrinsic part of political freedom in which individual rights were protected under the aegis of the modern state based upon principles of equality, liberty and rationality. The guarantee of individual rights was the promise that attracted huge participation in the Freedom Struggle.
Contrary to the neat conceptualization of Indian tradition being social and not individualistic, we have enough evidence within the Indian culture that individualism occupied as central a place in the Indian thought as did its society. God’s own sermon in the Bhagavadgita extols Arjuna to treat family ties as a mere illusion; Gautam Buddha is lauded for leaving behind his family in pursuit of a greater good, Nanak, Meera and Kabir are admired for their utter indifference to the social mores of their times. Modernity promised to release the individual from the stranglehold from social oppression and Freedom Struggle and the consequent democracy promised that liberty. Modernity, as a guarantee of individual freedom was a logical conclusion of the Indian tradition and its enshrinement in the rule of law alone explains why India despite its social cleavages and inequalities continues to be a robust democracy.
But the project of modernity that originated in the West is not only confined to individual liberty. It entails a certain homogenization of the world through a priori ideas of perfection and is contemptuous of variety and diversity. Also what modernity of the West does not support is the existence of alternatives methods of development, scientific inquiry, technology, knowledge and reason. This is why modernist projects in the name of heavy industries, laboratory produced seeds, mineral intensive energy sources, consumerist culture have displaced, marginalized, impoverished and alienated people. We have huge tribal resistance raging all across the country, the north eastern states are up in arms, Kashmir wants autonomy and indeed the silent rage of nature in the form of climate change only points out at the contradictions of the modernity project. Here, as a way of economics and a theory of development, modernity must be contained within limits. But to also contest individual liberty along with that is to homogenize and package the critique of modernity in the same way as modernity itself. It is a failure of intellectuals like Ashis Nandy who feel that individual liberty can be compromised in order to neatly fit into an anti-modernist critique against displacing development.
One of the problems of the Western notion of modernity is the co-option of the individual by the State and hence the erosion and eventual disappearance of the civil society. The civil society becomes vital when there is a need to check the march of the modern state. The modern state becomes wholly powerful on two counts; one because it attempts to fully own the individual and the other because of the essential Kantianism of modernity, it issues rules and diktats according to conceptual neatness rather than being receptive to the variations and uniqueness of ground realities. The civil society does two things to contain the unopposed march of the modern state – one, it rescues the individual from the stranglehold of the state and its blind laws and the other it proposes alternatives to the homogenizing policies of the state, alternatives that are more in sync with the ground realities. In either case, a critique of modernity does not propose to bring back as institutions of civil society those associations and congregations that have as their project the curtailment of individual freedom of choice and association.
The khap Panchayat is not an innocent association who believe in the benefits of the yoga or in the aural power of eclipses, the beliefs of the Khap Panchayat have significant outcomes for individual freedom in particular and social freedom in general. By raising issues of gotra marriage, the Khap brings back into legitimacy, the sources of those texts of Manu that also suggest caste, entrapment of women as property of men and in short, those very discourses of social oppression that the Freedom Struggle fought against and won. Therefore, supporting any and every kind of association in the name of democratic freedom is not democracy, for an important quality of democracy is one in which every institution, association, policy, law, rule and verdict must have at its core the final non-negotiable, individual freedom and equality of opportunity.
The intellectuals who condone violence but allow for the freedom of association of Talibanish associations like the Khap Panchayat seem to treat violence as a stand alone social fact. Physical violence is not a distinct entity, it is an overflow of mental violence and associations that seek to violate the individual’s freedom of choice and right to assert for equality of opportunity. Therefore, it is essential that to check physical violence, mental violence should be checked too. If there are perversions in thought like the enforcement of the caste superstitions then such perversions must be curtailed so that these do not manifest in actual physical violence. Democracy is not unchallenged freedom of thought and action; it allows for freedom only when it does not curtail the actual freedom of others in the sense of exercise of social choices and access of equal opportunities in the empirical world. Democracy may allow a Hussain to paint Indian Goddesses in the nude and it should also allow a Muslim author to lamblast the Holy Quoran; it should allow an intellectual to air her observations about pre marital sex, such opinions do not stand in the way of other individuals wanting to marry someone of her choice or taking up residence in a city of her desire or pursuing a profession that suits her penchant. In such harmless pursuits of the mind that constitutes a genuine freedom of thought and expression can we have a democracy without a thought police but in cases where vicious thoughts imagine the control of human freedom, policing may be needed as crucially as in case of a riot or abuse, or of domestic violence.
My question is why is it that the intellectuals like Ashis Nandy and Madhu Kishawar and politicians like Naveen Jindal are so eager to gloss over the difference between a people’s demands for genuine freedom like universal education, or health care or freedom from Dalit oppression and pandering to regressive sentiments like the caste? The stance of such intellectuals and politicians bring into my mind a familiar picture, that of a guilt ridden mother who because of her own engagements with her career neglects her child and as a means of overcompensating the child gives in to unreasonable demands. Let there be no confusion that the present state of neoliberal consensus leaves more and more people out of its participative space and one of the ways to distract people away from the failures of neo liberalism is to cast at them various cultural products like spectacular sport, reality TV shows, dramatic news, tear jerking serials, scandals of politicians and celebrity mongering. Such products like the chess board of Shatranj ke Khilari of Premchand create in the minds of people the semblance of reality in which one can participate with the same gusto as one would do in any instance of reality. Only the reality is so controlled by a few corporations and celebrities that it leaves no scope for the individuals to participate in it. Hence, various games of engagement are provided to the people to keep them busy and subservient to a state that has clearly decided to ignore the people. The “people” are then reached through their worst afflictions – vigilantism, vengefulness and vendetta, whether in the form of the Khap, or the Taliban, or just a public outcry demanding death for some Pakistani bomber.

About secondsaturn

Independent Scholar. Polymath.
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