They cannot cast out women

Khap Panchayat's recent posturing against SC judgement on inter-caste marriage and threatening not to produce a girl child shows that time has come to dismantle these caste councils

By Anish Gupta, Kundan Pandey, Ruhi Kandhari, Trishna Sarkar
Last Updated: Friday 09 February 2018 | 12:15:43 PM
Credit: Vikas Choudhary / CSE
Credit: Vikas Choudhary / CSE Credit: Vikas Choudhary / CSE

They are self-proclaimed conscience-keepers of society, encouraging honour killings and pronouncing punishments to adults in inter-caste or inter-faith marriages. Supreme Court has repeatedly warned khap panchayats against spreading fear of retribution among inter-caste and inter-faith couples. These caste councils abound in North India, where sex selective abortions are still reported and neglect of girl children is evident in heavily skewed sex ratio. Down To Earth recently spoke to some of the khap panchayat leaders to understand their blatant disregard of the apex court order against interfering in inter-caste marriages.

Some of the stories from Down To Earth’s archives also give our readers a perspective on how hostility towards one gender has been perpetuated over the years in the name of tradition.

If SC meddles with our tradition, we will resort to foeticide and not let girl child born: khap leader


In a vengeful response to the Supreme Court’s observation that khap panchayats cannot interfere when 2 adults decide to marry, a few khap leaders have threatened to destablise society by stopping the birth of girl child, if the court interferes in their customs. A number of khap leaders have threatened and warned the court to not meddle in their age-old tradition.

Naresh Tikait, head of Balyan khap said that the court is “unnecessarily meddling” with traditional laws. Tikait threatened to stop the (birth of) girl child, if the court allowed girls to marry by their choice.

Tikait told Down To Earth (DTE) that there are many ways to stop the birth of a girl child. He mentioned foeticide and his association with Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Beti Bachao Beti Padhao campaign in the same breath.

The Supreme Court’s continuous intervention in traditional practices is not going to help, he said. “We spent Rs 50-60 lakh on a girl child and how can they decided their life partner,” he says. When DTE tried to point out his bias, he said, “No, it is about boys as well.”   

Another Khap leader, Rajbir Singh Malik, head of Malik khap said that the Supreme Court is barely 100 years old and their norms at least a 1,000 years. The court should take care of this age-old tradition, he added.

Most of these khaps are in western Uttar Pradesh and Haryana, states notorious for their skewed sex ratio and for killing girls as soon as they are born.

The sex ratio in Meerut, Uttar Pradesh, where Balyan khap is primarily located, is 930 females per 1,000 males and in the last five years, the situation has further worsened. Only 858 girls were born as compared to 1,000 boys in the last five years according to the 2015-16 National Family Health Survey (NFHS). Another khap dominated district, Baghpat in western Uttar Pradesh shows a bleak picture. In last five years, only 763 girls were born as compared to 1,000 boys.

While Haryana's sex ratio is 876 females per 1,000 males, the national sex ratio is 991. More so, in the last five years, the situation in Haryana has worsened; only 836 girls were born in comparison to 1,000 boys. In India, 919 girls were born in the last five years, says the report.

The worsening sex ratio has pushed the Centre and state governments to campaign for saving the girl child through Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao.

The threat to kill new born girls is not only contempt of the apex court but is also a violation of the Pre-Conception and Pre-Natal Diagnostic Techniques Act which makes feticide illegal in the country. They are also violating Article 21 of the Constitution which guarantees Right to Life and Personal Liberty.

The Supreme Court Monday reiterated its earlier stand and confirmed that if an adult man and woman decide to tie the knot, no one including the khap can question the decision. The statement came on February 5 when the Chief Justice Dipak Misra, Justice DY Chandrachud and Justice AM Khanwilkar asked the Centre to come up with effective suggestions to protect couples threatened from khap panchayats.

Gender bias and abysmally skewed sex ratio

ruhiEditor's Note: This investigative story was first published in April 2011

It was quite a role reversal. Moments after my photojournalist colleague Sayantoni and I introduced ourselves to the chief medical officer of Jhajjar district in Haryana, he did what we as journalists normally do. Reel off a barrage of questions. 

The first question was new (not what one generally faces while covering renewable energy policy in Delhi), “Bhai-behen kitne hain? (How many sisters/brothers you have?)” and my quick answer was “koi nahi (none).” Astonished but determined to get an answer he turned to Sayantoni. Grin on her face, Sayantoni was also quick to answer that she had just one sister. To establish his point and start a conversation on why Haryana had the least number of girl children (830) under the age of six for every thousand boys and Jhajjar district (774) stood lowest in that statistic, Dr Bhaarat Singh asked our local contact, a professor Ram Kumar of Rohtak university. He had the answer we needed for the conversation to begin. “Bete ka moh kis ko nahi hota! Mere teen bhai hain or do behen hain. (Who does not want a boy. I have three brothers and two sisters).”

We agreed with Kumar and Singh that gender bias runs deep and continued preference for male child was of course a non-negotiable reason behind abysmally low child sex ratio–914 girls for 1,000 boys–in India. There has been no denying union home secretary GK Pillai’s statement "Whatever measures that have been put in over the past 40 years have not had any impact on child sex ratio and therefore that requires a complete review." However, the question Sayantoni and I sought answer to was why was the child sex ratio consistently declining; in fact it was recorded as the lowest in 2011 since Independence? Why the preference for male child has increased in Independent India?

We had some inkling of what one of the answers could be from our meeting with two former professors of Population Research Centre of Institute of Economic Growth, University of Delhi, but their indicative answers got reiterated with a visit to Jhajjar. SC Gulati and Ashis Bose, whom my colleague Sambhav and I had met before going to Jhajjar, pointed out that the cost of “bearing and rearing the child had gone up tremendously but the preference for male child still remained.” Female foeticide, according to Gulati, contributed maximum to this drop. Bose hinted that food inflation could be a factor but both of them recommended us to wait for the complete census data before drawing any conclusion.

We put this question to Singh for he had experience as a government medical practitioner across Haryana and he had been instrumental in identifying and conducting proceedings against doctors who carried out sex determination tests in the past. Singh drew us to the same answer. “In the past decade, there has been a shift to one or two child norm because neither a stagnant income-earning farmer nor a salaried family can raise more than two children. Land holdings are reducing for each family, so most families want one boy,” he told us.

He further mentioned some “secondary issues” of dowry and increasing crime against women in Haryana. The hospital roster he prepared while talking to us said more about the extent of crime than what the police records reveal. For the past couple of years the roster was prepared considering 2-3 cases of rape each month in the Jhajjar town government hospital. Another “obvious answer” to our questions was that the access to technology for sex identification of a baby growing in the womb.

Yet even a fair bit of questioning was useless in getting Singh to shed light on magnitude of female feoticide in the district. But he did direct us towards Bahrana village in which 55 girls took birth in the local public health centre against 158 boys in 2010, in other words, 378 girls were born for every thousand boys.

About 50 km from Delhi border, amidst over 10 peacocks and over buffalo’s milk, chat with some of the women from this village reaffirmed the link between price rise and female foeticide. “Almost stagnant foodgrain production, falling water table and decreasing size of land holding for each family is what we women talk about when we meet in the village,” said Sheela Ahlawat, daughter-in-law of former sarpanch Prahlad Singh. Sheela’s supportive family is why her two daughters and one son study in local school.

Sheela knows many families in the village that get hysterectomy operation done if their first child is a boy. “But if a family’s first child is a girl, collective breast-beating in the family over the cost of bringing up the girl, safeguarding her from rapists or worse case, if she has an affair and paying for dowry when she grows up starts and the only known rescue from that scenario is a visit to any of the clinics in Rohtak till the woman is sure a boy is growing up in the womb,” Sheela said. Immediately after the second child, a boy is born, majority of women get hysterectomy operation done. Maxmimum a person can raise is three children in these days of rising prices.

When some of the villagers like Subedaar Satyanarayan Singh, who got his daughter-in-law’s hysterectomy operation done after she gave birth to a girl, came out in opposition to the practice of feoticide and set up an example. On his insistence, the panchayat passed a resolution last year to “treat girls and boys like equals.” Many women in the village and Satyanarayan himself are not sure if the resolution made any difference. “The land holding of some family’s in the village has dropped to less than an acre and they want one boy who can inherit it but they don’t have the money to raise another child.” That, according to Subedaar, may be the reason why most of the 158 boys born in the village were first born.

Read: CENSUS: A nation of 1.21 billion

How landholding affects sex ratios and leads to polyandry

Illustration: Sorit
Illustration: Sorit

Editor's Note: The story was first published in August 2015

Mankhera is a small village located about 66 km from Alwar, Rajasthan. Its population comprises mainly the jat community with only a handful of brahmin and dalit (mainly chamar and balmiki) households. We were in Mankhera to study the agrarian crisis that has gripped India, and conducted two surveys-in June 2007 and in June 2013. But we stumbled upon unusual social patterns during our surveys-female infanticide and polyandry. However, what was most striking was the link between land-holding and marriage.

One may find it difficult to connect these two dots, but as the story of Mankhera village unfolds, the relationship becomes clear and alarming. Mankhera has a falling sex ratio. The sex ratios of dalits, brahmins and OBCs were 876, 865 and 813 (females per 1000 males) respectively in 2013. The jat community, comprising 60 per cent of the population, is mostly involved in agricultural activity on ancestral property. Besides the jats, the brahmins, too, own land, though they are not solely dependent on agriculture despite having the highest average landholding. Most dalits are completely landless. The average landholdings, too, are small and highly fragmented: brahmins own 1.4 hectares (ha) of land, dalits 2 ha and OBCs, mostly jats, about 1 ha. Division of land through many generations is cited as the reason behind falling per capita landholding and high fragmentation.

Sex ratio v marriage

Owing to small landholdings, many males are unmarried. In 2013, there were about 8.1 per cent households with at least one unmarried male member, up from 5.7 per cent such households in 2007. Emerging trends show that if there are two brothers in the family with very small landholding, then the family voluntarily does not marry one child. In other words, one child “sacrifices” his marital life to stop further division of the family land, paving the way for the other brother to get married in wealthy families and with dowry. Surprisingly, no female more than 19 years of age was unmarried.

The “sacrificial” theory does not hold water if confessions of a bold household are to be believed. In reality, it is the informal arrangement of sharing the wife between the two brothers. The household further disclosed that this has become the accepted norm, unofficially, and is now an “open secret” in the village. As polyandry doesn’t have any legal backing, reliable data cannot be obtained as is the case in female foeticide, female infanticide and early marriage. This trend was most prevalent among those agricultural communities for whom land is the only means of production. However, the trend was comparatively less prevalent among dalits and brahmins.

During our survey in 2013, six years after the first one, we found that the number of unmarried males above the age of 28 had increased to 12. Unmarried males counted in 2007 were still unmarried. Additionally, five new unmarried males had entered the loop. The division of land has had a cumulative effect.

On the one hand, it has become an uneconomic proposition, and on the other, it signalled poverty or incapacity to run a family. Empirical data on polyandry was not possible to obtain from households as it was a matter of family pride and because of the illegality it carries. We realised the issue of polyandry was not just related to small landholding, but also related to the pride of the community. For instance, members of the landlord caste never work as labourers, and the belief is that a small family with consolidated landholding is a better option. Members of the agricultural communities, too, neither want to work as labourers nor are they educated, like brahmins, to get alternative work. It is the high dependence on land and the pride associated with it, along with falling sex ratio, that have encouraged the practice of polyandry. This harsh reality of Mankhera is becoming more pronounced by the day.

While surveying in a very cooperative jat household, we filled the details of a baby girl (just 17 days old) along with other family members. Few minutes later, her grandmother requested us very politely to delete the information related to the girl. Initially, we could not understand the reason. We do not wish to speculate without hard evidence on female infanticide in this case.

The survey also found that land inequality had increased, both inter-caste and intra-caste. The unpredictable monsoon, depleting water levels, unproductive landholding and uncertainty, especially in the prices of guar crop, had shifted the tenancy pattern from fixed rent to shared crop. The purpose of our survey was to understand the agrarian crisis, but we learnt about polyandry and female infanticide.

The authors teach Economics at Delhi University

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IEP Resources:

Women and men In India 2017

Order of the Supreme Court of India regarding advertisement in any manner including internet providing information on pre-natal determination, India, 13/04/2017

India Development Update - Unlocking women's potential

Order of the Supreme Court of India regarding advertisements in websites which are in violation of Pre-conception and Pre-natal Diagnostic Techniques Act, 1994, 16/02/2017

Judgement of the Supreme Court of India regarding increase of female foeticide in India, 08/11/2016

Judgement of the Supreme Court of India regarding sterilization programs in India, 14/09/2016

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