A little more than an hour’s drive away from the capital, the rule of law yields to a more primitive form of justice. In the northern state of Haryana, in large parts of Uttar Pradesh and in Tamil Nadu in the south, women’s and civil rights advocates have expressed growing concern over the often deadly verdicts passed by local councils known as khap panchayats. The councils, usually all male and held together by caste or clan ties, hear local disputes, and their extrajudicial verdicts are taken seriously, especially in the more conservative parts of northern India. According to Shakti Vahini, a nongovernmental organization that has been advocating that the government take punitive action against councils that decree or abet violence against women and minorities, the main umbrella body in northern India, the Sarv Khap Panchayat, has 300 subordinate councils, controlling roughly 25,000 villages in Haryana, Punjab, Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan.
The verdicts of these councils have often been chilling for women. In 2004, the Tevatia clan council issued a decree stating that families with fewer than two sons could not approach a village council for the settlement of property disputes. The implication was that families with daughters did not deserve equal consideration. After the 2004 tsunami ravaged Tamil Nadu, journalists noted that single and widowed women had been excluded from financial relief and compensation for losses. Local councils argued that they were not entitled to a share, because their families could take care of them. And over the past decade, an ugly pattern of so-called honor killings and punitive rapes ordered by various community councils has emerged, as the Indian Supreme Court recently noted with alarm.
Last month, the Supreme Court spoke out against the councils in a landmark ruling by Justices Markandeya Katju and Gyan Sudha Mishra. The ruling marked the first time the court had condemned the role of councils in honor killings and other crimes against women and Dalits, formerly known as untouchables, and had directed state officials to initiate criminal proceedings against councils whose edicts led to violence. “There is nothing honorable in honor killing or other atrocities and, in fact, it is nothing but barbaric and shameful murder,” the justices said. “Moreover, these acts take the law into their own hands, and amount to kangaroo courts.” The councils reacted angrily to the ruling, with the Sarv Khap Panchayat declaring its intention to file a review petition. For Jagmati Sangwan, president of the Haryana All India Democratic Women’s Association, the court’s stand was welcome.