Haryana panchayat polls: Influence of khaps on rural voters on the wane

Jind, Nov 23 (IANS/ 101 Reporters) Once an inseparable part of the rural landscape of Haryana, khap panchayats no longer hold the power to sway elections in favour of the candidates it support.

“Gone are those days when people chose to vote under someone else’s influence. At least, the youth will never vote at the behest of a khap panchayat,” affirms Satpal Sharma (34), a resident of Amarheri village in Jind.

Until the year 2000, khap’s backing was like a stamp of approval for any candidate. “Its decision definitely had an effect on voters,” says Kanwar Bhan Narwal (70), a resident of Narukheri.

Now, candidates like Captain Hawa Singh Sangwan, a member of the Sangwan khap, do not raise his khap connection during the poll campaign. Ask why, he states, “Khap and politics are separate entities!”

How did khap panchayat, which once had so much social relevance in Haryana, lose influence in rural politics? Most probably, the answer lies in its narrow-minded outlook.

A clash of ideologies

According to journalist Karmapal Gill, there is a stark difference between the ideologies of khap panchayats and the younger digitally connected generation of today. “The average age of khap representatives is mostly above 60 years,” says Gill, who has written extensively on the infamous khaps of Haryana.

Today’s youth are much more aware than their counterparts a decade ago, thanks to the information revolution that has penetrated into rural areas. They want to establish their own identity. In addition, the social structure in villages has seen drastic changes with nuclear families becoming increasingly popular.

The general negative attitude of the media towards khap has also played a role in its diminishing popularity among the youth. “Khap panchayats’ moral policing measures such as banning women from wearing jeans and opposition to love marriages were criticised across the board. Unfortunately, the khaps’ views are diametrically opposite to what youth think on issues that really matter to them,” adds Gill.

As more and more people migrate to cities for white-collar jobs, the standard of living has improved. Both their outlook and experience have expanded, and so has their way of thinking.

“If there are people to support khap panchayats on issues like dress code even when they do not have any special right to dictate such terms, what would happen if they manage to get real power? We are too scared to think of that,” Jitendra Jeet Saharan (43) of Haibatpur tells 101Reporters.

Development matters

The priority of voters in villages has changed. They need candidates who talk about development, environment conservation, and measures to improve the standard of living. “But khaps are oblivious to such things,” remarks Saharan.

Sompal Jun (44) of Bahu Akbarpur in Rohtak district thinks khap’s representatives are fully aware that the system is crumbling due to the contentious decisions they took in the past. “This why they now keep khap and politics separate.”

Satpal Sharma (32), another resident of Bahu Akbarpur, adds that khap panchayats have nothing new to offer other than their old ideology. “Within the khap itself, different members have different ideologies. So, how will they attract voters?” wonders Sharma.

“Earlier, married women voted for the candidate that her family chose. Today, the girls are educated and have a mind of their own when it comes to voting,” says Angrejo Devi Narwal (52).

Things have come to such a pass that even village elders reject khaps politically. “No one can decide my vote. If the khap decides it, then what is my status in society? Who will think of our rights? Who will stand up for us?” says Kanwar Bhan Narwal.

The number game

Only the zamindar (Jats) community has the khap system in place. As a result, khap is not strong enough to make any candidate win an election on its own. “Khap represents a particular gotra. In a village, even if one caste dominates, there are people of different gotras, which is why the influence of khap diminishes,” academician Rajkumar Bharadwaj tells 101Reporters.

“A village has Dalits, Backward Castes and other communities that do not follow the khap rulings and cannot be united in the name of khap panchayats,” he explains. If a khap Choudhary or representative contests an election, he will not get the support of the other segments of voters.

In addition, khaps do not have much cohesion among themselves. “If one khap member supports one candidate or party, the other will favour another, which serves as a hindrance to having a clear-cut ideology.”

In its heyday, khap panchayats had successfully used their clout during elections. Whether it was a farmers’ movement or social work, the khap’s decisions were valued.

Take the 2004 Assembly polls when most khaps supported the Indian National Congress as the Jat community was angry with the ruling Indian National Lok Dal due to the death of nine Jind-based farmers during a 2002 farmers’ movement. This was a major reason for the Congress victory and its subsequent government formation in the State in 2004.

However, the khap panchayat’s social relevance is upheld even today. “For example, khaps banned disc jockeys from performing in marriages, and it was diligently followed. Similarly, its decisions like not demanding dowry and keeping funeral rituals low key were accepted by most of the people,” Karmapal Gill points out.

“Politics and social work are different. This is why khaps are not important in elections,” states Bharat Singh Beniwal, a representative of Beniwal khap.

The main job of a khap panchayat is to strengthen the social fabric and bring the people of the society together. At the same time, khaps have made wrong decisions on many occasions in the past. Many of its members have been accused of honour killing.

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