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Mobile ban on single girls - Panchayat finds a solution to check elopements

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By TAPAS CHAKRABORTY
  • Published 24.11.10
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Lucknow, Nov. 23: A khap panchayat has “banned” unmarried girls from using cellphones to stop elopements, the diktat reflecting a head-on clash between two pervasive symbols of old and new India.

Khap panchayats — traditional village councils that have no legal standing — have long been worried about intra-gotra (clan) marriages that are allowed in law but banned by centuries-old custom.

Cellphones, a trademark of modern lifestyle and technology, have in the past decade swept across urban and rural India where even children and day labourers have them.

Last night, a khap in Muzaffarnagar district, western Uttar Pradesh, decided that the spate in same-gotra relationships owed to the easy contact between young men and women that mobile phones offer.

“All parents were told to ensure their unmarried daughters do not use cellphones. The boys can do so but only under their parents’ monitoring,” said Satish Tyagi, a spokesperson for the khap that had met at Lank village, which has witnessed three elopements in the past three months.

“The panchayat was convinced that the couples planned their elopement over their cellphones,” said Jatin Raghuvanshi, another village elder.

Same-gotra couples run away to avoid being forcibly separated, or worse. Khap panchayats, which are extremely powerful in Uttar Pradesh and Haryana, are known to hold kangaroo courts and order “honour killings”.

Some officials and social activists, however, say the mobile phone “ban” reflects the khaps’ desperation in the face of their muscle power failing to stem the rising trend of intra-gotra marriages.

“Many couples move out to urban areas, bag jobs and get married,” a police officer said.

On November 14, a grand council of all Muzaffarnagar khaps met at Shoram village, where the powerful Baliyan khap is said to have been formed during Harshavardhan’s rule 1,400 years ago.

The Baliyan khap, now headed by farmer leader Mahendra Singh Tikait, controls 300 villages — which saw 23 elopements in the past one year, the officer said. The grand council demanded an amendment to the Hindu Marriage Act, 1955, banning same-gotra marriages but, for once, even local politicians gathered the courage to oppose this.

Radhika Srivastava, who runs the NGO Insaaf in Muzaffarnagar, said: “Our society must learn to live with elopements, love marriages and premarital cohabitation.”

She said television, the Internet and cellphones were drawing young rural men and women to new lifestyles. “You can’t appoint a khap police in all the cybercafes to stop women from talking to their friends.”

Premarital cohabitation is growing fastest in India among Asian countries, including Japan, South Korea, Singapore and China, a professor from Tokyo’s Waseda University recently said in a lecture at Banaras Hindu University.

Hiroshi Kojima put it down to economic growth as well as “India’s democratic political system” (unlike China’s) and “more secular religion” (compared to Malays’).

The khaps may be losing the battle but are striking back. Three girls — Anita Rajbhar, 19, Nita Rajbhar, 22, and Sarita Rajbhar, 17 — were tortured and killed by their parents and brothers last week in Deoria district “to protect their gotra honour”, senior superintendent of police M.D. Karandhar said.

The girls went missing on October 31, and their dismembered bodies were found on November 8 in a paddy field. “But this is unlikely to deter other young couples,” Karandhar said.