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A LEGACY OF SIBLINGS - Honour killings are condoned in areas where women are scarce

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By Mrinal Pande
  • Published 30.06.10

There was this girl from a Brahmin clan long ago, ran family lore, whose father failed to find her a suitably young and prosperous husband from a different gotra. Finally she was married to a very old and very poor Brahmin beggar from an acceptable gotra. A year later, the father decided to pay his daughter a visit. He was appalled to see her in rags, roasting a fistful of coarse grain over a twig fire in a hut. “What are you roasting child?” the father asked gently. “My caste and your gotra, Babuji,” the girl replied.

Fastforward to story number two. The year was 1991. A batch of young Indian administrative service probationers visiting eastern India as part of their mandatory Bharat darshan were taken to an ancient temple, considered an archeological treasure. On their way out, they decided to leave behind a donation. The priest-cum-accountant, as he filled out the form, asked the young lady handing him the donation, “What gotra shall I write here?”

“All India Services 1991 batch,” replied the lady without batting an eye.

Caste, gotra and women have obviously come a long way since a young wife in Uttarakhand sat roasting them over twigs. But that transition is actually the real source of the recent spate of caste-gotra related lynchings and murders in the north, especially in Haryana and western Uttar Pradesh. The khap panchayats that have aided and abetted the lynching mobs have of late been delivering harsh judgments over various issues that range from marriage to education (separate school-timings for area boys and girls) to sharing the state’s waters with Delhi. And their being controllers of vital caste vote banks in the area gives them a covert political protection from the police and the law and order machinery.

In television debates, their semi-literate supporters are quoting everyone from Manu to the geneticists on how a same gotra marriage means mixing up genes among siblings — which is both incestuous and will mean risking genetic defects among the progeny. If this were so, how come Brahmins in the south are allowed to marry their daughters to boys of their wife’s natal family, or into the married sister’s husband’s family, by the same tradition? How about the treatises on the Dharmashastras that say that a Kshatriya or a Vaishya (perhaps they travelled so much, or perhaps because they gave good dakshina), if he cannot recall his gotra, can avail of his guru’s or family priest’s gotra as his own? And last, but not the least: if caste identity is so sacrosanct to the Jats , how come they are now threatening to cut off water supplies to Delhi unless they are listed not as upper castes but as other backward classes?

Unlike the Vedic and post-Vedic era, when all the deemed founders of the four major gotras bore their mothers’ names, Manu’s law is father-centric. According to it, each legitimate caste male is born into a specific gotra, and lives and dies as a member of the same, but women join the paternal gotra of their husbands when they are married. The gotra of the khaps accepts the patriarchal system, but then goes on to redefine siblinghood and kinship for Jats. It dates back to the 14th century — the time of Timur’s massive assault on western India — which may have suddenly exposed the vulnerability of disunited landowning clans in the region. Each khap, when it was created, was said to be based on a cluster of 84 villages united by caste and geography. All young boys and girls of such a khap area were declared siblings, who must not intermarry. You can see how vast one gotra pool now becomes. Add to it the fact of an increasingly female deficient society (the male-female ratio in Haryana now stands at less than 800 females to 1,000 males) and you begin to understand (though not condone) the desperation of the khaps to protect the marriageable girls for their own and prevent same-gotra or intercaste love marriages by supporting the killing of rebels. There are not many takers for the recent assertion of the chief minister, Bhupinder Singh Hooda, that khap panchayats never order honour killing; the affected families kill their young on their own.

The khaps’ efforts at preserving the gene pool are being threatened also by the new urbanized India, which now has new markers for assessing the worth of available grooms for their daughters. The flaunting of caste, gotra, family land and gold is no longer enough. Affirmative action, amendments in the laws restrictive of women’s, Dalits’ and OBC’s democratic freedoms, and the spread of education have all but destroyed the age-old backwardness of marginalized groups and their access to good jobs. The matrimonial ads reveal a new type of suitable bridegroom from the erstwhile backward groups: young, confident, holding a lucrative job in the private sector or the government or working abroad. In states like Punjab and Haryana, where massive female foeticide has created a gravely skewed gender ratio, there are fewer marriageable daughters in caste families. Not only young girls but also many families, disenchanted with uneducated and uncouth young men from landed families who may be the right gotra but gamble or drink all day, feel that their much-pampered daughters deserve better. Such families will support their daughters’ demand for overlooking the gotra of a suitable groom. The rich and the powerful still get away even after they have bent the rules — with a rap on the knuckles, as it were. They are asked to pay a small fine and give a feast to all and ask for forgiveness. That’s all. But it is only the economically weaker (a poor fatherless Dalit or OBC boy marrying a Jat or Gujjar girl, or a Jat girl eloping with a Bihari Yadav lad) who literally get it in the neck even after they have moved to a city and asked for police protection. Actually, the logic that runs like sap through all caste based panchayats shows you the rule when you show them the man.

Area politicians of all ages and from various parties, even those who have studied abroad, have by now made it clear that when it comes to community laws, they would not intervene on the side of the law, but justify the caste panchayats’ stance on gotra and arranged marriages. This is where one begins to look to, and expect, both the civil society and the government at the Centre to assert themselves immediately and see that what prevails ultimately is the law of the land, not the law of the landed.

Gotras only meant clansmen who shared the same cowshed during the pre-Vedic ages when the term was coined. The Vedas linked it to four rishis (all of them known by their matronymics) and increased the footprint. Manu linked it to the caste system much later and made the whole issue patriarchy-centric.