An Interview with Jagmati Sangwan

April 17, 2017

Received from Ankit, Azim Premji University

Smt. Jagmati Sangwan is a renowned social activist who is fighting against the patriarchal system of khap panchayats and oppression against women with her small group of women called Janwadi Mahila Samiti (JMS) in the state of Haryana.

She is a lady of courage, confidence and determination that she showed in the case of Manoj- Babli honor killing case of 2007. She, with almost no help from anyone, made it to take the case into the court, fought and won.

Being an ex-International volleyball player who represented India at Asian games, she is superbly fit at the age of 56 and is still very active. She recently resigned from the Communist Party of India (Marxist) because of their alliance with TMC in Bengal and is currently heading the All India Democratic Association for Women (AIDWA), Haryana.

I luckily met her at her home in Rohtak last week on 19th March and had a long discussion with her and her husband Sh. Inderjit Singh, CPI (M)`s General Secretary of Haryana was also present and discussed  the future of khap panchayats, recent Jat reservation agitation and much more on Haryana as below-

`Janana aur khajana agar khule me hai toh fir vo loota hi jayega`

Question-1 Outside Haryana, if we see, people have only heard the negative stuff about the Khap Panchayats but people here in the state are in a great regard for these institutions. What, according to you, is the true significance of Khap Panchayats in today`s Haryana? Do we really need them at all?

Jagmati: Khap Panchayats are a platform for caste consolidation in the state. We do have elected gram panchayats in all of Haryana but the hegemonic status of these Khaps have been the same throughout the years. There is no need of these institutions as such but for a caste like Jat and to maintain their own status quo in the society, they need these institutions to mobilize people emotionally and based on the age old traditions. Also, to maintain the age old patriarchal system, their own interests and continue exploiting the minorities like women and Dalits, these Khaps play a huge role overall. But certainly, our society can certainly does well without them too.

Question: If we look back at their history, the history of Khaps, we would find out that they were supposed to unite and protect people. But that is certainly not true today. What are the recent developments in regard to that?

Jagmati: Their history definitely includes people mobilization against the day to day increasing thefts during the old times when there was no particular king in the area and people from outside used to pass through these areas.

They used to be local councils to mediate between communities when there were disputes. In 1857, Jats played a huge role against the East India Company by collecting grains from the community as it was largely an agrarian society and used to send it to the other parts. But things started getting formed because of the insecurity. People needed some social mechanisms to defend themselves like if we see the tribal peasant communities were dominating, so their councils got formed and later on with time, became caste councils. In case of Khaps, they were formed to protect all sorts of natural resources like Johads, trees, jungles etc.

Khaps consider their jurisdiction even over villages where Jats don`t dominate because of their caste dominance having the ownership of large lands. They are the ones who own the land and people from other lower castes are the laborers at their lands. In recent times, they have become the elements of mobilizing people by emotionally blackmailing them and creating the fears of caste dominance. They are the ones who don`t tend to change easily, so no bigger developments in that matter.

Question: What are some of the differences between the Khap Panchayats of different Jat belts in the state like the one in Sirsa and the one in Rohtak?

Jagmati: If we look at the Jat belt of Sirsa and Hisar districts, we would find out that in villages like Chautala and others, people can marry in their own villages and in the other neighbouring villages. But this is certainly not true for the other belts of Jats. It is mainly because in Rohtak or Jind belt, villages have only one gotra and they dominate over other minority groups. But Sisrsa belt has multi-gotra villages. This is why it is easy to marry within a village because of different gotras. Sirsa belt is also more flexible in terms of marriages.

Question: What about women in these khap panchayats?

Jagmati: The identity of women, as according to these khaps, should not be recognized as a citizen. They literally believe in the saying- `Janana aur khazana agar khule me hai to fir vo loota hi jayega. ` She is a woman and it is important for them to control her interactions. That is why there is purdah system such that their eyes are not visible to any stranger and then everything is fine. There is no fear. Also, her name is never revealed as in she was a sister first, then she was a daughter, then she was a wife and further, she is a mother and a grandmother. She is never a woman who has her own identity. And all these tags along with her force her to keep out from her individual freedoms.

But it is also a fact that when some women are able to speak up against all odds and are active in political activities, they try to persuade her to be a part of these khaps somehow such that they are able to say that they work for the betterment of society for all the sections of the society.

Questions: This seems interesting. But then there are no youths also. Let alone women but youths?

Jagmati: See, these Khaps are nothing but are systems of patriarchy to continue it without any setbacks. What happens is in a society like ours, the more elder you are, and you seem to get more respect in the society. And these khaps constitute older people in it as in patriarchy, the eldest one of the family is the head and thse heads of the families become the main part of the khaps. So, institutionally there is no space for women and youths. Also, youths tend to go outside for the sake of education and return with their own choices of marriages that is not accepted by the elders, so these many ways have pushed khaps to be vary of youths in their institutions of panchayats.

Question: How important, now, is to question these khaps and where does the solution lie?

Jagmati: We live in the times of a modern era, the 21st century and these khaps want us to live the life of 1700s. How good is that for all of us? Don`t we want equality and freedom? Don`t we want to marry by making our own choices? These khaps challenge all of us in doing that.

We need to educate more and more people such that they come out of the corridors of castes and have some compassion for the marginalized sections like women, Dalits and youths in the case of Haryana and then I`m pretty sure that that time is not far where there would be no khaps and women of the state will be exercising their rights with their own terms.