For my first post I wanted to play around with some of the arguments made about the Khap Panchayat system and whether they should be left alone or regulated in some way by the government. But since it’s difficult to account for all the complexities of the issue (and also because I don’t know anything about it), I decided to make up an imaginary scenario and write about that instead:

In one of the lesser-known hill stations in India, lives a small community of people known as “Earthians” who have lived there for many generations. Their ancestors migrated to India from Europe in pre-colonial times to escape oppression and created a community of a dozen villages where they could practice their unique way of life, called “Earth-Living”, a way of living in harmony with Nature and Mother Earth. Members of the community have since been recognised as Indian citizens and live modern lives, but continue to live in their villages and practice their customs. Individual members are free to leave the community and settle down elsewhere if they wish to do so.

Each village has a village council, known as an “Earth Council” which resolves disputes and ensures that customs are followed. Since it’s not recognised by the Indian government, the Council’s verdicts are not legally binding or enforceable, but Earthians recognise its authority since it’s an integral part of the Earth-Living tradition. The council has equal representation of men and women of all ages and makes sure that its decisions are acceptable to most villagers. It has even been known to change the interpretation of certain customs to keep up with changing times.

According to custom, villagers who were born in a particular season (Spring, Summer, Autumn or Winter), are considered siblings under Mother Earth (and called Season Siblings). They form an informal network of people that any member can rely on for apprenticeship or financial assistance. Marriage between Season Siblings is prohibited since it is considered an insult to Mother Earth. If such a marriage takes place, the Earth Council asks the couple to leave the village, with the implied threat that they will be boycotted by the community if they stay. In practice, this happens once every few years. Those who leave the community are able to lead normal lives outside it and face no disadvantages due to their background.

The Indian government is considering a proposal to make it illegal for Earth Councils to give verdicts on issues relating to marriage. Their justification for this is that Earth Councils cannot be permitted to use the threat of boycott to prevent two people who want to marry each other from doing so. Journalists approached Earthian representatives for their views and here’s what they had to say:

Why must the Earth Council be allowed to restrict the choices of community members in choosing their spouse with the threat of boycott?

Our customs regarding marriage are a fundamental part of our way of life and those who disrespect these customs can no longer be treated as a part of the community. We cannot meaningfully preserve our customs unless we ensure that they are followed. Community members who want to marry in violation of our customs may leave the community freely and we will respect their decision. But those who wish to live as a part of our community must follow our way of life. The choices of community members are restricted, but only because following our way of life is a small price to pay for the privilege of being a part of our community.

Why is it important that Earthians be allowed to preserve their customs?

The system of Earth-Living is a collection of beliefs, ideas and customs that originate from our shared history. It’s worth preserving because it’s an essential part of who we are and makes our lives richer and more meaningful.

The government must leave us alone to practice our customs simply because our customs do not harm anyone. To outsiders our restrictions on marriage may seem arbitrary and irrational; what they don’t realise is that what marriage means to us is different from what it means to mainstream society. As a result of our unique customs and beliefs, we see marriage between Season Siblings as being fundamentally wrong in a way no one outside the community would understand. To an Earthian it’s a repulsive violation of our most cherished beliefs and an insult to the very idea of Earth-Living.

It’s a mistake to assume that the way of life of the majority is the right way to live, and that anyone who doesn’t live like them is less civilized in some way. Each person sees the world differently, values different things, and has different principles they live by. The existence of different belief systems and customs makes society richer since it is to our benefit that diverse people with different perspectives learn from each other and work together to solve our shared problems. People who do not belong to our community may have something to learn from us, just like we may have something to learn from them.

Representatives of the government were also asked for their opinion on the matter:

People who disagree with the Council are free to leave, so what’s the harm in allowing the Council to preserve its customs by ensuring that they are followed?

There may be some people for whom leaving the community is a drastic step because of their emotional or financial attachment to the community or some other reason, so they may choose to stay even if they do not fully share the community’s beliefs. They will be vulnerable to the Council’s threats and may not be able to choose their spouse freely because of this. The fact that the Council threatens people with consequences if they do not follow their customs actually suggests that such people exist; if everyone who chose to stay in the village followed the customs perfectly, there wouldn’t be a need to make threats to enforce them.

Doesn’t someone who is offended by the actions of a person have the right to decide that she will no longer interact with that person? Then why is it wrong for villagers to boycott a couple whose actions offend them? 

If the Council did not exist, and each member of the community independently decided that they would not associate with the couple because their decision to marry offended their beliefs, we would not intervene since we recognise that people should be free to live according to their beliefs and choose whom they want to associate with.

However, when the Council orders a boycott, people choose not to associate with the couple as in the previous case, but they don’t do it as individuals acting on their personal beliefs; the entire community acts as one and boycotts them, with the explicit intention of punishing them for disrespecting their customs. Being able to threaten this kind of punishment gives the Council the power to influence personal decisions made by individuals about marriage. A person who must decide whom he will marry while facing the threat of boycott cannot really be free, and an institution such as the Council cannot be justified in having such power over generation after generation of community members. The fact that the Council’s power is due to its status as the preserver of customs being an unquestioned part of the community’s way of life has other consequences as well.

What other consequences does you mean?

If the Council must ensure that the system of Earth-Living is followed by everyone, there must be a single authoritative interpretation of what Earth-Living is, which can only be decided by the Council. No matter how democratic or progressive the Council is, there is no escaping the fact that alternative interpretations that disagree with the Council’s will be discouraged. Not only will the ‘true’ interpretation of Earth-Living be imposed on community members who do not agree with it, it will be eventually be established as something which is immune to criticism and cannot be questioned, because the power of the Council depends on there being only one version of it. Beliefs and customs die a natural death when people find that they have no value for them and they can no longer be justified. An institution whose purpose is to preserve them will use its power to make them last beyond this point, by suppressing criticism and discouraging people from thinking critically about them. Society cannot progress unless the ideas and beliefs of the past are subject to fierce criticism. People cannot be truly be free unless they are able to question everything about their life that they take for granted and live by principles that are truly their own. The Council, by virtue of its existence alone, is an inadvertent opponent of freedom.

A couple of interesting articles on Khap Panchayats:

  1. A quick introduction to the issue for those who are unfamiliar with it
  2. An interesting view on why they should not be treated as cultural organisations
  3. A detailed, comprehensive argument against government intervention in their affairs