Villagers after attending a panchayat, or village council meeting, at Balla in Haryana. Growing economic opportunities have made 'love marriages' more common. Image Credit: Reuters

New Delhi: The Khap panchayats are not just about medieval practices of the clans. They are as much an attempt to perpetuate caste hierarchies, oppression of the poor and disadvantaged and gender discrimination.

A visit through parts of Haryana and Western Uttar Pradesh may tell you that Khaps are most cruel when a boy from a lower caste or poor family happens to fall for a girl from an upper caste or affluent family as such alliances threaten to dissolve the prevalent caste and social system.

There are villages where the panchayats have applied different yardsticks for identical cases. In Sasrauli, a village in Jhajjar district of Haryana State, the panchayat banished a blacksmith family when its ward Sunil eloped with Santosh, daughter of Gonsais, an upper caste in 2004. But it turned mute spectator to a similar match when a Brahmin (high caste) boy Naresh married Mukesh, a backward caste within the same village. Naresh belongs to an influential and educated family. Similarly in Kamashpur, a scheduled caste man Om Parkash was beaten up when he fell in love with a Punjabi girl from Sonepat even as at least a couple of Brahmin boys in his neighbourhood are married to the Punjabi girls.

Jagmati Sangwan, president of All India Democratic Women's Association (AIDWA) in Haryana, agrees that opposition of khap panchayats to inter caste marriages and honour killings are an attempt to keep the lower castes and the deprived at the lowest rung of society and denying freedom to women.

"The panchayats want to keep the caste system intact. The inter-caste marriages particularly the ones involving a boy from a lower caste and girl from a higher caste, will lead to an egalitarian structure which is not acceptable to the upper castes," she argues. "Otherwise why is there no opposition to matches where the boy is from a high caste and the girl from a low caste?"

Sangwan also sees property rights to girls as behind the hullaballoo: "If an upper caste girl marries a lower caste, she may demand her share of land from her family."