By Gopika Bashi (@gopikabashi) / Women’s Rights Campaigner, Amnesty International India
On 24 August, Amnesty International India launched a petition regarding two Dalit sisters who had been ordered to be raped and paraded naked by a khap panchayat - an unelected village council - in Baghpat, Uttar Pradesh in northern India, as ‘punishment’ because their brother had eloped with a married woman from a dominant caste.
Amnesty offices around the world circulated similar petitions, so that our supporters globally would have an opportunity to take action. Over 500,000 people have so far signed these petitions.
Some media organizations have subsequently released reports which have questioned the petition. Some have said that members of the gram panchayat – the elected village council - and members of the dominant caste have denied the allegations. Others have claimed that Amnesty did not investigate the case.
Unfortunately, these reports have taken the attention away from the situation of the sisters themselves, who along with their family still fear for their safety.
We first took notice of the case when the Supreme Court provided a response on 18 August to a 146-page writ petition filed by Meenakshi Kumari, one of the sisters, seeking protection and investigation. It is highly unusual for a Dalit family to approach the Supreme Court with such a petition. The family has also submitted complaints to the National Human Rights Commission and the National Commission for Scheduled Castes.
We immediately got in touch with the lawyer and the family (with whom we remain in regular contact), and reviewed the documentation submitted to the Supreme Court, which detailed a history of harassment and intimidation. We also contacted journalists at the national and state level, who were unable to substantiate the information. We also spoke to local police officials and a khap leader, who said that the khap panchayat had not taken place.
We have remained in touch with the family, and have spoken over the telephone or in person to five members of the Jatav (Dalit) community in the village who have told us that the khap panchayat had issued the order, and have spoken about the atmosphere of fear in the village which is now preventing members of the Dalit community from speaking out.
One member of the community told us, “People are afraid. They don’t want to come forward… Jatavs are a minority here, there are only a few of us. If they speak or they come forward, they and their family members will be finished off.”
The family’s petition to the Supreme Court also contains several other allegations of human rights abuses. The sisters had been living away from the village since May 2015, when their father Dharampal Singh allegedly began receiving threats to the family, following the elopement of his son with the woman from the dominant caste.
Dharampal Singh told us, “I was fearful that they [members of the Jat community] would kill me or my family”.
The petition to the Supreme Court includes:
· A statement made by the Jat woman to the Delhi Police on 2 May after her elopement, in which she said that she faces threats to her life from her relatives. An excerpt reads:
“I will live with Ravi, otherwise I will die because I want to give birth to the child of Ravi. Ravi’s child is in my womb. I do not want to go to my home as I’m in danger from my family members as they will kill me, and I don’t want to go to the home into which I was married also because those people beat me. I want to go with Ravi. I should be allowed to go with Ravi.”
· A transcript of a recorded telephone conversation on 24 May, allegedly between the Dalit woman’s father and the Jat woman’s uncle, in which the latter suggests that the Dalit woman could be raped, and threatens the father against returning to the village.
· A transcript of a recorded telephone conversation on 30 May allegedly between the Dalit woman’s brother and a police official who says that the Dalit family’s house has been locked up by relatives of the Jat woman.
· Details of other situations in which threats are allegedly made that the Dalit women could be raped. A statement by the father reads:
“On 24.4.2015 the parents of girl _____ and her brother _____ along with their other relatives came to my home and started saying that we are from Jat community and this village is of Jats and now see we will do whatever with you as we will not allow you to live in this village and we will take revenge of the girl with the girl of your family and then they started frequently visiting at my house. And now their acts have so much increased that they have now started beating the doors of my house at village at 2-3 O’clock in the night and they started giving threat to kill us and kidnap and commit rape of my daughters and kill them also and they also started saying that now we will see that who will save you and who will speak to your Chamars against our wishes, and we will not leave him also who will speak regarding us.”
Role of the Police
In their petition and in conversations with Amnesty International India, the family says that the local police have also been involved in harassment and intimidation. The family says that the police had illegally detained one of Meenakshi Kumari’s cousins in May for three days and tortured him to try to learn the whereabouts of the couple who had eloped. An uncle was also allegedly illegally detained.
Meenakshi’s brother Ravi was arrested in May for alleged drug possession a day after he and the Jat woman were handed over to the police. In a recorded telephone conversation allegedly between Ravi’s brother and a local police official, the official admits that Ravi had been falsely implicated, and could have faced an even more serious charge.
The family says that they chose to approach the Supreme Court because they felt that the likelihood of an impartial and independent investigation by the local police was low.
Nature of Khap panchayats
Our petition mentions the khap panchayat, an unelected all-male village council. Some media reports have questioned this statement, pointing out that the ‘village council’ in Sankrod, Baghpat included several women, and was headed by a Dalit woman.
Khap panchayats are distinct from gram panchayats, which are formally elected administrative bodies. Khap panchayats, in contrast, are unelected bodies that are almost always dominated by dominant caste men. Their meetings are usually held only between members of one caste and there are usually no written records of their proceedings.
Khap panchayats wield immense power and hand down orders with little accountability. In states such as Uttar Pradesh, Haryana, Punjab and Rajasthan, families have been known to file false cases, inflict violent punishments and even carry out killings to protect their ‘honour’ when couples choose to elope or marry in violation of caste norms.
In 2011, the Supreme Court of India described khap panchayats as kangaroo courts, and observed:
“We have in recent years heard of `Khap Panchayats’ (known as katta panchayats in Tamil Nadu) which often decree or encourage honour killings or other atrocities in an institutionalized way on boys and girls of different castes and religion, who wish to get married or have been married, or interfere with the personal lives of people. We are of the opinion that this is wholly illegal and has to be ruthlessly stamped out.”
A 2012 Law Commission Report refers to khap panchayats as practicing ‘moral vigilantism’. It said:
The pernicious practice of Khap Panchayats and the like taking law into their own hands and pronouncing on the invalidity and impropriety of…inter-caste marriages and handing over punishment to the couple …amounts to flagrant violation of rule of law and invasion of personal liberty of the persons affected.
It is unlikely that members of a khap panchayat will admit to passing an illegal order of this nature, as they could be subjected to criminal prosecution. A Dalit man from the village told us how he came to know about the khap panchayat order, “When the Jat community calls a panchayat, there is no question of them calling us … No one would allow us to go there…There are a few good people from their [Jat] community who tell us, ‘All of this is happening against you’”.
It is crucial that the enormous amount of media attention on this case does not distract from the issues it has raised – the realities of caste and gender discrimination that exist in India, and the serious consequences that those who violate these unwritten codes of conduct must face.
We have called for a swift, full and impartial investigation into the orders issued against the sisters, and for their safety and that of their family to be ensured. We have no plans to stop campaigning on this case until this has happened.