Bhuj, Gujarat: Usha’s marital life of eight years and counting was fraught with problems right from the start. She was first harassed by her in-laws, then beaten every day by her alcoholic husband, and finally abandoned with no money. She even lost her one-year-old child in the process.

A little over six months ago, the 28-year-old managed to finally tell her story and seek justice in front of a committee of the Devi Pujok community of Bhuj, in Gujarat’s Kutch district.

That she could tell her story was a departure from the past, when the all-male Khap panchayat would decide such cases without giving the woman a chance to speak for herself, let alone seek help or justice. Usha and scores of other women like her from this community are now able to negotiate their space and stand up for their rights, thanks to an intervention that changed the way the justice delivery system of the Khap panchayat worked.

Khap panchayats have, over the years, been in the news for the wrong reasons, especially with regard to women’s rights. Historically, such panchayats came into existence before the judicial system was put in place, in order to maintain social order by resolving disagreements at the village level, punishing misdemeanours, collecting land revenue, and doing welfare work for the people within their jurisdiction. The word “khap” denotes a village area inhabited by a clan, and the khap panchayat is considered the upholder of the clan’s culture.

Rights of women, as this research paper says, “…are not given due importance in the territories ruled by Khap panchayats. The idea behind their ideology is the age old system of patriarchal family”. In northern India, particularly in Haryana, western Uttar Pradesh and parts of Rajasthan, cases of ‘honour crimes’ surface particularly when it comes to marriages within the same gotra or clan, that is unacceptable to the society. Khap panchayats are different from Gram Panchayats, which came into being after the Constitution (73rd Amendment) Act was passed in 1992, making them units of self-governance. But even though they have no legal status, Khap Panchayats enjoy the support of the community and even of the police and politicians.

And so, in 2017 when the Kutch Mahila Vikas Sangathan (KMVS), a local NGO that works mainly on issues related to women, decided to intervene in the way the caste panchayat of the Devi Pujok community in Bhuj functions, they knew it was a big gamble.

A roof overhead melts resistance

“Actually, it was some of the women of the community who said that there should be a transformation in their caste panchayat,” said Aruna Joshi, executive director of KMVS. The NGO was already working with the women of the community on other projects, like helping them form self-help groups, and was aware of their problems.

The Devi Pujoks of Bhuj are a small community of around 3,000 people who mostly work as daily wage earners, fruit sellers and vegetable vendors and live in five locations across the town. Jinal Shah, a lawyer who works in the legal team of KMVS, said that when they started their work in one of those settlements, Ramdev Nagar, there was resistance mainly from the male members. But what worked in their favour was when the NGO intervened in a longstanding housing project.

“The community had no ownership of pucca houses,” Joshi said. “Under the Rajiv Awas Yojana, a housing project was going on which would ensure that they would finally get a house of their own. But it was taking very long--years had gone by. After we intervened on their behalf, 365 houses were allotted to the community in Ramdev Nagar. This won the trust of the male members of the community.”

Once the resistance began melting, KMVS began talking to the community about issues such as gender equality and why it was crucial to ensure that the community progresses. They also put together a puppet show to bring the community face-to-face with some of their most pressing issues: alcoholism and domestic violence. Over time, the community members expressed a need to change their nyay or justice delivery system.

Increased awareness is key

“In 2019, we proposed a committee of six members--three female and three male--who would help resolve the community’s problems like the caste panchayat, but with a gender-sensitive approach,” Joshi said. Despite reservations from some of the elderly male members, the community chief Premji-bhai endorsed this change and the Takrar Niwaran Centre, where the committee would meet every Friday to redress issues, was built. Half the money required for the centre’s construction was contributed by the community, while the other half was borne by KMVS.

The Takrar Niwaran Centre in Bhuj was built by the community and the Kutch Mahila Vikas Sangathan.
The committee meets every Friday to redress issues.

An important aspect of this committee is that the members have undergone paralegal training conducted by a team of lawyers and KMVS’ legal team. The eight-module training programme makes the members aware about laws relating to women, Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act, 2005, Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act and other laws, as well as on how to file a first information report in a police station.

“Apart from these committee members, 500 women across Kutch have been given paralegal training and we have also taken them to a police station, a Mahila police station, to familiarise and build confidence to seek help when need be,” Joshi said.

KMVS is in the process of connecting the Takrar Niwaran Centre to the District Legal Services Authority to “mainstream” the justice delivery system. Advocate B.N. Patel of DLSA, while inaugurating the centre, lauded the community for resolving their problems “now with the law as the guiding principle”.

“There are laws in place to protect you, and I say this particularly to the women, there are laws to protect your rights and (to protect you) from domestic violence,” Patel said. “The lawyers of DLSA will help you.”

The idea, said Shah, is to have the presence of a DLSA member during the committee meetings--a role she has been playing over the last three years to oversee proceedings from the legal standpoint.

More than 80 cases have been resolved by the Takrar Niwaran Centre in the last three years. Most of them have been related to domestic disputes. Naresh-bhai, one of the committee members, said that his thought process has undergone a massive change after he attended the training workshops. “Earlier women were not able to tell their problem,” Naresh-bhai told IndiaSpend. “If the issue was related to the couple’s sex life, for example, how could she tell it to her father or brother in order to be represented in front of the samaj (caste panchayat)?”

He was referring to the earlier practice that women--even when they were the complainant or victim--had to be represented by a male member in front of the caste panchayat. Now with female members in the committee, women can be more open about their issues and, according to KMVS, 17 cases of marital dispute have been successfully resolved by the centre.

Community chief Premji bhai looks at a document presented by a woman who approached the community with a problem. Earlier, women were not allowed to talk about their problems in public, while seeking justice in front of the caste panchayat, and had to be represented by a male relative.

Shah said that if a couple wants to separate, they suggest a six-month waiting period in accordance with Section 13-B of the Hindu Marriage Act. Hence, when Usha asked for divorce from her estranged husband--he had left her to go to Mumbai for two years--the couple was asked to wait for six months.

“I had approached the samaj earlier, but they said they cannot do anything because he was not here,” Usha said. “When I approached the committee, however, the pramukh, Premji-bhai, asked my in-laws to call him back immediately.” The committee held at least eight sessions with the couple, including three sessions with the in-laws. Ishwar, Usha’s husband, has since taken up a job in a sweetshop close by and has reduced his alcohol consumption. “Our relationship has now improved,” Usha said.

Consent is the keyword

Awareness of their rights has rippled outwards, and encouraged even young girls to come forward to seek justice. With consent as the keyword, five women approached the committee to call off their engagements, which were done when they were very young. The families were also counselled. “Girls are now putting the condition of continuing their studies after marriage, and some are even working,” Shanta-behn, another committee member, said.

Encouraged by the results with the Devi Pujok community, KMVS has now started a similar intervention in the caste panchayat’s functioning among the Jat Muslim community, who are mainly pastoralists. However, here they encountered a problem. “We began working with the young girls, making them aware about their rights, and got encouraging results. But each time, after seven-eight months, these girls would be married off and would leave for another village,” Joshi said.

The team therefore had to re-strategise. “Instead of working only with women, we decided to start working with couples. Since these girls knew our work, we started getting their husbands involved in sensitising about women’s rights, about the importance of consent while deciding a girl’s life.” The team is currently working with 25 couples.

Meanwhile, word about the Takrar Niwaran Centre has travelled beyond the boundaries of Bhuj. According to Naresh-bhai, members of the community from other places such as Rapar, Jaamnagar, Anjar, and even Kathiawar which is more than 500 km from Bhuj, have been coming to them for dispute redressal.

“People want change,” Amrit-behn, a committee member, said, “Child marriage in our community was common earlier. Now that has reduced. Cases of violence are now commonly reported. Women are now more aware.”

It was a Friday and, even as we spoke, an elderly woman and a young couple entered the centre to meet the committee. “When I was tortured by my in-laws 15 years back, I could not come like this in the open to ask for help,” Shanta-behn said. “My brother had to represent me. I am glad all that has changed.”

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