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In the Name of Honour

Sneha Annavarapu ( is a doctoral student at the Department of Sociology, University of Chicago, Illinois.

Khap Panchayat: Women and Honour Killing edited by Deepa Awasthi,New Delhi: Kalpaz Publications, 2016; pp 296,990.

This volume is a collection of 20 empirically rich chapters that provide sociological insights into the structure and functions of khap panchayats. Highly readable and written for a general audience, the chapters in this book systematically deal with various aspects of the khaps and similarly organised social institutions. The book is written with an honest urgency to think through the issue of honour killings and their gendered nature, while boldly deconstructing the various myths surrounding the phenomenon with informative analysis—sociological, historical, legal and political. As the editor notes, the book was compiled with the explicit intention of providing a “complete picture” of the origin of these institutions, their constitution, ideology, functioning, legality and impact on society. Overall the book delivers on that agenda and, in fact, offers a solid platform to think through the larger notions of legality, state–society relations, liberal individualism, development, and the construction of gender and sexuality in modernising India, in a theoretically ambitious project. While some of the chapters do tend to fall into a teleological developmentalist agenda that posits simplistic binaries of modernity and ­tradition, the strength of this book is its attention to cultural detail. The best way to engage with this book would be to use the empirical substance to rethink what modernity and modernism might mean in such a large swathe of contemporary India.

The book is organised into four themes of five chapters each. This ­review, too, shall stick to this thematic categorisation to highlight the range and scope of this book. The first section of the book is called “Understanding Khap Panchayats” and is primarily ­focused on explicating the contours of how khap panchayats came about and how they are structured and constituted. All the chapters in this section delve into the details of how this particular institution has garnered the material and symbolic weight that it has over the years. Vidya Vati’s chapter is a useful beginning to understand how khap panchayats are structured, which is not on the basis of caste (as is popularly ­understood) but on the basis of gotra (clan), and why this difference matters. Building off on that, the chapters that follow bring different clarifications to the table, each enhancing the mainstream, simplistic view of khap panchayats and how they operate.

The chapters differ in the reading of khap panchayats in both methodological and ideological ways although all of them point to the sordid consequences that the pronouncements of these panchayats have on liberal freedoms, especially when it comes to women’s rights. Mehnaz Najmi, for instance, shows how the implications for women are far worse than for men while editor Deepa Awasthi highlights the apathy and complicity of political machinery in perpetuating this patriarchal system ad infinitum. However, there is also an equally willing engagement with the original “intent” of the institutions, and how they broker other kinds of disputes amongst its members in lieu of a strong sociocultural authority that can do so based on the intimate knowledge of the nuances of localised affective ­relationships, kinship structures, cultural values, tradition and history. Goldy Gupta’s chapter is particularly revealing in the different kinds of acti­vities undertaken by khap panchayats which sensational media coverage tends to overlook. Gupta strives to highlight some of the positive work done by khap panchayats and shows, persuasively, how the khap panchayats gain legitimacy by acts of involvement in the community’s issues.

Control of Female Sexuality

The second section of the book titled “Khap Panchayats and Discrimination against Women” explicitly deals with gender discrimination. Palwinder Kaur, for instance, shows how the material consequences of these institutions resonate within the community and argues for “modernisation” of the institution rather than dismissal of their existence and demand. Yet, the next chapter by Rashmi Singh makes a strong argument on how the control of female sexuality is constitutive of the establishment and continued functioning of khap panchayats and the inadequacy of incremental reforms. Singh argues that the need of the hour is a joint revolutionary effort by democratic institutions, including state agencies, media and civil society. Both Meenakshi Dwivedi and Sharabani
Mazumdar take a similar approach to deconstruct the inherently gender-discriminatory foundations of khap panchayats, to show how social shaming and punishments work in practice and the deep-seated reluctance to embrace modernity. The authors argue that education and awareness are crucial to facilitate social progress and justice in these areas. Awasthi, across two chapters in this section, demonstrates that the problem of khap panchayats runs deeper than this: for instance, khap panchayats thrive in some of the most prosperous or “developed” parts of north India with the highest per capita incomes unwittingly contrasted with the lowest sex ratios. She persuasively shows the material consequences of the gender discrimination of these panchayats beyond the issue of honour killings, which seep into the mundane activities of everyday life.

However, as honour killings are one of the most pressing issues on which khap panchayats operate with visceral intensity, the next section comprises no less than seven chapters which parse legal and judicial issues with honour crimes as well as propose measures for a way forward with legislative and social reforms. The depth of engagement with local issues is commendable in this part of the book. For instance, Zainab Farhat and Nagendra Sole show how the helplessness of the police in some situations is as real as their complicity in others. Similarly, Amit Kashyap and Shashi Bala Kashyap show how the accused in an honour crime are made to carry out acts, such as picking up coins from boiling oil among several others, to prove their innocence and how these public spectacles reinforce the authority of the khaps as an arbiter of not just justice but also tradition. Sandesh Yadav analyses the various types of honour crimes—emotional, physical and sexual—and how current legislative reforms are of limited use in mitigating the entrenchment of the institution in everyday life. Nutan Sharma, on the other hand, points to how the entrenchment may have something to do with the colonial insistence for local-level resolution of “domestic” disputes which provided the kind of legitimacy that khap panchayats needed to continually command respect in the public imaginary of justice, especially with regard to domestic issues, in these areas. Haseena Hashia and Sandesh Yadav end this chapter by exhorting readers to recognise how the continued existence of “kangaroo courts” is a huge threat to democracy and how the various definitions of honour killings ultimately broker on negotiating the difference between what is considered “modern” and “traditional.” Ruchi Dhyani shows us how khap panchayats differ from the panchayati raj system, and how criminal courts and the police have helped in reducing the incidence of both domestic violence and honour killings, although we have a long way to go.

The final section titled “Khap and Other Non-state Agencies” comprises three chapters that highlight how other social institutions interact with khap panchayats and what the implications for this interaction are. Awasthi, in an important chapter, discusses the positive features of newspapers, magazines and even interactive social media, such as Facebook and WhatsApp, in promoting avenues for women to empower each other through forming communities for discussion. The need for a decisive stand against khap panchayats is emphasised in this section, and the role of the media is underscored. Manvi Tigga, on the other hand, explains the continued existence of khap panchayats as a function of expensive formal dispute resolution apparatus that people do not want to avail, especially since a “herd mentality” towards khap panchayats is inevitable due to their centrality in the public imagination of traditional justice. She compares and contrasts the panchayati raj system in this chapter for further elucidation on how the khaps provide a viable and attractive alternative to a lot of people. In the final chapter, Preeti shows how forms of affective sociality like “bhaichaara” and “hukkah pani” become consubstantial bases for forging patriarchal and undemocratic spaces which nurture political support for gender discrimination. The lack of a “formal institution” is bypassed due to the presence of these strong discursive nodes in these areas, which is an important dimension of analysis to keep in mind while talking about the ecosystem of khap panchayats.


There is a wide variety of issues that have been tackled with honest keenness and enthusiasm in this book. This is a solid collection of articles centred on the issue of honour killings and is, thus, a welcome addition to the literature on the subject. However, at times, the chapters are repetitive in their app­roach and could have benefited from more collaborative papers to avoid the issue of overlap of empirical information. The themes could, perhaps, act as a springboard for further collaboration in the future in order to think through these issues in a more organised ­fashion. As noted earlier, perhaps the biggest issue with the chapters is a somewhat reified approach to highly complex concepts like modernity, tradition, and development. Nevertheless, this volume is a step in the right direction in talking about issues of relevance, and its inclusive and broad approach is indeed of immense political and pedagogical value.


Updated On : 16th Oct, 2017


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