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India village council gradually loosens grip

BASS, India--Yashpal Mor grew up watching men in his village stay single rather than defy the rules of the traditional council that controls Indian rural life with an iron grip.

For as long as anyone can remember, families in a cluster of villages north of the capital have lived under two sets of laws — those of the government and another imposed by unelected but powerful men.

From marriage to property and even the wearing of jeans, all-male councils, or khap panchayats, have issued diktats that have controlled life in much of Haryana state, which borders New Delhi.

“I have seen many men in our village remain unmarried all their lives,” Mor told AFP in Bass, a village surrounded by lush farmland. “I don't want to share their fate.”

Now, in a sign of major reform coming to a corner of the country steeped in tradition, the state's largest council has allowed couples from neighboring villages, and even different castes, to marry.

For generations, the council had banned men marrying women from neighboring villages or different castes, assuming that they were already related, and also because of caste prejudice.

With female infanticide rampant because of a preference for boys, eligible women were in short supply, fueling an insidious “bride buying” industry and leaving many other men unmarried in a culture that prizes matrimony.

“The (new) decision that they have taken will have a lot of benefits,” said Mor, 24, whose parents are now looking for a bride — a task made easier by the lifting of the ban.

“Earlier there could be no marriage alliances but now it will start happening. So it's really something to be happy about,” he added.

'Kangaroo courts'

Often embroiled in controversy, khaps have been branded “kangaroo courts” for their punishments, including fines but also horrific violence. They have been blamed for provoking honor killings, public beatings and even fueling the buying of brides.

In some cases, khaps have ordered young couples be stripped naked, thrashed in public and even lynched by mobs for defying their orders on relationships.

Council head Inder Singh, who led the push for reform, said he was trying to “erase the bloody past” of khaps, which dominate swaths of mainly rural, northern India, and are often bastions of caste prejudice.

“We began our efforts some three years back to get rid of the caste bias. I went to every village and tried to build a consensus,” said Singh, 78, at his two-story house in Bass.

“There was a lot of resistance initially. Some five percent are still against but I am glad the majority have agreed,” he told AFP.

Analysts hailed the move, announced in April, as a sign of easing khap control over villages.

Last year, girls were banned from wearing jeans and using mobile phones in a khap ruling issued elsewhere in Haryana for fear of fueling sex crimes.

“It's a very important decision and it may prove to be a turning point for other khaps as well,” Anand Kumar, a professor of sociology in Delhi, told AFP.

“It will push others to become more reflective and liberal. It'll force them to think if they are really being fair to their sons and daughters,” he said.

According to those living in Bass and neighboring villages, the marriage restrictions led to an acute shortage of “suitable” brides, placing intense pressure on families.

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In this photograph taken on May 5, Inder Singh More, the head of the 42-village Khap panchayat or local village council, speaks during a meeting in Hissar district of the northern state of Haryana. (AFP)

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