Anju Mor has seen the consequences of Haryana’s lonely bachelors syndrome in her family. “My chacha [father’s brother] had to find a bride from Madhya Pradesh when he turned 40,” said 23-year-old Mor. “And my mama [mother’s brother] died a lonely bachelor. We have been struggling to find a bride for my brother. With so many restrictions, it is not easy.”

The restrictions Mor refers to relate to on inter-marriage imposed by Haryana’s khaps – community organisations representing clans or clusters of related clans. The state’s khap panchayats, consisting of elders from these groups, ensure that inter-caste and intra-khap marriages are taboo, even though they have no legal sanction to do so.

This adds to a crisis in Haryana where a skewed sex ratio for years has already made it difficult for men to find brides from within the state. According to the 2011 census, the state has 834 girls to every 1,000 boys. This is the reason why, over the past few years, Haryanvi men, like Mor’s uncle, have had to look for wives as far away as West Bengal, Assam, Madhya Pradesh, Bihar and even Kerala.

Breaking taboos

In 2015, when Mor married Vikash Berwal, the couple unwittingly became representative of one possible solution to the problem of lonely bachelors – intra-khap marriage.

Anju Mor and Vikash Berwal.

Both Mor and Berwal belong to the Jat community but also to the same khap – Satrol, one of Haryana’s biggest such groups.

According to tradition, marriage between a couple from the same khap is forbidden because of age-old conventions of bhaichara, or consanguinity. Communities are known to enforce khap rulings with brutality. The murder of newly-weds Manoj and Babli in 2007 is one such instance. The couple was killed by Babli’s family following a khap ruling that they belonged to the same gotra and were thus siblings, and any union between them incestuous.

In April 2014, amid much attention from the press, Satrol khap, of which 42 villages are a part, announced that it would lift the centuries-old ban on inter-caste and intra-khap marriage.

This was hailed as a historic decision, a sign that khaps were finally reforming their stranglehold on society. The announcement was part of the image makeover for khaps that were facing criticism from different sections of society for their kangaroo court rulings.

But there are still riders. The terms and conditions attached to the relaxation of the ban on intra-khap marriages include – as long as the couples belong to different gotras (lineages) and do not come from the same or bordering villages.

Satrol khap has seen between 10 and 15 intra-khap marriages since – the Mor-Berwal wedding was the second.

But such marriages are still a delicate affair to arrange. In the run-up to the Mor-Berwal union, for instance, the elders of his family from the village of Majra visited hers in the village of Baas. It was important for everyone to concur, and members of the khap panchayat were also involved.

Skewed sex ratio

Satisfied with the success of the relaxation of the ban on intra-khap marriages, Inder Singh Mor, the pradhan (chief) of Satrol khap, is now desperately looking for a couple who will take advantage of the relaxation of the ban on inter-caste weddings.

“No family wants to come forward to be the first one to break the taboo,” he said. “But we hope that within a year, we will have our first inter-caste marriage, and then more will follow.”

The decision to allow the relaxation in marriage rules was dictated more by pragmatic concerns than social reform, admitted the panchayat head. For all the taboos, inter-caste marriages have been common in Haryana. But these are mostly in connection with cases when brides were brought in from different states.

“Their culture does not match with us and we saw that the children from these marriages are not so sharp-minded,” said Mor, a former subedar-major in the Army, who has been leading Satrol khap since 2010. “When we saw more and more of these marriages, we thought why not allow inter-caste marriages in our khap?”

Satrol khap chief Inder Singh Mor.

To bring in this reform, he conducted an extensive survey through villages that are part of the khap, where the majority of people said they supported the move.

Long way to go

Even so, none of the other khaps have followed Satrol’s example. Sunil Jaglan, who started the #SelfieWithDaughter hashtag that earned him a mention in Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s radio address, Mann Ki Baat, is the sarpanch of Bibipur village that falls under Naugama khap in Jind district. He agreed that restrictions on marriages need to be lifted, but added that society is not quite ready for it.

Traditions that have existed for more than 600 years are not so easily eradicated. “The lifting of the ban has not worked the way it was expected to,” said Rajkumar Siwach, who teaches at Chaudhary Devi Lal University in Sirsa, Haryana, and has conducted extensive research on khaps. “These are village systems, and ideas are deeply ingrained in the minds of people. While khaps have to keep up with change, internally they don’t want it either.”

Siwach pointed out how the violence over intra-khap and inter-caste marriages is more of a modern phenemenon.

“Same-gotra marriages have been forbidden by our scriptures, but even the scriptures recommend introspection and repentance through prayer and fasting if a couple from the same gotra gets married,” said Siwach. “The violence and killing is a modern idea that we have seen more in the decades after the 1980s, as the clash between modernisation and tradition has surfaced.”

While the khaps have rarely been directly involved in such incidents, they operate by creating an environment of fear in society.

“Love marriages are all very well, yet it is not easy to be ostracised by family and society,” said Anju Mor.

Her husband Vikash Berwal added: “In every case I’ve seen these couples have a very difficult life.”

But ways of loving are changing in Haryana, as they are in the rest of the country. Siwach said that he sees a new generation that wants a say in who they marry, and they will force their elders to adapt. Just not very soon.