How Jind’s first step to go caste-free is working out:Vijender Kumar, Kumar Mukesh & Sat Singh

Times of India: 21.07.2019

In the fortnight since the influential Khera khap of Jind announced villages under its writ would discard caste-identifying surnames, allow inter-caste marriages and oppose ‘honour killings’, has the deathly hold of caste on Haryanvi society loosened its grip?

“That’s the question the world is asking,” says Satbir Pahalwan. But every step, however symbolic, counts in this state, among the most inflexible and harsh in its adherence to the caste grid.

The Khera khap is a sprawl of 24 villages with a population of 2 lakh people, the majority of them Jat. When Pahalwan, the khap’s head, first proposed the idea on a sultry June evening, it was met with stunned silence. But several rounds of discussions later, there were nods of agreement: Caste faultlines had to go.

Going caste-less has been tried by individuals before, especially politicians. Former CM Om Prakash Chautala, now serving term for graft, had dropped his surname to take on village name Chautala to communicate that he would represent the neighbourhood, and not merely his community.

The Khera khap’s decision is the first time a caste-council has conceded that the Jat heartland’s deeply entrenched caste divide is crippling society.

Pahalwan is optimistic that change, though gradual, is on its way. “For long, Dalits have been discriminated against. Surnames are identifiers of caste. Removing them will allow us to make way for an equal society,” says the 64-year-old who retired as an Army havildar.

The change of name is broadly in the public and social space, and not so much in documentation. Thus, caste-names are being dropped, or replaced by village names, on Facebook and social media accounts, on visiting cards, in postal addresses and residence nameplates. And from cars where, of late, it has become quite the thing to have caste stickers blazoned on the rear windshield.

A young lawyer has improvised: he dropped his surname, prefixed Advocate to his name.

However, this does not impact the non-negotiable 3Gs of Haryana: gaon (village), gotra (ancestry), and gohand (neighbouring villages) — the three spheres where marriages are disallowed by the community.

This sanction stays intact and is also reason why many in neighbouring Rohtak and Hisar are grappling with the radical concept. “Easier said than done,” says Rajmal Kajal, president of Hisar’s Kajala khap. “Dropping surnames will not change the ground reality. In small communities, everyone knows a person’s caste and discrimination would continue.” Krishan Nandal of Nandal khap in Rohtak’s Bohar village has another worry: How would marriages be solemnised without surnames? “If no one has a surname, how can a match be firmed up? What if they belong to the same gotra?” he asks.

Dalits, too, share the scepticism. The community bears the brunt when, say, a Jat woman marries a Dalit man. Advocate Rajat Kalsan, coordinator of National Alliance for Dalit Human Rights, cautions against “celebrating” Khera khap’s move too soon. “Casteism won’t go just by giving up surnames. The system is riddled with problems caused by the Hindu varn vyavastha and that needs to be eliminated,” he says.

On the ground, Deshraj Saroha, a prominent Dalit leader in Jind, says, “Going caste-free demands a change of heart. Are people willing to do that?”

For people such as Sanjay Kumar, husband of Savita, sarpanch of Bhonsala village, it indeed is a leap of faith. “We can drop surnames but inter-caste marriages cannot be justified. There are cultural, financial differences that young people in love do not take into account when marrying,” is his belief.

But villagers under Khera khap are both hopeful and gung-ho. Vikash Kumar of Barsola says the drive to remove surnames can’t be expected to be successful immediately, but would herald in change eventually. “Those who wish to use a surname can take on the name of their village. Newborns will have only first names. The idea is to make everyone understand we are all one. This is the first step.”

Pahalwan, meanwhile, is in the process of setting up anti-caste committees of 15 members each from large villages, 10 each from medium-sized villages and five from smaller villages. “The committee members cut across castes and will go door-to-door to persuade families to drop surnames and create awareness on eliminating bias,” he says.

An example of successful transition from caste surnames to use of village names is the Sikh community in Punjab. The early 20th century activism to end use of caste surnames that had crept into Sikh identity despite Guru Gobind Singh’s strictures against caste was successful in ensuring the transition from caste surnames. However, continuing discrimination against Dalit Sikhs is an example of how the move to a society without caste divisions is a very tough one.

Back in Haryana, the ripple effect is already visible. Rajkumar Reddu, president of Hisar’s Bhyan khap, is all set to take the “progressive idea” to his constituency. “In our next khap meeting, I will certainly propose dropping of surnames for a more just society.”

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