Khap Panchayats, in the Hindi speaking North Indian states of India, like all other things started with the good intention of justice for all, with representatives from various castes and communities. It was started while human beings turned civil from barbaric tribes, settling around tillable land. But it was only more recently that discrimination against women and Dalits began thus returning to their barbaric origins. Sadly, this was due to the selfish motives of a few members of the supposed higher castes. But one gutsy woman, from Haryana, took it upon herself and barged into one such patriarchal Khap Panchayat meeting in 1988. Her name is Jagmati (meaning awakening of the mind) Sangwan.
This 52 yrs old woman from Haryana is currently teaching people to open up their minds, by creating awareness like her name suggests. Presently the Vice President of the All-India Democratic Women’s Association (AIDWA), she took a Voluntary Retirement recently from her job as the Director of Women’s Study Centre, Maharishi Dayanand University, Rohtak to serve the oppressed people in her own way.
This double post-graduate (Rural Sociology and Physical Education), went on to give her Ph.D theses in Physical Education. She played volleyball for 3 years from 1981-83. She also bagged the Haryana State instituted Bhim Award for her chosen sport in the year 1984-85. While she was working as the Associate Professor in the Department of Physical Education in Rohtak, she would coach aspiring sportswomen from the University to play at various levels.
Inspiration: Jagmati relates an incident, which made her take up the cause of the downtrodden. She says, “When I was studying in my village, we had a volleyball team of fairly good standard. We had only a school till Matriculation at my village at that time. If one wanted to go for higher education, she had to travel all the way to the city in the morning and return in the evening every day in a bus. With a lot of eve-teasing, etc. rampant in the state, parents would not allow their girls to opt for further studies. I struggled for 1 year and only then a college was opened in our village with sports facilities. 4 of us were selected to represent India at the Asian Volleyball Champianship, Seoul in Korea in 1980. But, due to their own orthodox families, the 3 others could not go for the Games. They were married off. But my parents supported me and I could participate in the games. That was the time I realized that we need to work together for equal rights and liberation from oppression.”
She goes on to say that after winning a bronze medal for India in that event, she realized that the other 3 girls would have won gold medals.
She was marginally active in her college politics as well to create awareness among girl students. Later she joined the All-India Democratic Women’s Organization as a more active member. She soon rose to the level of the State President of the organization and now she is the National Vice President.
Fight against evil: She is particularly known for having forcefully entered a Khap Panchayat in 1988, where women and Dalits were not allowed. This panchayat was about to declare a judgment favouring a member of the higher caste, who had raped a girl. The girl happened to be the sister of a boy, who had eloped with another girl belonging to the same village, Jind. Apparently, a boy and a girl from the same village cannot get married! She explains, “In the name of honour the Khap Panchayats, have taken up on themselves to even mercilessly kill and torture women and lower class people.”
She has also campaigned against the dowry and the parda (veil) systems. She has initiated the movement against the then public distribution system of food, which she calls as Food Security, which stank of corruption. In this way she has taken up the cause of the farmers as well and made sure that they get the right prices for their goods so that the system functions well. In 1988, it was her organization that started their crusade against female foeticide. They did a signature campaign to convince the government to pass the act against the sex determination test. They were invited by the government to the parliament while the law was being passed. She regrets that despite all their efforts, the sex-ratio in Haryana has not attained the right proportions. She has also supported the war against rape after the December 16th rape against our ‘Brave-heart’.
Work-Family-Social Cause Balance: They say, “You get only one life.” And handling work, family and social work can be quite a balancing act. She says, “Hard work and discipline inculcated since student years has helped me to handle all these responsibilities, together. I have an understanding husband and we decided that we would not have children after our only daughter was born. The University campus being in Rohtak, itself, where I shifted after marriage, has helped me a lot. Now my daughter is working, so I can fully concentrate on my social activities. That is why I took VRS as well.”
A person needs a lot of guts to do what this woman has done. Her support system is the strength derived from her organization. Her organization is working in 11 districts of Haryana and has strength of 40000 people supporting them. These campaigns are organized with the cooperation of other organizations, supporting the causes they undertake. She has been actively participating for the cause of teachers and even the national literacy mission.
Security Issues and Concerns: She got married to a man of her choice and the couple had to face a lot of criticism and opposition for their decision. She avers, “We do get threatening calls and mails. The perpetrators have been writing to the Vice Chancellor, to stop my social activities, when I was working. My husband has been a student leader in Haryana Agricultural University. We have also been working together. Our daughter is a journalist and has following our footsteps by taking up the gender issue.”
This article was first printed in the Eve’s Times magazine and has been reproduced here with the permission of the editor, Swai Amar.