In awarding brutal punishment to people who defy social norms based on superstitions, patriarchy and casteism in villages, gaavkis or caste panchayats in Maharashtra openly subvert the law of the land with the tacit support of the police and politicians. The Tanta Mukti Gaav Yojna, a village dispute resolution scheme, initiated by the state government to curb the growing menace of these unconstitutional bodies lacks teeth and perpetuates the established structures of hierarchy and dominance.
As yet another Republic Day goes by, the faltering voice of Pramodini Konde, narrating the death of her three-year old girl child who could not get medical care because her family has been boycotted in a small coastal village in Raigad district of western Maharashtra, raises questions about the extent to which the Constitution has been implemented in the country. Her daughter was the third generation member of an ostracised family from the Koli caste which had been accused of giving up its caste-based occupation by the gaav (village) panchayat.
Her family, like hundreds of other families in western Maharashtra who participated in the Jaat Panchayat Moothmaati Abhiyan (JMA) (Caste Pancahayat Eradication Mission), has been wronged by the diktat of the caste panchayat or the “gaavki”, as it is called in the local dialect. The JMA, launched in 2013 by Narendra Dabholkar’s organisation Andhashraddha Nirmoolan Samiti (ANS), is a movement to question the parallel authority of these caste panchayats, which advocate conformity to social norms based on superstitions, patriarchy and casteism.
On 8 February 2015, the JMA held a conference at Mahad in collaboration with the Babasaheb Ambedkar Research and Training Institute (BARTI), where it invited the victimised families from the region to register their complaints, to record their testimonies, to fight for their return to normal village life and to argue for the need of a comprehensive law against these neo-feudal systems of justice dispensation.
This piece tries to give a sense of the nature of oppression that the victims of caste panchayats in Maharashtra go through, the legal and administrative paralysis of the system when it comes to dealing with this issue and finally raises the bigger political question of the limits of radical articulation against caste-based discrimination. It argues that the present village dispute resolution mechanism adopted by the government does nothing to alter status quo, and the caste group/village as a sacred whole must be reformed to create empowered village citizens. This requires rejection of the imagination of a village as an idyllic place with familial bonds between its members and acceptance of the presence and dominance of vested interests—economic and social—articulated by caste panchayats. Finally, one cannot insist enough on the need for a comprehensive law for abolishing jaat panchayats.
Nature of Cases
All cases reported at the conference were of intra-caste panchayats ostracising families for various “crimes”. These alleged crimes can be divided into two sets; those which arise from challenging social norms/collective practices that a caste group must abide by and those that arise from trying to protect one’s economic/material interests and may or may not be given a cloak of defying a social norm. The former range from inter-caste/intra-caste love marriages, women not being able to prove their virginity on being married (where couples have been asked to produce blood stained clothes after their first intercourse), women talking to men and visiting houses of relatives, not observing the required rituals after death of a family member, of taking up work other than caste-based occupations etc. The latter cases range from not allowing passage to a member of the gaavki through one’s private property to not campaigning in an election for the member of a gaavki and also not contributing to funds collected by the gaavki or paying the fine imposed by it etc.
Dilip, a farmer, narrated that despite the court ruling in his favour regarding his right to not allow the pudharipanch (headman) a passage through his farm, the village turned against him. He had to depend on the neighbouring village for everything he needed, as even the village shopkeeper refused to sell the daily provisions to him for the fear of pollution. The caste panchayats also levy a fine on the persons seen talking or eating with the ostracised. It might also lead to their ostracisation. . The ostracised subject though a part of the village, remains invisible for the villagers. He/she becomes visible only as a subject of ridicule, an outlier, an example of what happens when the authority of the gaavki is challenged. The rules are unwritten, undefined and are recreated or discovered at the will of the gaavki members at every meeting, which in most cases is held in the village temple.
Another case worth mentioning is that of a Sunni Muslim family from Mahabaleshwar, who have been ostracised for mixing with members of the other faiths and for asking the right to offer namaaz at the Minari mosque, which now requires changing over to the Tablighi strain of Islam to offer prayers. The 55-year old head of the family has been denied the right to seek wedding proposals for his daughter from within his village and nine other villages where the jamaat (Islamic Council or assembly) panchayat holds sway. When he sought a proposal from a village outside this circle, the family of the prospective groom was physically restricted from entering the village.
Ugly stories of children inheriting an ostracised childhood, segregated in schools and playgrounds, women being hounded and demanded to prove their virginity at each step etc, abound in these villages dotting the picturesque landscape of western Maharashtra and the small caste-segregated paadas (small group of villages on the hilly terrain). Panchayats for all castes such as Marathas, Kumbhars etc, and for people from different faiths such as Buddhists etc, can be found in these villages under different names. The number of judges or panchpudharis varies between 5 and 12, and the leadership positions circulate within a group of influential families.
Tanta Mukti Gaav Yojna: An Indequate Scheme
Challenging Gandhi’s idyllic conception of a village, Ambedkar called villages cesspools of cruelty, caste prejudice and communalism, with no possibility of a dignified life in the oppressive structures perpetuated by the dominant groups. The stories from these villages seem to prove the accuracy of his analysis, and also point to the central loophole in the government policy adopted to address these issues.
To address the increasing number of disputes arising from villages, the state government adopted the alternative dispute resolution route as advocated by the central government directives post the 2005 Supreme Court verdict in the Salem Advocate Bar Association vs The Union of India case. It announced the Mahatma Gandhi Tanta Mukti Gaav Yojna scheme (TMGY) (MG Dispute Free Village Scheme) (Document in Marathi -http://www.solapurpolice.gov.in/Tantamukti%20Yojana.pdf) by a state home department government resolution dated 19 July 2007.
The department later consolidated all the subsequent resolutions on the issue and came out with a comprehensive resolution on 14 August 2008. This resolution laid down both the philosophy and structure of the TMGY. It states that its objective is to establish a samiti (committee) of dispute resolution on the lines of the traditional panchpaddhati—a group of village headmen—resolving disputes through their wisdom. The objective of the committee is to make people reach a compromise in writing. The committee has no enforcement or punitive power. It can only refer the non-compoundable cases to the higher structures of dispute resolution.
There are certain obvious problems with this approach and implementation of the scheme. Firstly, it keeps silent on the disputes arising out of caste-based discrimination and oppression. For example, in a case reported to the JMA, a person was not allowed to enter his own village on the diktat of the gaavki. This is because his younger brother is a caste leader and member of the gaavki. The nature of the dispute registered with the TMGY, however, was classified as a property dispute, as the kind of cases that can be addressed by the TMGY are limited.
Another major problem is that within a village it is the same set of people who constitute the gram panchayat, the TMGY samiti and the gaavki. For the complainant thus, it is a vicious circle where one finds that the offender himself is in a position of authority. The complainants who seek dispute resolution outside the village face intimidation and physical violence accompanied by daily humiliation that comes with a collective social boycott. There are extreme cases such as the one where a 19-year old boy was allegedly beaten to death by people who were sent by the gaavki for accompanying his cousin for a hearing against the absconding gaavki members.
Thirdly, the dispute resolution mechanism does not necessarily involve women. They are neither a necessary constituent of the TMGY committee nor are they involved in resolving cases which involve crime against women.
These parallel structures rule these villages with either the compliance or indifference of the police and almost always with the support of the political class. Even in cases where the police files a case, a comprehensive law against such parallel structures of power remains conspicuous by its absence.
In the wake of the demand for such a law, the state home department released a government order on 30 September 2013, where it laid down that the Indian Penal Code (IPC) Sections 283 to 289, Sections 34, 153 A (Disruption of Social Harmony), 383 (Extortion) and 503 (Criminal Intimidation) to be applied in cases of gaavki kangaroo courts. These sections are clearly not sufficient and do not comprehensively deal with crimes committed by gaavkis. The police themselves often find the present articles insufficient to cover the whole range of crimes perpetrated by gaavkis.
The Indian Constitution which gives all its citizens a right to a life of dignity and right to get justice seem to be non-existent for generations of these villagers, and the administrative responses both at the policy and at the ground level are possessed by the imagination of the village as a family where no punishments but compromises and adjustments can resolve matters. Such an approach makes the victims all the more vulnerable in the absence of any enforcement agency at the village level.
While speaking at the event, the spokesperson from the ANS themselves identified the central question—why eradicate caste panchayats and not caste? Their analysis is that the resistance against caste panchayats is derived from the fact that these are parallel structures without legal sanction. Though not incorrect, this analysis is incomplete. Even if one goes on to argue for the abolishment of caste panchayats, the approach of the overburdened state towards the dispute resolution machinery for the villages is limited to the likes of the schemes such as the TMGY. It does not take into account the fact that the TMGY too has to operate within the dominant structures of caste and class prevailing in villages. If it is not necessary that a magistrate looking at cases arising in the city of Mumbai must be from Mumbai, then why should people who have strong interests and stakes in the conventional social relations and maintenance of the hierarchy in a village be given the right to dispense justice under the TGMY. ¬
The need of the hour is not just a comprehensive law against caste panchayats but also the recognition of caste and gender-based discrimination that forms the backbone of life in our villages. Firstly, the TMGY cannot be a substitute for caste panchayats. Caste panchayats in themselves must be recognised as a problem—the root of almost all disputes. Secondly, no dispute resolution mechanism that does not take the factors of caste and gender into account can dispense justice. The status quoist philosophy underlying the imagination of justice must be replaced with a reformist one. This will ensure that caste panchayats do not reappear in the form of legal kangaroo courts. Without this, villages in western Maharashtra would continue to suffer the scourge of caste exploitation and patriarchy.