Harrowing Experience of Kanifnath Fair

Prabha Purohit

This year also as usual there was Kanifnath Fair at Panchmarhi.( Also known just as Madhi.) Worshippers reached the summit with sticks in their hands.  They worshipped Kanifnath. But there were no Caste & Community Council (CCC)  meetings. No long drawn arguments, no free supply of liquor, no violence, no hitting of the sticks on the floor after each verdict as was customary, but only peace. All because of the fact that villagers have buried the Caste & Community Councils  (CCC) and with it its atrocities for good. How come this change of hearts? Here is the background story.

Panchmarhi is a village in Pathardi Taluka of Ahmadnagar District. There rests the tombstone of Saint Kafirnath covered with his temple. On ‘Rang Panchami’, fifth day after Holi a grand annual fair is held every year. It is a great festive occasion for the villagers and tribal population in the district.  Over a lakh villagers attend the fair in large groups. Actually the fair starts from Holi festival and ends on Gudhi Padwa , the first day of the New Year. But the real festivities are on Rang Panchami day.

The fair is essentially for followers of Kafirnath, but all villagers as well as nomadic tribal population participate with enthusiasm. For years CCC are convened here for those who do not own even an inch of land and have no roof over their head and have to move from one corner to the other in search of food to keep their bodies warm. But they assemble here without fail each year to attend their CCC meetings. So strong is the blind faith.

Marriages, divorces, loans, repayments, fights, births, deaths, extra-marital relationships – all these  events have to be recorded with their CCC for legitimacy. These CCCs represent forty two castes and hundred more sub-castes and wield unlimited power.  Nomadic tribes have four major law courts located in Madhi in Ahamadnagar district, Soneri in in Usmanabad,Jejuri in Pune district and Malegaon in Nanded. Among them Madhi CCC is the most powerful, the Supreme Court of roaming nomadic population. Persons of all castes attend the fair and around twenty five to thirty castes convene their CCC. The decisions of these councils are final, declared by hitting the ground with stick  and there is no scope for any appeal whatsoever. .

This year was exception to the tradition of hundred years of CCC meetings. The fair was held, attended by large crowds, Kafirnath worshipped but there were no Caste & Community Council meetings! This was a landmark in history of roaming nomadic free community. A first step for getting absorbed in the mainstream of the civil society. It did not happen overnight. The Councils that had a tight grip over day today life of these roaming communities were very powerful institutions. The council members enjoyed lifelong authority that would pass on to their next generation through inheritance. A few of the community did go to schools, secure permanent jobs, but control over their lives still vested with the Council authorities.

Huge fines and inhuman punishments imposed by these Councils caused them to be constantly in public eye. Women had no role to play, and if the Councils were to rule on matters related to even marriages or divorces, women could not appear themselves before the Council. They needed to find male intermediary to represent their case.  Punishments that were awarded to persons who were found guilty by the Council were atrocious. Persons were asked to walk barefoot over burning coals, or eat their own excreta, pick a coin from the boiling oil can, tie footwear to one’s tongue or shear hair of young women. For atonement of a wrong doing of her parents a girl was asked to marry and live with a man thrice her age. Madhi Council was especially famous (?) for such inhuman abuses. Such punishments were more common with hunter and paramedic caste councils.

Ostracizing family of the person declared guilty by the Council was one more atrocity routinely practiced by these Councils even for minor misdemeanours by individuals. The family would be banished; no one would talk to them, exchange anything or attend to them in birth or death. Such families would prefer death over their awful secluded living.

In case the family wanted to return to society it had to pay enormous fines amounting to lakhs of rupees. How could a family which did not know from where its next bread is coming, or coming or not, arrange to pay such huge sums? The answer was simple. The council office bearers were financially very rich, and they would lend money to the banished families who wanted to come back, the interest charged was anywhere between 10 to 30 percent per month. The whole transaction was oral. The powers of council office bearers were so strong and nomads had such blind trust in them that no one could utter a word in protest. If at all anyone wanted to bring an issue in front of the council, it was essential for both parties to supply liquor and feed meat to the office bearers of the Council on all days when the matter was under consideration. This expense was in addition to the prescribed fees. Transactions like these amounting to crores of rupees took place in Madhi fair totally in contravention of country’s law and order, and that too in open daylight…..

The young nomads were not very happy with this situation. Their discomfort would erupt in a sporadic manner. But these were exceptions. The first crack to this fortress of the Caste & Community Councils [occurred when a pregnant woman from Nashik was murdered by her father. Because the girl belonging to nomad Joshi community married a boy outside the caste, the Council ordered her father to kill her and atone himself. This murder caused shocks and woke up the Government, the Society, the Press and the NGOs.

Dr. Narendra Dabholkar declared that his committee for eradication of superstitions is launching campaign against the malpractices of the Community and Caste Councils. The action started immediately. But Dr. Dabholkar himself was killed.

The death angered his activists but they were not discouraged, instead they continued their fight against superstitions with more vigour in the Ahmad Nagar district. People were made aware of the misdeeds of the Councils and were encouraged to think rationally. To add fuel to the fire there was this Taya Lokhande episode that forced Dr. Dabholkar’s team to decide about the fate of Caste & Community Councils.

Taya Lokhande was from paramedic nomads of Rahuri and he was sentenced for seven years’ imprisonment on the charge of a murder.  When he was away his wife divorced him. On his return Taya was forced by the Council to marry a three year old girl child from the family of his first wife. For twelve years this girl stayed with her parents. Taya then laid claim on his new bride. The parents did not want to part with their daughter, so the CCC asked the parents to pay a fine of two lakhs rupees for refusing to send their child to Taya. Parents agreed to pay. Two years ago the parents sought divorce for their daughter from the Council. Then the council allowed the divorce but on a very callous condition that the parents should send their daughter to spend a night with Taya! Then divorce was theirs!!

This time on ANS put its full force to resolve the issue. Initially it was denied any assistance even from Police officials. ANS Secretary of Nagar district, Advocate Ranjana Gawande spent an entire year in follow up with District Police Superintendent and Women and Child Care Department. There were public discussions, enlightenment, interviews on one hand and legal proceedings at various levels on the other. The Press also provided positive support. Nomad Joshi community decided to boycott their Council and there were no meetings of other caste councils in Madhi. Young members from paramedic community were now openly criticizing the Councils. Those who were in receipt of school education now started attending ANS functions and lending the activists their full support.

In the paramedic community Council meeting last year in Madhi, that ghastly condition in Taya Lokhande case was withdrawn and divorce granted to the innocent girl. ANS won its one and half year old battle. Last full year there were no CCC  meetings anywhere else. Madhi’s meeting where the divorce was granted straight away was the last such meeting. Last Sunday ANS district secretary Adv. Ranjana Gawande met Krushna Chandgude of crusade against   Asif Shaikh, and with others council member Chander Bapu Daaserjogi of paramedic community, Shaamling Maruti Shinde, Mallu  Maruti Shinde, and many other leaders from that community in the Government Rest House in Shrirampur. The stick used to pronounce Councils’ decisions by hitting the ground with it was broken into pieces and hundred year old tradition of Council was (lead – change to) laid to rest for ever.

This year too there was Kafirnath fair, worships, touching the ceiling with sticks, but there were no council meets, no liquor, no free meat lunches.

However, it is being maintained that these nomads need an alternative to Caste Council as they cannot afford the current established system of justice. Dr. Balkrishna Renake, Chairman, Central Commission for Roaming Nomads, is of the opinion that these CCC can be restructured positively by districts or regions to provide a platform for nomads to resolve without hassle their family or financial issues. The members to these newly constituted CCC will be elected by community members and not constituted by inheritance. Serious crimes, murders have to be handled by police only.  “If we have disputes free villages why can’t we have disputes less nomad communities?” asks Dr. Renake.

One such restructured Council is successfully in operation for Gondhali – Vasudeo – Joshi community run by youths in Nanded. ANS has realized that the fair at Madhi can be used positively to educate nomads on health and personal care, family planning, explaining government aid schemes, providing ration cards and other certificates etc. The work is progressing in that direction. Attempts are also directed towards meeting nomads at their habitats to carry the learning activities.

The Government has announced that it plans to bring in the legislation against CCC  by passing necessary acts. ANS has prepared and presented the draft to the Government last Friday. It is hoped that there will not be any delay this time as was the case with anti – magic bill. It is very necessary that these centres of exploitation are brought under central jurisdiction and eliminated permanently to erase hundred years of darkness and bring in rays of enlightenment to roaming nomads.