Married off at just 14 to soldier Mohammed Arif of Mulandi village, Gudiya had barely spent a week with him when Arif was called to duty at the Kargil war. Declared deserter by the army soon after, he was given up for dead as time went by. Even so, it was only after four years that the "widowed" Gudiya's parents, with the community's consent, married her off again, to her cousin Taufiq. Then a prisoner-of-war swap between India and Pakistan saw Arif rise from the dead and return home to a hero's welcome. Gudiya was by now settled and pregnant; but the panchayat took over, declaring her second marriage invalid, restoring her to her 'rightful' owner-spouse Arif, and announcing that the yet-unborn-child was to be with its mother "till it grew up to a reasonable age". In a daze of personal pain and public glare, Gudiya's spoken stances swung this way and that, from professed love for one husband to the other. For, her choice was now far from personal; it was being yanked and elbowed in various directions by family, community, religion and media madness. But even so, she shared the one invariable in her life's changing equations with Outlook: "Nothing in the village can happen without the consent of the panchayat, I'll live with whoever the panchayat tells me to."
No, Gudiya's unchallenging compliance is not a tribute, however twisted, to panchayati raj. When she and many many others in Real India talk about panchayats, "Real Panchayats", they mostly aren't referring to the legislated, elected gram panchayats that are supposed to be governance's third tier in our secular sovereign republic. Ask Kiran Pal Singh, Naurangabad's government-appointed gram panchayat officer, and he'll tell you: "The sarkari panchayats are necessary, like rubber stamps. But the Panch are Parmeshwar in the villages. They can't be elected, they are selected by god! They cannot be transgressed!" So, when Singh and Gudiya talk about panchayats with deathly deference, they are talking about the caste panchayats that rule life in many of our villages: the community councils of elders—five or more, mostly upper-caste, and always male—who dispense justice at will and whim. To settle disputes, decide on decorum, and preserve and perpetuate a feudal patriarchal order. Muscled by a medieval morality, these caste collectives of elders are known to punish by ostracising, publicly disgracing, making the guilty chew excreta, stripping, parading women naked, presiding over torture, mutilating, prescribing rape as retribution, even killing.
In July this year, three Dalit women from the Mahar caste were gangraped by eight upper-caste men in Madhya Pradesh's Bhomtola village in Seoni district as "reprisal": because an upper-caste girl had eloped with a boy from their family. When, as demanded by the upper-caste Goli panchayat, the boy's family could not locate and bring the couple back within two days, the elders delivered retributive rape as justice. About 50 Goli men attacked the erring Mahar family, dragged its three women about two kilometers away. Where, eight men from the girl's family, including uncles and nephews, raped the women. All eight were later arrested, and the state government imposed a fine on the entire village for "abominable cowardice in remaining a mute witness to a gory happening".
Around the same time, 60 villagers of Jhapa Udan, 17 km from Muzaffarpur in Bihar, watched a similarly morbid panchayat punishment being meted out to 48-year-old widow Sumitra Devi. Sumitra was beaten, stripped and acid thrown on her genitals; penalty for filing a complaint with the chief judicial magistrate against mukhiya Ambika Ram and his men, accusing them of filching the money allotted to her for an Indira Awas housing unit. Lying wounded and weak in a dirty ward in Muzaffarpur's skm hospital now, Sumitra whines out her memory of the court that punished her so: the mukhiya dragged her out of her home and the panchayat decided she was tarnishing the village's image by complaining about reputed people to outside authorities. "A crowd wielding lathis herded me out like an animal, took off my clothes and paraded me naked," then, lowering her voice in shame, "And as I fell down exhausted, they poured acid on the lower part of my body."
In February, a panchayat in the Babultara village of Marathwada presided over the thrashing of a Dalit woman by upper-caste Hindus. She had filled water from the only public tap in the village. Later, to ensure that lessons in local law had been learnt well, the panchayat ordered a boycott of all 25 Dalit households in the village of 2,000, the grocer wasn't allowed to sell food to them for many months.
Such appalling atrocities and arbitrariness in the name of justice didn't always characterise caste panchayats. Analysing the caste panchayat as a traditional Indian legal institution in Disputes and Arguments Amongst Nomads: A Caste Council in India, anthropologist Robert M. Hayden notes that discussions in such panchayats are never purely case-based linear proceedings like in modern courts. They are viewed from many perspectives: the nature of historical relationships of the disputants, their status, the requirement of religion, the need for re-establishment of relationships and implications for community peace are all considered. Opinions, views, evidence and hearsay are all admitted without rules of order.
"But today, caste panchayats are not about establishing justice, they are about reinforcing a patriarchal discourse around a very male notion of community honour. And the rulings aim to achieve closure in this chauvinistic discourse, to freeze all debate, to silence all dissent," argues sociologist Shiv Visvanathan. But what of the contention that caste panchayats are an indigenously institutionalised legal system safeguarding traditional notions of justice, however male-centric? "Any custom or local law that is contrary to the spirit of our Constitution is void, and must be annulled," counters advocate Colin Gonsalves of the Human Rights Law Network. "In making their rulings, the caste panchayats are violating the Right to Life, Right to Equality, the SC/ST Atrocities Act, Practices of Untouchability Act and Protection of Civil Liberties Act. These kangaroo courts should be made to compensate and rehabilitate those they victimise. They should be prosecuted for barbarism."
But the one punitive device the caste panchayats use most commonly—social boycott—is also the one that they get away with with the greatest ease. For those living in the villages, "hooka pani bandh" is social strangulation, akin to death.
For two months now, 19 Dalit families of Mundla village in Madhya Pradesh's Sehore district have been facing such ostracisation. The barber doesn't shave them, the grocer doesn't sell them provisions, the local flourmill doesn't grind their grain. Most damaging of all: villagers are forbidden to hire them as labourers and to buy milk from them. A fine of Rs 500 has been fixed for the violators of this diktat. The crime: these families protested when cattle of the upper-caste Savaranas were herded into the land allotted to them under a government scheme, and their soyabean and gram crop was being ruined.The Savaranas convened a meeting in the village temple and passed the verdict to "teach the Dalits a lesson". "We are forced to shop for necessities in the neighbouring village but we don't get credit there," anguishes boycotted Jalam Singh. Laments Gulam Bai: "The wheat I'd given the flourmill a day before the boycott wasn't only not ground, it wasn't even returned." Two constables have been stationed in the village; inadequate force to fight the panchayat's power.
The panchayat can even banish. Last month, a caste pancahayat ordered 21-year-old Sonu, widowed four years ago, to leave her marital home in Chaubara village in Haryana's Hissar district. Fault: Sonu wasn't playing the expected helpless homebound widow. She'd reaped fruitful harvests on the plot left to her by her husband, run a grocery shop, tailored clothes for added income, got her son into an English medium school. Soon, however, her brother-in-law took her as his second wife citing Jat custom: to usurp half her property. "Also, most male relatives began demanding sexual favours," says Sonu. "I beat up some, and began sleeping in the courtyard with a stick by my side. Spurned, these men spread canards; even an electrician coming to my house was immoral!" The moral police stepped in and sentenced Sonu to a year-long exile, without hearing her at all. Now without property or income, and two children to fend for, in her parental village Prabhuwalla, Sonu listens on as her mother shudders: "If we had not brought our daughter back, she would have been killed."
A few kilometres from Sonu, Rani and Dayanand live with their two-year-old son in similar fear on the outskirts of Gorakhpur village. A few months ago, the dominant Siwatch community of the village suddenly took exception to the couple's marriage. Dayanand being a Beniwal by caste and Rani's mother being a Siwatch, a panchayat comprising members from both castes worked out a warped web of kinship patterns to declare the couple brother and sister! Their marriage was to be severed, was the fiat, and till that didn't happen the couple would be boycotted. So high were passions whipped up by the panchayat that villagers began collecting Rs 100 from each household, to be paid to Rani's family as costs for annulling the marriage. "We sought help of local activists to calm the situation, moved to the village's peripheries," confides Dayanand, "But there's a sword hanging over our heads."
The panchayat neither forgives nor forgets. Barely 50 km from Bhopal, in small town Vidisha, the Nema family has suffered social boycott for 10 years now—punishment for one of the family's male members not getting his head tonsured when a paternal aunt died. No member of their community is allowed to marry into this family, they aren't invited to social, religious functions, and even visiting them is forbidden. Says Shiv Narayan Nema: "The head of our caste panchayat has announced that those who dare even talk to us will face similar excommunication."
Observes Hissar-based academic D.R. Chaudhary, who has extensively researched the revival of caste panchayats: "Politicians have begun using the influence of these panchayats to get their message across. Reason why, even when they pass diktats irrational or unjust, local politicians generally go along." Also, says P.P. Ghosh, director of the Patna-based Asian Development Research Institute, the country's legal institutes sometimes add to the legitimacy of the decisions taken at the community level. "For instance, since panchayats are more posted in the matter of land disputes, their decisions are usually upheld by the judicial courts," he says.
The only way to dissolve this dangerous justice-dispensing system, says George Mathews, director of Delhi-based Institute of Social Sciences, is to strengthen the elected panchayats: "At present, it benefits the nexus of politicians, bureaucrats, landlords, upper castes and contractors to keep power away from people. So, they keep the caste collectives working by ensuring the legislated panchayats remain weak. Only more panchayati raj, and a more efficient one at that, can eliminate the caste panchayats." Only then will Arif, Taufiq and Gudiya be entitled to make their own choices.
By Soma Wadhwa in Mulandi and Naurangabad with Chander Suta Dogra in Hissar, K.S. Shaini in Sehore and Vidisha, Faizan Ahmad in Muzaffarpur and Harsh Kabra in Pune