The quality of 'justice' handed out at these courts wouldn't disappoint the Taliban. Even for a minor misdemeanour, people are tied to trees and beaten up for hours in public until they collapse. At least one woman has been killed - others have been assaulted by mobs, their families fined heavily; many have lost their land.
The state administration has intervened in some cases, but its efforts have not made much impression on villages like Kapasdanga, barely 210 km north of Calcutta. Here and in some other villages of the district, Taliban-style justice prevails among the Muslims, in disregard of and parallel to the existing legal system. No state minister has visited the affected areas or ordered even a routine inquiry into these incidents. The Outlook team too was harassed at Kapasdanga when it tried to interview some of the victims.
Says district Forward Bloc leader Arjun Ghosh, who lives near Kapasdanga: "We (political parties) all look the other way when it comes to dealing with issues relating to Muslims. I do not have to spell out the reasons. Minority leaders belonging to the Congress, the cpi(m), the rsp and my party are aware of such kangaroo courts and their methods of justice. The leftists tell me that they cannot ignore religion when it comes to dealing with specific social crimes or offences in the community."
Leave alone the harsh nature of punishment, an implicit breach of law happens here itself, in deciding what constitutes a 'social crime' and, more so, in who makes the decision. Even a small misdeed is dragged into the limelight and blown out of proportion in these 'courts'; and instant justice meted out by jurymen who are often interested parties - comprising, say, a local don, a couple of smugglers, some goons, and a maulvi.
Thus, people like 19-year-old Hira Khatun have to suffer. Overriding her protests, her parents had made her marry Yashin, a local. "I didn't agree to the marriage because I had heard of his drinking habits. From the night of the marriage itself, he tortured me brutally." Disgusted, she gave him talaq in conformity with Islamic convention, after only four days, last July. This was when her - and her family's - troubles began.
Egged on by infuriated village elders and clerics, her 60-year-old father Shamsuddin was dragged before one such 'court'. The local panchayat is headed by a Forward Bloc leader, but the elected body had no role to play. The 'judges', including two cpi(m) panchayat members, questioned Shamsuddin from 10 am on August 2 to 2 pm the next day, without giving him any rest or food. Repeated complaints to the local police proved futile as they refused to disturb the 'trial'. Shamsuddin was fined Rs 70,000 for his daughter's temerity to reject a man, and had to write off 1.5 bighas of his land, even as he paid Rs 15,601 on the spot.
Worse would have followed but for the timely intervention of Ghosh, who warned the local police that unless they took cognisance of what was happening, he would take matters into his own hands. The police did pick up Sanwar Ali, Jabbar Sarkar and Saifuddin Sheikh, three members of the jury, but they were let off on bail the very next day. Explains a resident, who doesn't want to be named: We approached district cpi(m) leaders who said these practices were wrong and they would not tolerate them but local leaders kept silent and helped procure bail for the arrested.
Which naturally meant that Hira's nightmare continued. In November, Hira - who has passed her secondary exams - complained to the police that her family was being continually harassed by the local club. No action followed. Last fortnight, club members (who held up the Outlook team) threatened that their crop would be forcibly seized for talking to the press. Altaf Sheikh, Hira's relative and the only science graduate from the area, was brutally beaten up for criticising the local vigilantes.
This was not a lone case, nor the only one where women got special attention. Last year, two women, Anura Bibi and Begum Bibi, of Chandipur and Godhanpara respectively, were driven out of their homes by village elders. Again at Chandipur, Sohagi Bibi, another elderly women, was molested, stripped, tied to a tree and beaten to death in public, even as her terrified daughter looked on.
The villagers are too scared to talk of the incidents. After much prodding, they admit that Anura incurred the wrath of the fundamentalists for some 'misdemeanour' after her talaq with her husband. For this, she was thrashed in public, garlanded by a ring of shoes and paraded publicly. Begum Bibi's 'crime' was that she sent her daughter to a local fair along with a young man. Also last year, a person, Raibahadur Choudhury, was killed in connection with a land dispute after a 'jury' at Balidhoura village in Berhampore district indicted him.
Emboldened that the administration has turned a blind eye to their doings, the fundamentalists are trying to spread their agenda and targeting local Hindus as well. Bapi Mandal was recently assaulted for several hours and fined heavily for an alleged dalliance with a local Muslim woman.
Says Shantanu Ray, local cpi leader: "This spells danger, as in Murshidabad we have had a long tradition of communal peace and harmony, which will surely be disrupted if such things continue. No wonder the rss and the bjp are growing more powerful in border areas close to Bangladesh."
In Murshidabad, where the international border is hardly guarded, there has been heavy illegal influx from Bangladesh in recent years, the district registering a population increase of 35 per cent between 1981 and 1991. Close to the border, the crime rate has spiralled, forcing many families to flee to safer areas.
Says an official: "Collusion between fundamentalists on both sides of the border cannot be ruled out, because such trials and incidents are an unusual phenomenon in Bengal. Which prompts a bjp spokesman to say: "The district was always troublesome, as it was bound to go to Pakistan during Partition and was barely kept in India through very hard efforts. It seems some people are now trying to rewrite history."
The question is why has the state government not moved to arrest the criminals? It's curious that the leftist government has adopted double standards when it comes to dealing with Muslim fundamentalism. In fact, district SP Soumen Mitra doesn't think things are getting out of hand: "In the villages, mutual settlement of disputes at the local level is common. Another local official, S. Sinha Sarkar, blames it on poverty: "Such incidents are linked to poverty and the level of literacy. There is only 10 per cent literacy in Murshidabad. In fact, Murshidabad, with a 68 per cent Muslim population, claims a literacy rate of 47 per cent, but it is the second lowest figure in the state, followed only by Malda.
Former district magistrate Sourav Das was more candid: "In the name of justice, some people target the economically weaker people and exploit them." It is suspected that the monies - and land - collected from the fines are shared by the jurymen, who are slowly replacing the feudal landlords of old in the power structure.
They are so influential that, allege some villagers, even the Association of Democratic rights (apdr) actually condemned the police for 'harassing' the jury members of one such kangaroo court, while remaining silent about the excesses committed on the victims. Its lame plea: the victims had not approached the local apdr.
Things have come to such a pass that even normal marital discord is dragged to 'court'. Yar Ali of Kapasdanga was not allowed to resume relations with his wife whom he had divorced in a fit of pique, but changed his mind. And so terrified are the villagers of this parallel justice system, it's as if the administration has ceased to exist for a people that needs them - that too in a Marxist state.