A court out­side the law

Vil­lage tri­bunals are not bound by the con­sti­tu­tion and have the fi­nal say on mar­riage, dis­putes and even mur­der

Los Angeles Times - - THE WORLD - Parth M.N. is a spe­cial cor­re­spon­dent. Times staff writer Shashank Ben­gali in Mumbai con­trib­uted to this re­port. with Parth M.N.

Man­gal Singh Kam­ble, 31, was mar­ried in June but lost his bride the same day, af­ter their union was re­jected by an in­for­mal and pow­er­ful vil­lage court.

The unof­fi­cial court in west­ern In­dia, one of thou­sands of com­mu­nity tri­bunals that op­er­ate out­side In­dia’s Con­sti­tu­tion, ruled that Kam­ble’s Hindu wed­ding cer­e­mony had not taken place “ac­cord­ing to com­mu­nity norms,” in­clud­ing a test to de­ter­mine whether the bride was a vir­gin. Kam­ble, who views vir­gin­ity testing as in­hu­mane and re­jects the in­for­mal court’s author­ity, sus­pects a dif­fer­ent rea­son.

“The mo­tive was to ex­tort money,” the civil ser­vice stu­dent said. The coun­cil mem­bers de­manded about $800 to set­tle the mat­ter and an­nulled the mar­riage af­ter he re­fused to pay or to sub­ject his bride to the vir­gin­ity test, he said.

Vil­lages in many parts of In­dia, in­clud­ing here in the west­ern state of Ma­ha­rash­tra, ad­here to the rules of the coun­cils. Ex­perts say that most of the nearly 10,000 castes and tribes in Ma­ha­rash­tra have such in­de­pen­dently func­tion­ing courts, known as jaat pan­chay­ats, which do not ac­cept the author­ity of gov­ern­ment courts and which claim ju­ris­dic­tion over per­sonal mat­ters in­clud­ing wed­dings, do­mes­tic dis­putes and even mur­der.

No laws ex­plic­itly ban such courts, which mete out fines and other forms of pun­ish­ment such as os­tracism and, in some cases, sex­ual abuse, in­clud­ing order­ing women to have sex with men. Ma­ha­rash­tra’s top of­fi­cial, Deven­dra Fad­navis, last month de­scribed such prac­tices as a “so­cial evil” and promised a law to ad­dress the is­sue — but as of now, the courts con­tinue to func­tion.

Presided over by men whose po­si­tions are hered­i­tary, such courts pro­lif­er­ated un­der Bri­tish rule as a way to set­tle dis­putes out­side the colo­nial jus­tice sys­tem. Dur­ing pro­ceed­ings, the judges sit on plat­forms to ad­ju­di­cate mat­ters while the ac­cused sit on the ground.

Women are barred from at­tend­ing, though they of­ten en­dure the worst treat­ment.

Ac­tivists de­scribed cases in which women ac­cused of crimes were forced to re­trieve a coin from a vat of boil­ing oil or walk 21 steps with a scorch­ing ax, on the the­ory that if a girl is in­no­cent, she won’t re­ceive burns.

Those who avoid the courts or refuse to ac­cept a rul­ing are of­ten shunned by fel­low vil­lagers, ac­tivists say. Low lev­els of ed­u­ca­tion and a lack of faith in In­dia’s slow-mov­ing jus­tice sys­tem also com­pel vil­lagers to fol­low the edicts of the in­for­mal courts.

“The idea was to solve mea­ger com­mu­nity dis­putes with­out mak­ing a fuss out of it, but the pan­chayat started con­sid­er­ing it­self the cus­to­dian of its caste, re­sult­ing in de­spi­ca­ble out­comes,” said Krishna Chandgude, pres­i­dent of the Nasik branch of And­hashrad­dha Nir­moolan Samiti, or the Com­mit­tee for Erad­i­ca­tion of Blind Faith, a statewide ad­vo­cacy group.

The is­sue gained na­tional at­ten­tion in June 2013, when a vil­lage coun­cil in Nasik, three hours by road from Mumbai, au­tho­rized a fa­ther to stran­gle his preg­nant teenage daugh­ter to death in or­der to lift a boy­cott im­posed on the fam­ily be­cause she had mar­ried out­side the caste.

Be­fore this tragedy, po­lice rarely filed com­plaints against the coun­cils, which are widely be­lieved to func­tion with the tacit ap­proval of lo­cal au­thor­i­ties.

In 2012, vil­lage lead­ers in the dis­trict of Ah­mad­na­gar in cen­tral Ma­ha­rash­tra blamed 50-year-old Shantabai Shinde for the death of her hus­band. But af­ter she filed a court case to clear her name, her Vaidu com­mu­nity’s vil­lage coun­cil con­ducted an un­usual test to de­ter­mine her in­no­cence: It made her chew rice and spit it out.

The coun­cil said the rice was “drier than it should have been” af­ter she spat, said her son, Av­inash, a rick­shaw driver. Coun­cil lead­ers de­manded that she strip naked and wade into a river, fined her more than $3,700 and or­dered vil­lagers to shun her.

The fam­ily was boy­cotted for 2 1⁄2 years, he said, adding that the rice test was re­tal­i­a­tion for fil­ing a court case that chal­lenged the coun­cil’s author­ity.

Un­der the boy­cott, “no­body would give us food. We were not even al­lowed to at­tend any so­cial events. It was com­plete iso­la­tion,” the son said. Af­ter the fam­ily filed a po­lice com­plaint, vil­lage heads would barge into their house at odd hours and threaten to rape and kill his mother, he said.

Lo­cal of­fi­cials in­ter­vened and mem­bers of the coun­cil were jailed. In March, the coun­cil was dis­solved.

In the case of Kam­ble, whose mar­riage was an­nulled, the so­cial boy­cott con­tin­ues.

In Kam­ble’s Kan­jarb­hat tribe, the vil­lage coun­cil typ­i­cally con­ducts a vir­gin­ity test on the wed­ding day: The bride and groom are given a white bed­sheet on which to spend their first night to­gether, dur­ing which coun­cil mem­bers cel­e­brate out­side the house with meat and al­co­hol.

The next morn­ing, if the bed­sheet is blood­stained — con­sid­ered a sign that the bride was a vir­gin — she passes the test and the mar­riage is ap­proved.

Kam­ble re­fused to sub­mit his bride to the test, but the woman, un­der pres­sure, signed a let­ter sup­port­ing the coun­cil’s de­ci­sion, he said. Nei­ther the woman nor her fam­ily could be reached for com­ment.

A mem­ber of the Kan­jarb­hat coun­cil, Vi­jay Gagde, re­fused to an­swer ques­tions when reached by phone. In a re­cent ar­ti­cle in Te­helka, an In­dian pub­li­ca­tion, Gagde de­fended the prac­tice, say­ing that with­out chastity tests, “rapes will hap­pen ev­ery­where.”

Kam­ble said lo­cal po­lice re­jected his re­quest to file a com­plaint against the an­nul­ment.

“A prac­tice that has no place in the con­sti­tu­tion is aided by those who are part of it,” Kam­ble said.

He has since been look­ing for an­other bride who would agree to forgo the vir­gin­ity test, but nearly ev­ery woman’s fam­ily has in­sisted on it, fear­ing the com­mu­nity would ques­tion her char­ac­ter.

“No fam­ily would ac­cept me be­cause of the fear of the pan­chayat,” he said.

In Fe­bru­ary, Kam­ble met the daugh­ter of a dis­tant rel­a­tive and the two have agreed to tie the knot. But he has one more ob­sta­cle to over­come: He has to per­suade her to re­ject the vir­gin­ity test.

Pu­nit Paran­jpe AFP/Getty Images

WOMEN toil in cot­ton fields in In­dia’s Ma­ha­rash­tra state, where vil­lages ad­here to the rules of in­for­mal com­mu­nity courts known as jaat pan­chay­ats.

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