The recent gangrape of a 20-year-old woman in a village in Birbhum district of West Bengal on the orders of a tribal court for falling in love with a man outside her community may have shocked the country, leading to the Supreme Court ordering a probe. But for the people in this region, such rulings by the tribal courts, which have a strong presence here and are mostly seen as a means to speedy justice, are a way of life.
Previous rulings by such tribal courts or ‘salishi sabhas’ include making a person lick his own spit from the ground or making him rub his nose on the ground for several yards, villagers told The Indian Express. The luckier ones got away with fines of a few kilos of rice to make hooch or some money.
Local panchayat officials said these tribal courts have been existing for a long time in the region and the decision of the tribal chieftain or ‘morol’ in each locality is rarely challenged. A morol can mete out punishment or settle disputes, mostly domestic.
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Among those who have been at the receiving end of such punishment is Sunil Hembram, a 20-year-old youth from Subalpur village, a part of which is Labhpur area. A couple of months ago, he got into a fight with his father Bhuju Hembram and was hauled up before the morol of his area after his father complained.
“We were summoned and after giving a hearing to both sides, the morol judged that I was at fault. As punishment, I was made to spit on the ground and asked to lick it,” said Sunil.
Raju Soren, a farmer from an adjoining village, said his younger brother was also handed out similar punishment. “My younger brother misbehaved with me during an argument over some land issues and tried to attack me with a sickle. I complained to the morol and a salishi meeting was summoned at the Majhi Thhan (a place where the village courts are held). At the meeting, we explained the situation to the morol and he ruled that the person who had attacked me would have to rub his nose on the ground for about about two yards,” Raju said.
Incidentally, the chieftain of his village, Mansa Hasda, is said to be “liberal and cordial” while deciding disputes. “He usually lets go the contending parties after counselling and without imposing fines. But he follows a zero-tolerance policy towards youths in tribal homes who misbehave with elders.”
Fifty-year-old Madu Kisku said these tribal courts have their own utility as many people prefer not to go to police to save time and money. Madhu once had trouble with her husband and she approached the morol. “He called us and the problem was settled in a few hours. My husband had to give 5 kg of rice as punishment. The rice was used to make liquor and all those who attended the salishi drank it later,” said Madhu.
Septuagenarian Budhon Murmu said he has been seeing these courts for decades and his brother was at the recieving end once several years ago over a land dispute with him. “The matter got dragged to the village head and the morol not only slapped my younger brother twice for hitting me but we both had to give 10 kg of rice each as penalty,” said Murmu. As in the previous case, the rice was fermented and turned into hooch.
Mongla Hasda, a 60-year-old who had been part of many such salishi courts said mostly petty crimes like theft and trespass into agricultural land come up. Many times, those found guilty is asked do 100 sit-ups, he said.
Officials said after the gangrape incident surfaced the state government instructed police to increase patrolling to keep a check on such courts. “We have no law to stop these salishi sabhas because they are part of our village culture. But we have told our SPs to increase vigil in the rural areas. Police should try to intervene if they get to know that any such sabha is going to take place anywhere,” a senior home department official said.
Panchayat department officials said many a time such courts become an extortion racket, as was the case in the gangrape incident. The woman was gangraped as she could not pay the Rs 20,000 fine imposed on her while the family of the youth she was in love with coughed up the fine of Rs 25,000 imposed on him.
Tapas Biswas, the panchayat development officer of Labhpur block, said he would not be able to comment on the extortion racket in the guise of the village courts but admitted that such courts have been a part of the tradition in these areas, doling out fast solutions to local disputes. The villagers respect the verdicts for speedy justice and this in turn sustains the system. Biswas, however, admitted that he had never come across a verdict like the one involving the gangrape.