The Informal Justice System, Panchayat

A few weeks ago, one of Times of India’s headlines read, “UP woman tied up, thrashed on panchayat’s order; molested”. I received this video as a part of a forward message thread.

Amongst these angry and reasonably reacting people were people, who supported the panchayat’s decision. They wanted everyone to honor the decision of a panchayat since this sort of undemocratic decision makers is a part of our culture. For a hint of what such comments sound like, head out to the facebook page Typical Indian Comments.

What happened?

The incident according to police was in the Longa village of Syana region of Bulandshahr on March 10. It is rare that such cruel videos go as viral, in many cases they go unnoticed, and the victims remain victims.

A large crowd gathered around along with the Panchayat, cheering instead of condemning the act. The video shows her hands tied to a branch and her husband shouting at her “Ab bhaag ke dikha.” The joy and cheering around the woman show that not only is this accepted in our society, but it is also celebrated. If not for the video and the reactions it gathered, would the authorities even count this as a crime?

Times Of India also reported about the woman’s statement to the police. Wherein she claimed that some of the men later took her in to a house to sexually assault her. The woman had allegedly tried to elope. The woman in her complaint said, “I had gone with our neighbour Dharmender Lodhi, but after five days a few villagers brought us back into village on March 10 and from 7 in the morning until 2 pm, my hands were tied to a tree and in full public view thrashed by my husband Saudan Singh for hours together with belt and sticks. A few did protest, but no one came forward to rescue me. Later, a few village men took me inside our house and molested me labeling me a prostitute. Former Pradhan even made a video of my humiliation”.

A Power Struggle

The study ‘Masculinity, Intimate Partner Violence and Son Preference in India’ by UNFPA and International Centre for Research on Women (ICRW) also revealed that 52% of the 3,158 women surveyed reported that they had experienced some form of violence during their lifetime.

A higher proportion of women reported experiencing physical violence (38%). Followed by emotional abuse (35%), which includes insults, intimidation, and threats. These were followed by 17% of women reporting that their husbands or partners had been sexually violent against them. 16% saying they were economically abusive (husband or partner prohibits her from working, takes her earnings against her will).

It’s a shocking revelation in this day and age. Not only Indian men, even adolescents — in the 15-19 age group — feel that wife beating is justified.

Unicef‘s “Global Report Card on Adolescents 2012“, says that 57% of adolescent boys in India think a husband is justified in hitting or beating his wife.

Over half of the Indian adolescent girls or around 53% think that a husband is justified in beating his wife. In comparison, 41% women in Bangladesh and 54% in Sri Lanka harbor a similar feeling. In Nepal, however, the prevalence of both men and women justifying domestic violence is inordinately high at 88% and 80%, respectively.

According to the report, societal attitudes that convey acceptance or justification of domestic violence are making girls and women more vulnerable to abuse. It says, “Available data for developing countries show that nearly 50% of girls and women aged 15-49 believe that wife-beating is justified… girls aged between 15 and 19 years hold the same views as women in the 45-49 age group.”

What is the Panchayat?

A panchayat (from Sanskrit pañca, “five”) consists of five members, but usually, offenses there are more; the panchayat has a policy committee, however, often numbering five.

The panchayat sits as a court of law. They are based on an inclusive model (the panchayat sits in a public space) but are restricted to certain castes.  Any evidence that has any conceivable bearing on the case is admissible; it can be produced by either party, by onlookers, or by members of the council. Offenses adjudicated in meetings of the panchayat are breaches of eating, drinking, or smoking restrictions; infractions of marriage rules; violations of a caste’s customs in the feast; violations of its trade rules; the killing of certain animals, notably cows; and the injury of a Brahman. Less commonly, the panchayat handles criminal and civil cases actionable before a court of law.

Penalties take the form of fines and temporary or permanent excommunication. Pilgrimage, self-humiliation, and equivalent retaliation are usually the objectives of punishment. In this case and many others where the women are in the short end of the deal, the panchayat uses equivalent retaliation.

The Congress Party in India made a point of creating village panchayats as local instruments of government, the so-called panchayat raj, or government by panchayats.

Panchayats are inbred with patriarchy. Past the beautiful background in the display picture, these social structures are organizations with gender power imbalances. As a result, men sit in power making positions and decide upon issues that in some cases they aren’t even aware of.

What about the Law?

Khap panchayats wield immense power and hand down orders with little accountability.

In 2011, the Supreme Court of India described khap panchayats as kangaroo courts, and observed that they move past the laws and decide based up on their own norms and values.

A 2012 Law Commission Report refers to khap panchayats as practicing ‘moral vigilantism.’ It said:

The pernicious practice of Khap Panchayats and the like taking law into their own hands and pronouncing on the invalidity and impropriety of…inter-caste marriages and handing over punishment to the couple …amounts to flagrant violation of rule of law and invasion of personal liberty of the persons affected.

As a result, Tit for Tat rather than punitive 

The Hindustan Times wrote, The mostly male-dominated village bodies such as panchayats and khap panchayats also mete out such diktats against women for bringing what they perceive as a dishonor to the community.

What can we do?

Spread Awareness. Talk about how outdated the Panchayat system is. We should try to implement a more democratic and law-abiding social justice system that can serve, the smallest of our villages and towns.

About the Author

Vidhatri Pattapu is a feminist and sociology undergraduate student. She wants to work towards making this world a more equal and safe space for everyone.


Cover Picture Source:

Information Sources: Amnesty International and SupremecourtofIndia’s online websites