On 14 June 2014, Mangal Singh Kamble was a happy man. Kamble, 31, a resident of Bhushan Nagar in Solapur, Maharashtra, was getting married to Manisha Machere, 21, who hailed from Icchalkaranji in Kolhapur. The wedding ceremony took place at a farmhouse in Icchalkaranji in the presence of the Jaat Panchayat (village council) of the Kanjarbhat tribe. But the panchayat termed the marriage illegal because of the use of Hindu rituals such as havan and phere during the ceremony.
“Even after completing all the rituals as mandated, they annulled my marriage because they claimed that it didn’t happen according to community norms,” says Kamble. “They told me that the only way to legalise the marriage was by paying a fine of Rs. 720. This is called nasheed in our community, which means that whenever our family conducts a function, we have to pay a fine of Rs. 720, which is unfair. Later, they demanded Rs. 50,000 to settle the matter. When I refused, an argument erupted and the panches forcefully took away the bride from the venue.”
When asked why his marriage was not considered legal, Kamble said, “In Kanjarbhat, community marriages are overseen by the Jaat Panchayats. They are the ones who give credibility to a marriage.”
Once the marriage ceremony is over, the bride is hustled inside the room and an elderly woman from the family comes in to take off her ornaments. The bride is asked to strip and a body search is conducted. She gets her clothes back and the groom is sent inside. He undergoes the same drill in the presence of an elderly man of the family. After the procedure, they are given a white bedsheet on which they have to sleep on their wedding night. Once the bride and groom close the door, panches of the Jaat Panchayat sit outside the room and celebrate by drinking alcohol. After some time, they shout and ask the groom, “Maal khara aahe ki khota? (Is the girl pure or impure?)”
The next morning, the panchayat holds a meeting at the wedding venue and the couple has to give the bedsheet to them. If the panches find blood on it, they will give the green signal to the marriage and deem it legal. Or else, the marriage will not be considered legal and the girl is marked as impure. In cases where the girl is considered impure by the panches and if the groom doesn’t want to continue living with her, he has to pay half the expenses spent on the wedding arrangements. Otherwise, the girl is sent along with him with a warning that she should not indulge in infidelity again.
The Jaat Panchayat is a parallel judicial system that plays a dominant role in the lives of the nomadic and denotified tribes of Maharashtra. Women are the worst sufferers at the hands of these panchayats. They are not allowed to become members of these tribal councils; they are mortgaged as commodity and have to pass a chastity test to warrant their marriage as legal. They cannot even seek justice against the atrocities because they are not allowed to represent in person to the council. Only a male member of their family can represent them.
Punishments such as branding their tongue or other parts of the body with hot metal, stripping them naked, raping them and imposing fines are quite common. In order to prove their innocence, women have to go through torture tests laid down by the panchayat such as picking out a coin from boiling oil, placing a hot iron metal in hands, running without spilling water from the pot on their head and other superstition-based rituals.
Kamble approached the Gaobhag Police Station in Icchalkarnaji to register a complaint, but it was not filed. The next day, the panchayat members assured the police that they would talk to Kamble and settle the matter. However, four days later, the girl gave a supporting letter in favour of the Jaat Panchayat, stating that the marriage was illegal as it was not conducted according to customs. On 22 June, a panchayat was convened in which Kamble and his family were ostracised from the Kanjarbhat community.
Kamble, a civil services aspirant, claims that the girl’s family succumbed to the pressure of the Jaat Panchayat and signed the letter in their favour.
On 9 July, the local police registered a case against the members of the Jaat Panchayat and that too only after the intervention of the Maharashtra Andhashraddha Nirmulan Samiti, a social organisation working to eradicate superstition from society. The panchayat members approached the Icchalkaranji sessions court and were given anticipatory bail with the condition that they will appear in the police station every week.
“I don’t know whether what has happened is right or wrong, but we have to follow the orders of the Jaat Panchayat,” says Manisha’s sister Neeta Machere. “They are the ones who decide what is good and what is bad.”
“A lot of atrocities are carried out by the Jaat Panchayat,” a local activist told Tehelka on the condition of anonymity. “Conducting chastity tests on girls is a ridiculous affair but no one can stop them. Cases of rapes and murders are tried in these panchayats instead of judicial courts. Recently, a case relating to the rape of a 14-year-old girl came before the Jaat Panchayat. The headman asked the accused to pay a fine of Rs. 80,000 to the panchayat, out which Rs. 30,000 was given to the victim. She was told that in case she gets pregnant, she should hand over the child to the accused.”
When Tehelka approached Vijay Gagde, an influential leader of the Kanjarbhat community in Kolhapur district and one of the members of the Jaat Panchayat that had annulled Kamble’s marriage, he defended the practice.
“The chastity test is a good thing. Otherwise, there will be no control over people,” he said. “If there is no such rule, then a father will sleep with his daughter, a brother will sleep with his sister and rapes will happen everywhere. This system is required to control all such things.”
On the question of why the Jaat Panchayat had annulled Kamble’s marriage, Gagde said, “There was some argument with the members of the Jaat Panchayat. But in our community, everybody has to listen to the panchayat. Nowadays, people have become rich. They think they can act as per their wishes and don’t listen to us. If somebody has to live in the community, they have to follow rules.”
When Tehelka questioned Naresh Nagarkar, another member of the Jaat Panchayat, about their system of delivering judgement on rape and murder cases, he revealed a bizarre way of settling the matter.
“In rape cases, the accused is ordered to marry the girl. In case of murder, the accused has to pay full compensation to the family as per the victim’s age,” he said. “If the accused has murdered a young member, then he has to pay more compensation compared to the murder of an older victim.
“In case the accused denies having committed the crime, s/he has to perform a dheejbola in order to prove his/her innocence. In dheejbola, one has to walk for 21 steps carrying a hot iron axe with peepal leaves in hand. If s/he gets burnt in the act, it means s/he is lying. Those who are innocent don’t get burns, no matter how hot the axe is.”
The first case of atrocity by a Jaat Panchayat came into the spotlight when Eknath Kumbharkar murdered his 18-year-old daughter Pramila on 28 June 2013 for marrying outside the community. Kumbharkar strangulated his daughter after the Jaat Panchayat of the Bhatke Joshi (nomadic tribe) community ostracised the family. Activists belonging to various organisations protested against the killing, which brought the issue of the Jaat Panchayat into the open.
Anti-superstition activist, the late Narendra Dabholkar, and his organisation Maharashtra Andhshradha Nirmulan Samiti played a major role in highlighting the horrific case. They started a campaign by the name of Jaat Panchayat Mooth Mati Abhiyan, after which several cases were registered throughout the state.
“The murder of Pramila Kumbharkar was the first case of an atrocity by the Jaat Panchayat that was exposed in public,” says Krishna Chandgude, campaign coordinator and president of the Maharashtra Andhshradha Nirmulan Samiti’s Nashik chapter. “After that, we made an appeal through the vernacular media to report such cases and published our contact numbers in newspapers. To our surprise, we received hundreds of calls throughout the state, mentioning similar cases of ostracism and injustice by Jaat Panchayats.
“Pramila had married Deepak Kamble, who belonged to a different community, after which her family was ostracised by the Jaat Panchayat. Her father Eknath Kumbharkar was asked to pay Rs. 5,000 as fine if his family wanted to return to the community, but as his economic condition was weak, he was unable to pay up. As an alternative, the panchayat asked him to murder his daughter, who was pregnant at that time, to be accepted back into the community. The case was an eyeopener and exposed the horrific customs prevailing among the denotified and nomadic tribals.”
Anna Hingmire played a crucial role in getting the members of the Bhatke Joshi Jaat Panchayat behind bars. Hingmire himself had borne the brunt of the panchayat.
“In 2012, I got my daughter married into the Marwadi Jain community due to which I was thrown out of the community,” says Hingmire. “I was not even allowed to meet my elder daughter during her wedding ceremony. If they had seen me there, they would have penalised me by some means or the other. During the boycott, I was not allowed to attend the funerals of my younger cousin and aunt. In the name of justice, the members of the Jaat Panchayat have been exploiting and tormenting the people for many years. There are some who have not been able to meet their family members for more than 15-20 years.”
On Hingmire’s complaint, the police arrested six members of the Bhatke Joshi Jaat Panchayat in Nashik. Following more complaints, the panchayat was finally dissolved.
“Ever since we came to know about the Jaat Panchayat issue in Maharashtra, we have been working rigorously on it,” says Andh Shradha Nirmulan Samiti chairman Avinash Patil. “Four communities — Bhatke Joshi, Vaidu, Kolhati Dombari and Adivasi Gond — have dissolved their Jaat Panchayats. But a lot of work is required to abolish this evil system among the denotified and nomadic tribes in India.”
Chandgude recalled a bizarre case that happened in Shrirampur tehsil, Ahmadnagar district, in which the Vaidu Jaat Panchayat fixed the marriage of a murderer with a two-and-half-year-old girl. When the man was in jail, the Jaat Panchayat had made his wife marry another man. When the murderer discovered after his return from jail that his wife had married another man, he demanded the Jaat Panchayat to find a bride for him. As a result, the panchayat got him married off to the two-and-a-half-year-old niece of his former wife. Later, when the girl attained the age of 18, she requested the panchayat to dissolve her marriage. In turn, the panchayat asked her to spend a night with another man so that she could get a divorce on the grounds of adultery. It was after prolonged parleys between the campaigners and the panchayat that the girl was relieved from her marriage.
Nine months ago, Hanumant Shinde’s family was ostracised after his nephew married a girl against the wishes of the Jaat Panchayat. The Shindes are a family of labourers belonging to the Vaidu community in Zargadwadi panchayat of Baramati. The Jaat Panchayat did not want Shinde’s nephew to marry the girl because they were not in good terms with the bride’s father. But the wedding took place in defiance of the panchayat order, which led to the boycott of the family. Since then, they have been ostracised from the community and have not even been allowed to enter the community temple.
On 19 December, Hanumant approached the Jaat Panchayat with a request to withdraw the boycott. The family was asked to pay a fine of Rs. 5 lakh, but the members refused. Later, representatives of the Jaat Panchayat brutally assaulted nine members of Shinde’s family, including three women. In fact, the women were stripped naked and chilli powder was smeared on the private parts of one woman.
“I don’t know what wrong we have committed to be assaulted in such a manner,” says Taya Shinde, one of the family members who escaped the attack. “My relatives just approached the Jaat Panchayat to withdraw the boycott of our family. We are not so rich that we can fulfil the demand of paying Rs. 5 lakh. They stripped the women in our family and bashed them up, but the local police are doing nothing about it. It has been more than two months, but only eight people have been arrested. The remaining 10 are still absconding. The police should take some action soon.”
“There is no specific law in our country against Jaat Panchayats,” says Balkrishna Renke, former chairman of the National Commission for Denotified, Nomadic and Semi-Nomadic Tribes. “The government has said that if people have a problem with Jaat Panchayats, they can complain to the police. But the problem is that these denotified nomadic people are very poor.”
“To earn a square meal, they have to toil throughout the day. And our judicial system is very slow. If they approach the police with their complaints, they are ill-treated. So, these people prefer going to the Jaat Panchayats. These Jaat Panchayats are a parallel judicial system, which is wrong. To abolish them, the government should come out with a permanent commission to look after the tribals’ affairs.”
The denotified nomadic tribes are also known as Vimukta Jati. In 1871, the British passed the Criminal Tribes Act, under which these tribes were tagged as criminal by birth. In 1952, the government repealed the Act. According to the Reneke Commission, there are 42 denotified nomadic tribes in Maharashtra with a combined population of 1.25 crore.
It is important to note that there is no law against Jaat Panchayats in Maharashtra. In 1985, an ordinance was passed to outlaw social boycotts, but it hasn’t been signed into a law until now.
However, the state home department come out with an order in September 2013 saying that Sections 503 (criminal intimidation), 34 (acts done by several persons in furtherance of common intention), 153-A (promoting enmity between different groups on grounds of religion), 383 (extortion), and 120-B (punishment of criminal conspiracy) of the Indian Penal Code can be invoked for registering complaints against social ostracism.
Nomadic tribes such as Vaidu, Kanjarbhat, Bhatke Joshi, Pardhi, Ramoshi, Dhangar, Kolhatidombari, Berad, Bhamta, Kaikadi and Banjara have the system of Jaat Panchayats. These panchayats hold forth on the problems of the members of the community and pass judgments. Their diktat is followed blindly by these communities and someone who opposes it has to face the their wrath, leading to murder, rape, torture or social boycott for his/her whole life. These panchayats have made their presence felt in villages as well as cities. Anyone — educated or uneducated — who goes against their will have to face harsh consequences.