Journalists search for news. At times they become the scent for someone searching for news. Two weeks back I got phone calls from two correspondents of foreign press asking for my opinion and some clarifications on the alleged mass rape of a tribal woman on the order of a tribal village body in a Santhal village in Birbhum district in West Bengal. I had listened to the news the previous evening; something had struck me as unusual. I had wondered for a while how quickly an obscure incident could quickly get to the front page of a newspaper or the prime time of a television channel. But then in the milieu we are in West Bengal with a virtual civil war situation, where women among others are bearing the brunt of an enveloping social violence I thought this was not perhaps unusual. One more incident of violence on women and this is happening now in a remote corner of the district and the state.
Yet the questions put by the foreign correspondents surprised me by their alacrity, also their sense of being caught by surprise that this had happened in a village inhabited by an indigenous community. They asked if this was the lengthening shadow of the Khap panchayat system prevalent in the northern part of the country. There is reason for their surprise. We, after all, think that indigenous communities have a greater sense of egalitarianism and less of what we consider as Victorian prudery. In this case the villagers had alleged that the girl of the village had shown assertiveness and an independent attitude after working for some years outside the village; she had been in Delhi as a contract labourer, had come back, and on her return had fallen in love with a boy from a minority community in a nearby village. Hence, the village elders in a local arbitration meeting had ordered the families of the girl and the boy a cash penalty of Rs25,000 each, and failing which the elders had ordered rape of that woman by virile male youth of the village.
But should we have been surprised? After all, studies in the last two decades on the system of witch hunting in the Santhal villages of Bengal have shown how land has been taken away from single women families or female-headed households. Women have been branded as witches, castigated, and expelled from their villages. Many have left never to return. Several have stayed back to lead beggars’ lives and on the promise of never asking back property have been shown mercy.
The salishi mode or the custom of local arbitration may have had dialogic elements in the past. But now male domination and conquest of property are the order everywhere in these days of the dog-eat-dog world. Remember that all these are happening with the collapse of the petty property system, crisis of small production, and the widespread prevalence of petty trade in the state.
What else has aggravated the situation? During the Left Front rule, the party had substituted society in the countryside. Quarrels, crimes, hate acts, and complaints of all kinds were settled by the party bosses at the village level and above. Recall also the aborted bid by the Left Front government to push the draft salishi bill. The governmental style of the Left in this way had maintained social peace in the villages of Bengal. This is now over. The Trinamool is not the Left Front. It does not have a party structure as of the CPI (M). It also does not want to follow that style of rule. Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee has ordered quick steps and announced firm measures. But these only mean so much in an all enveloping milieu of a collapse of earlier structures and a virtual anarchy in many aspects. The epoch of authority is over. Now perhaps is the epoch of anarchy for some time to come before we return to a new period of legality and governance.
In this situation who is a rapist? Perhaps, the street urchin passing by you, perhaps the petty shopkeeper around the corner, or perhaps the friend whom you trusted all along, or the unemployed local big brother, the dada — they are known to us, like us. They are amongst us. This situation is one where class war has collapsed into gender war.
I admit, human rights are important in such a context. Individual rights and dignity are also important principles. But they are of limited value in a situation of all round depredations and absence of reforms for dignity and dialogues for justice. Historians have quarrelled over the question whether firm State action was a necessity and a virtue in the colonial time when reforms for women’s dignity became the mark of politics and society. Some say it was good, while some even in those days thought that the interference of the colonial government was unnecessary and unwarranted. Today however there cannot be any doubt that firmness of public power is important for social reform, including reform of indigenous societies.
Yet, public power and strong legality will not take us a long distance till these two are complemented by legal pluralism. That is where we need reform of the salishi system also. Local arbitration can be based on the plurality of mediation and arbitration, but certain universal standards will be the basis of plural ways of mediating disputes. These will be like the guiding principles on which legal pluralism can be practised. This will ensure not maximal justice, but minimal justice. This will be justice based on certain dialogic procedures. The firmness of public power above can then effectively combine with the flexibility of dialogic justice below.
That will be also a new way to govern a plural society.
The author is director, Calcutta Research Group