Sonah Lal, 28, was on the run for more than a year after a girl died in an accident that involved him. But then he made a mistake by coming back, thinking all had been forgotten and forgiven.
Within hours of returning to his village in Kotra tehsil of Udaipur, Lal was hacked to death at the marketplace in broad daylight.
Lal could have saved himself if he had compensated for the girl’s death by paying mohtana. Neither the family nor the police contemplated his last rites till mohtana was settled by the warring groups. It eventually took four days to settle the claim at Rs. 7 lakh. Till then, the police looked away.
Loosely translated into blood money, mohtana is a time-warped belief gone dangerously commercial. People here recall the famous Bollywood flick Roti in which the accused had to take care of the victim’s family as punishment.
“Perhaps, the objective behind mohtana was the same in the good old days, but sadly it has taken the shape of extortion, with tribes demanding money from each other in cases of disputes ranging from minor accidents to murders,” says Shahid, a local.
“They can claim mohtana even for a snake bite, saying the reptile belonged to a particular village, or when an old man gets hit by a buffalo, claiming that the animal had been trained to kill,” added Shahid, who too wouldn’t dream of defying the tradition.
The claims are settled by self-styled bhanjgari or panch whom the administration doesn’t recognise but allows to dispense justice all the same.
Officials refuse to comment and dismiss all queries with the generic, “It’s a local tradition”. But they advise caution when you tell them you plan to visit Kotra.
There is no way one can get away without paying mohtana.
Abdul Hayee Khan, who often plays the role of a mediator between warring tribes, says, “Demands as high as Rs. 15 lakh have been made for a murder. It’s less for land disputes. If a car accidentally hits someone, they will chase the culprit till Gujarat.”
Failure to pay mohtana leads to ‘charothra’ or conflict, in which armed tribals go on a rampage in rival areas — violently assaulting whoever comes their way, burning houses and uprooting bushes all their way.
Locals recount, amid chuckles, a recent incident of a government official fainting while watching one such ‘war game’.
At times an entire village or families run away from their homes if they fail to pay mohtana, as the ‘levy’ applies to the entire samaj (sub-caste or even a village).
Several small settlements lie deserted, as their inhabitants couldn’t pay the settled amount in ‘kutcha-pukka’, meaning a mix of cash and kind and can even be paid in instalments.
Once the money is paid, both parties dig a hole and bury some jaggery, saying ‘dafan kar diya’ (it is buried) – a sweet end to a bitter dispute.