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Maharashtra: Why tribes depend on Jat Panchayats even after they were disbanded

Jat Panchayats were disbanded by law last year, but continue under the cover of jatras and fairs. Despite their cruelty and arbitrary fines, why do denotified tribes continue to depend on them for justice?

india Updated: Jan 16, 2018 11:49 IST
Gayatri Jayaraman
Gayatri Jayaraman
Hindustan Times
Maharashtra tribes,Jat Panchayats,Tribes
Members of denotified nomadic tribes at the jatra near Malegaon in Maharashtra.(HT Photo)

A lone chinkara races along the state transport bus as it winds its way on the Latur highway, past Limboti lake towards Malegaon, Maharashtra, where an annual jatra (fair) is being set up. It is late December 2017. As a wintry bite descends on the district, so do lakhs of devotees of Khandoba, the deity of hunters, gatherers and shepherds. For over 200 years, it has been the shade under which the largest jat panchayat of the Vimukta Bhatkya Jatis, or denotified nomadic tribes, takes place.

This is the only meeting point for all the wandering tribes, each of whom holds their own smaller panchayats. It is like their apex court, where they negotiate borrowings and lendings, fix and annul marriages, and settle disputes.

In principle, the assembly and functioning of the jat panchayats has been disbanded across Maharashtra by the Jat Panchayat Act, 2015, on grounds that they are extrajudicial bodies with no constitutional validity to pronounce judgments. In practice, regular meetings take place under cover and continue to hold sway over the tribes. Members scatter hurriedly if questioned, a watchful eye is kept on the police, and the caucus is restricted to three or four elders at a time, strategically positioned under trees, water tanks, and behind tents.

A stone’s throw from the Malegaon police chowki, there are concrete plinths beneath a grove of neem trees. Three ‘elders’ sit on one of the steps with a young man to their left. To their right, a few feet away, sits a group of women. One of them — head covered, dressed in a bridal green sari with golden zari work — is summoned. She shyly approaches the men with a matron for a companion. She must answer the questions being put to her: Will she perform her duties? Will she obey her husband? Can she make ‘bhakris’ (millet flatbread)? Will she uphold tribal values? Is she a virgin? She giggles as she answers, nodding acquiescence to all.

The local police, who keep a strict eye on these tribes, say the activities of these gatherings are now reduced to social customs, fixing marriages by elders of the community, which after all, cannot be prevented. The police say they will crack down on anything more.

But insiders say the panchayats still control their lives. Virginity tests are sought from married couples, and only when the blood-stained bedsheet is displayed on the morning after the wedding, is a marriage validated. Failing the presentation of it, marriages are annulled, monies returned, fines levied, and women sent to be remarried.

This violation of rights is a matter of form for the panchayats.

The Maharashtra Andhashraddha Nirmoolan Samiti (MANS) in Nashik has been working to push law and legislation against the exploitation of tribesmen. The organisation played a major role in the introduction of the 2015 act after a four-year battle. Avinash Patil, the body’s state executive president, located in Dhule, says there were no laws to counter what was happening at these panchayats and that some of the punishments handed out by them were cruel, just as some of their customs violated basic rights.

Know about ‘Vimukta Jatis’ or ‘Denotified Tribes’
  • ‘Vimukta Jatis’ are the former Criminal Tribes of India, so notified by the British colonial powers. The label includes the Bhatkya Jatis or nomadic tribes. In 1871, a large section of tribes was labelled criminal by birth under the Criminal Tribes Act, 1871
  • The Act impacted 13 million people by 1911 and its scope was expanded throughout the 1920s to cover 313 nomadic tribes and 198 denotified tribes, a total of 60 million people
  • National Commission for Denotified, Nomadic and Semi Nomadic Tribes, constituted in 2005, noted that forest laws played a role in displacing the tribes, causing many to be so labelled for protesting eviction from forests and foraging lands to make way for British projects
  • The tribes under the Act were required to notify police if they entered settlements, which led to brutality, superstition and exclusion from social progress. The jat panchayats became their only source of community redressal
  • In 1950, the list of Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes was released. In 1952, the Ayyangar Committee Report repealed the Criminal Tribes Act of 1871 and enacted the Habitual Offenders Act, 1952. This was recommended for repealing by the Renke Commission in 2008, but has so far not been withdrawn. Today, several tribes have been included under SC/ST/OBC reservation quotas
  • Plans are afoot by the current Union ministry of social justice and empowerment to repeal even this classification in 2018.

There are still no specific laws under which to book those who extract money through the panchayats — except regular sections of cheating and extortion. Krishna Chandgude, Maharastra state secretary of the Jat Panchayat Muthmati Abhiyan of MANS, has been working closely with these indigenous systems for decades. The fines meted out by the panchayats sometimes run into lakhs, he says. “How can nomadic tribesmen, who don’t even have houses, jobs, incomes, pay lakhs?”

Apart from having to deposit their entire earnings as fines, tribesmen sometimes have to take loans from moneylenders who charge them up to 30% interest per month. Every stage of marriage requires the panchayats’ say-so. Divorces, adjudicating alliances outside caste and tribe, and even disputes between husbands and wives result in large fines. “The mukhyas, pants, netas and leaders grow rich on this exploitation,” alleges Chandgude.

The punishments are not just monetary. Until a few years ago, tribesmen at the jatra could be seen with bandaged arms, caused by thrusting their arms into burning oil to prove innocence or truth in a dispute — a common demand of the panchayat elders, they say.

Kiran Vantankar is 24 years old and a nomadic tribesman of the ‘madaari’ tribe. He pulls out his Election Commission voter identity card to demonstrate his connect with the mainstream. Ashatai Dhutmal, an independent social worker from Lohagaon, has been trying to get many such tribesmen enrolled for their identification proofs, and for government healthcare and welfare schemes. But young people such as Vatankar believe life has already passed them by. “It is too late for our generation, but at least our children will benefit,” says his 18-year-old friend Sanjay, who never got a chance to enrol in school, and has remained a nomadic worker — now dubbed migrant labour and granted OBC status.

Despite its overbearing demands, Vantankar is still enamoured by the glory days of the panchayat. Before the ban, 25 tribes would sit together. The leader of each tribe, made rich by such fines, would arrive by helicopter in a blatant display of power, wealth, political backing, and status. He would charge a fee in the range of Rs 4-5 lakh just to show up.

The tribesmen, without faith in the Constitution and the courts in a troubled state, and the first to be accused of crimes by the police for being denotified “criminals”, still swear by the panchayats over administrative, elected or judicial authority.

“For me, matters end with the panchayat. It preserves my identity, my customs, my ‘parampara’ (tradition). Court matters drag for years and we know that we will never be given any benefit of doubt,” says Vantankar, who has set up a dance school in Hyderabad, where other members of his tribe train and participate.

The number of tribesmen showing up at the jatra has dwindled this year and many of the ‘elders’ have gone underground. Their traditional grounds are occupied by two circuses and tamasha tents that blare music through the night.

Some of the tribes — Vaidu, Kaikadi, Vadaar, Kumbhar and Madaari — have moved to the donkey bazaar nearby, where they bring animals to be sold. In the past, all transactions would happen on a rolling credit, which allowed those who didn’t have resources to take animals for work and pay in instalments over the year, or at the next grand panchayat. This was a bond of trust for the tribes. Now, with the disbanding of the panchayats, the sellers say there is no credit as there are no guarantees of adjudication. Those who have the money pay upfront, those who don’t have to take an outright loan.

Aminbhai Jamgaonkar, a tribe elder who has been a leader of the Bharatiya Vimukta Jamati Adivasi Vikas Sanghatana in Aurangabad, was traditionally a snake charmer. He pulls out a pack of cards and performs a trick — making the numbers on the cards appear and disappear. His community is now reduced to performing magic shows as they travel — in schools and factories, or at village festivals and bazaars. It is not that there aren’t avenues for them to rehabilitated, and not that they don’t have the will to be included. It’s that they don’t have the means, information, knowledge and the bridges to make that journey.

“Could you ask them (the authorities) to set up mobile roving schools for us? Or appoint one place where we can write exams after studying while roaming?” suggests Sanjay. Jamgaonkar laughs, then adds chillingly, “Don’t tell them anything unless you never want to eat again.”

First Published: Jan 16, 2018 09:51 IST