Death sentences for drinking and adultery, public flogging for petty theft, forced to eat one’s own excreta to ward off ‘evil spirits’, paraded naked for whistling, exiled for challenging village elders and stifling social boycotts for minor misdemeanors. All this happens not in Mullah Omar’s Afghanistan, but in large swathes of rural Bengal where a Talibanesque code of justice prevails instead of the law of the land.
In almost all the villages of south, central and western parts of Bengal, kangaroo courts dispense instant and brutal justice for an array of offences ranging from murder and rape to alleged corruption and property and family disputes. There’s even a name for such courts – shalishi, a Bengali word of Persian origin which means mediation or arbitration. But what actually happens at these kangaroo courts is a mockery of mediation. Shalishi courts have become all-powerful fora in rural Bengal to dispense medieval justice and it is almost always women, the poor and the marginalised who are at the receiving end of the brutal sentences meted out by these courts. The police rarely intervene because politicians support, and are often actively involved in, these kangaroo courts.
TRIAL BY STATUS
Bengal’s kangaroo courts are whimsical in dishing out sentences. Adultery, for instance, could attract anything from a death sentence to a fine of a few thousand rupees, while a petty thief could expect to be fined, flogged in public or even banished from the village. “It all depends on the financial and social status of the accused, the mood of the elders of the village who become members of the shalishi court and their relationship with the accused or his or her family. If a woman from a well-to-do and influential household is accused of an extra-marital relationship, chances are she would be let off with a warning and a fine. But the same ‘offence’ by a woman of a poor family would attract a much stiffer sentence, like being tonsured or paraded naked around the village. If a person accused of, say, drunkenness, belongs to a family that’s aligned with an opposition party, the sentence would undoubtedly be more brutal. “A lot of factors come into play here, but it is always those without political and financial clout who are subjected to the most ruthless sentences by these courts, ” says Debanjan Mishra, a teacher of sociology at Calcutta University who has been documenting cases adjudged by shalishi courts over the past couple of years.
Mishra couldn’t be more right. Take the case of Sheikh Sariul, 29, a rickshaw-puller, at Saramari village of Ratua block in Malda district. Accused of having an illicit affair with one Protima Ghosh, wife of an affluent trader of the same village, he was summoned by a shalishi court on August 27 last year. The ‘court’, with members of the Ghosh clan and other affluent villagers forming its panel, allegedly sentenced Sariul to death.
“He was beaten to death and his body dumped in the septic tank of Protima’s house. We lodged an FIR and though police arrested 10 persons, all of them are out on bail. The investigations haven’t moved forward because of a lack of witnesses, ” Sariul’s brother Sarikul told TOICrest. The accused say that Sariul fled from the ‘court’ even before he could be sentenced and while fleeing, he fell into the septic tank. All those present at the shalishi court that day have stuck to this version, thus derailing police investigations.
Compare this to the ‘punishment’ meted out to Babloo Naskar, 21, who allegedly raped Marjina Biwi, his neighbour Suleiman Mondal’s wife, at Kashinagar in South 24 Parganas in mid-January this year. Babloo, the son of local CPM leader Shafikul, also a local contractor, was called to a shalishi court, fined Rs 5, 000 and asked to spend two weeks away from the village. The ‘court’ felt Marjina, 34, had enticed the “impressionable and innocent” Babloo and imposed a fine of Rs 25, 000 on her.
DEATH FOR STEALING A GOAT
Shalishi courts, at times, think nothing of sentencing people to death for minor crimes. At Kaktiya village in East Midnapore’s Tamluk, for instance, a shalishi court found Achintya Pati, 25, guilty of stealing a goat in February this year. Pati, a known petty criminal, pleaded not guilty and refused to pay the “fine” of Rs 15, 000, following which the ‘court’ sentenced him to death by beating. A large group of villagers then beat him to death and cremated the body before the police could reach the village. Though a few were arrested, they were released on bail within a few weeks and all witnesses to the crime have turned hostile.
Benu Haldar, 27, went missing from his native Nampo village in East Midnapore on January 15 this year. According to an FIR lodged by his mother Mayarani (the police registered the FIR only after being asked to do so by senior district officials the lady appealed to), Benu had gone to a picnic with almost the entire village on January 2 when he reportedly got drunk and misbehaved with some elders. “A shalishi court was convened on January 4 and my son, who was associated with the CPM and also owned a sweet shop, was asked to pay a fine of Rs 25, 000. He denied the charges and refused to pay any fine. A few days later, some village elders (all Trinamool Congress activists) convened another shalishi court in secret and passed the death sentence on him. He was summoned to a panchayat member’s house on November 15 evening and hasn’t been seen since, ” Mayarani said. Police say the investigations have gone nowhere in the absence of witnesses.
REVENGE AND OTHER GAMES
Shalishi courts often provide a camouflage for political vendetta. During the long years of Left rule in Bengal, such ‘courts’ imposed fines on, exiled and punished many opposition activists and supporters. The charges were vague, like ‘creating public disorder’ or ‘creating political and social disharmony’. Subir Sith, a small trader at Ramdaspur village of West Midnapore’s Daspur administrative block, was told his association with the Trinamool Congress (he was an office-bearer of the block-level committee of that party) was “creating political disharmony” in the village and “causing disaffection among the people” in June last year. “The shalishi court was made up of local CPM leaders and I was asked to resign from my party and pay a fine of Rs 1 lakh. I had to sell off four cottahs of farmland (around 3, 000 sq ft) and take a loan as well to pay this fine, ” Sith told TOI-Crest.
A re-run took place at the same village on October 31 this year and this time it was a CPM leader who was at the receiving end. A shalishi court asked Sital Karan, a CPM zonal committee member, to leave the party and pay a fine of Rs 2 lakh. Karan, also a teacher at a government school at Haridaspur, a neighbouring village, told TOI-Crest that after the police refused to help him, he approached the local sub-divisional judicial magistrate’s court that directed the police to take action. “But the police are still not doing anything, ” he said.
The change of guard in the state has turned the tables on CPM leaders who had victimised Congress and Trinamool Congress workers, activists and supporters during their reign. Thousands of such cases of political vendetta through shalishi courts have come in from most districts of the state.
SENTENCE OF SHAME
Not only do these kangaroo courts adjudicate on general crimes and land disputes, they interfere in virtually all matters. When the RCC roof of a newly constructed section of a girls’ school at Mojampur village at Kaliachak in Malda district collapsed in January this year, village elders (most were CPM members) promptly convened a shalishi court that held school principal Nurul Islam guilty of colluding with the contractor who used substandard materials for the construction. The sentence: a penalty of Rs 5 lakh that Islam was asked to pay by February. Though Islam complained to the district authorities, he got no help and ultimately had to pay the fine.
Tarini Mondal, 50, of Jatarpur village in Aktail gram panchayat of Malda’s Habibpur was declared a ‘witch’ by the local jaanguru (soothsayer) who the villagers approached after two young men of the village died in quick succession. The jaanguru reportedly said Tarini would have to eat his own excreta to get rid of the demons that had entered his body. A kangaroo court held at the village in end-September this year forced him to do so. A humiliated Tarini and his family members went to the police, but this turned the entire village against them. Tarini had to flee the village and the police have refused help, saying it is a “sensitive matter”.
At times, even the affluent find themselves on the dock in these ‘courts’. Like Rahim Khan, who owns a grocery store at Kathbari village in Kalianchak II administrative block of Malda district. Many villagers, including some local CPM leaders, had run up huge debts at this shop. “My son had been trying to recover the money for some time and when he refused to extend any more credit to some of these local political leaders, they suddenly accused him of having an illicit affair with a married woman of the village, ” Rahim’s mother Noor Jehan Begum, principal of the local Kamalpur Pathanpura Shishu Shiksha Kendra, told TOI-Crest.
Rahim was asked to keep his shop closed for a year and Noor Jehan Begum was asked to resign from her post. “We refused to bow to their illegal diktats and a shalishi court held in March imposed a social boycott on us, ” she said. The villagers were also asked to stop sending their children to the school, which had 114 students. The boycott of the family and the school continued for months till district officials intervened and got it lifted, but only after Rahim apologised and wrote off most of the money owed to him by the village elders.
The police and the administrative machinery rarely come to the aid of the victims of these kangaroo courts. That’s because local politicians are often involved. “All the shalishi courts have powerful local politicians as their members. Politicians often head these courts. And powerful morols (village heads) as well as clerics (in case of Muslim-dominated villages) are also involved in these courts. So the police are loath to intervene. In a few cases that the police have, the villagers turned against them and politicians asked the cops to lay off, ” says sociologist Mishra.
A member of Legal Aid Service West Bengal (LASWEB) said that while shalishi courts were a challenge to the judicial system and often undermined established law, there is little that can be done against them. “People in rural areas have to bow to the wishes of those who are financially, politically and socially powerful and these are the people who conduct the shalishi courts. The police are part of the whole system. And since ruling party politicians find these kangaroo courts a useful way of maintaining their grip of the village, there is no hope of any action against these illegal courts. “
In fact, the Left Front which ruled Bengal for 34 years had attempted to legalise these kangaroo courts through a bill (see box) in 2004. It is estimated that one such kangaroo court is held every alternate day, on an average, in one village or the other in Bengal. State law minister Moloy Ghatak said these illegal courts would cease to exist once his government sets up 1, 500 fast track courts over the next one year. “These fast track courts will clear the huge backlog of cases and that’ll restore people’s faith in the judiciary. Then, people won’t need these shalishi courts at all, ” he said.
But Ghatak misses the point – the poor and the aggrieved do not “need” these kangaroo courts because they’re often the victims of these ‘courts’. Rather, it is the politicians who patronise the kangaroo courts to make themselves more powerful. That would be a strong reason for shalishi courts to survive.
How they tried to make extra-legal legal
In 2004, the then Left Front government attempted to introduce the West Bengal Block Level Pre-Litigation Conciliation Board Bill (which came to be better known as the Shalishi Bill) to set up ‘Conciliation Boards’ in every administrative block for adjudication of minor disputes. These boards, the controversial bill provided, would be set up by panchayat samitis in consultation with the State Legal Services Authority (set up by an Act in 1998) and the district administration.
But the opposition Congress and Trinamool Congress cried foul and launched a series of agitations against the bill, and the government was ultimately forced to abandon its plans to introduce the bill in the state assembly. The opposition parties’ contention was that since the Left (primarily the CPM) controlled most of the panchayat samitis, they would appoint only their own party men to the ‘Conciliation Boards’ and the Marxists would thus strengthen their grip on power in the rural areas. The boards, packed with CPM men and loyalists, would function as another adjunct of the party, the opposition feared. But though the bill was never introduced, the informal shalishi courts have continued to function in Bengal.