When a ‘court’ in West Bengal ordered the gang-rape of a young woman this week for the ‘crime’ of having a liaison with a married man from another community and village, it, obviously and understandably, sent shock-waves across the country. But what few know is that such kangaroo courts, known as ‘shalishi adalats’, operate in vast swathes of Bengal, especially its rural hinterland, and have even been known to hand out death sentences. And rarely have those handing down such Talibanesque diktats been brought before the law.
Shalishi, a Bengali word of Persian origin, means mediation or arbitration. But what actually happens at these kangaroo courts is a mockery of mediation. Though they are supposed to handle and resolve only petty civil disputes, these adalats pass judgement, and more often than not very flawed and biased ones, on a range of crimes ranging from thefts and extra-marital affairs to rape. In most rape cases, the accused, especially if they come from relatively affluent or influential families, get away with just small fines.
Those who defy diktats have to pay a heavy price. Take the case of Munirul Haque of Betla village in East Midnapore district. A ‘shalishi adalat’ presided over by Nizamuddin Alam, a local Trinamool Congress leader, asked Munirul to pay a fine of Rs 25,000 for allegedly making a pass at the daughter a trader in the village in September last year. Munirul, a poor farm labourer, said that he could not pay such a huge amount and pleaded for a waiver of the fine. Nizamuddin, a cousin of the trader, then decreed that in lieu of the fine, Munirul would have to give his 16-year-old daughter in marriage to a 46-year-old man who already had two wives. Munirul had to agree because he had no alternative.
These 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 are 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.
The death sentences imposed by the ‘shalishi adalats’ are usually executed in utmost secrecy and the whole village takes an ‘omerta’ or oath of silence, thus foiling any effort by the law enforcement machinery to bring members of such kangaroo courts to justice. Even the bodies of the victims remain untraceable. One of the known cases is that of Sheikh Sariul, 29, a van-rickshaw operator of Saramari village of Ratua block in Malda district. Sariul was accused of having an illicit affair with the wife of an affluent farmer of the same village and was summoned to a ‘shalishi adalat’ on August 27, 2010. The ‘adalat’, packed with members of the farmer’s clan, sentenced Sariul to death. He was beaten to death and his body dumped in the septic tank of the farmer’s house. An FIR was lodged and 10 persons arrested, but they are out on bail and the investigations haven’t progressed due to lack of evidence. The accused hold that Sariul fled the village just prior to appearing before the ‘adalat’ and fell into the septic tank while fleeing. The entire village, save for Sariul’s family, have stuck to this version and so the police have not been able to make any headway.
In most cases, the ‘shalishi adalats’ are patronized by politicians and political parties. This is more so in the backward tribal belt where the village headmen and his honchos pass diktats to vote for a particular political party and are, thus, sought after by the parties who do not want to upset or anger them in any way. Very often, the ‘shalishi adalats’ are used by the party in power to settle political scores over rivals. This particular practice started during the Left Front rule in Bengal. Countless supporters, activists and local level leaders of the Congress and the Trinamool Congress were fined, ostracized and driven out of their villages by these kangaroo courts for real or imagined offences. The Trinamool Congress, after coming to power in Bengal in mid-2011, has not shied away from using these kangaroo courts to subjugate and often snuff out its political rivals.
Nothing legal about it
In 2004, the Left Front government attempted to give a legal sanction to ‘shalishi adalats’ through the West Bengal Block Level Pre-Litigation Conciliation Board Bill (which came to be better known as the Shalishi Bill). Under this Bill, ‘Conciliation Boards’ were to be set up in every administrative block for adjudication of minor disputes. 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 the Left (primarily the CPM) 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. Nonetheless, the ‘shalishi adalats’ thrive and now, they serve to strengthen the grip of the Trinamool Congress on rural Bengal.