In coming to the defence of the accused, the panchayat echoes of regressive times when the crime was defined through the caste identity of the accused.
A Valmiki man in Punjab, who had eloped with an ‘upper caste’ woman, was forced to eat human excreta, ‘hand over’ his sister to the woman’s relatives, and pay a heavy fine. He was also publicly beaten up.
The woman, despite being upper caste, was also beaten up for eloping with a Valmiki.
This horrifying treatment meted out to Valmikis for daring to find love outside their caste finds a place even in the Census of 1911.
Elsewhere, we find a report from Kanpur of a Valmiki, whose half head, half moustache, half beard and an eyebrow were shaved off in addition to the above mentioned ‘punishments’. His crime was the same: the Valmiki man dared to love an ‘upper caste’ woman and hence challenged the social codes laid down by the Manusmriti.
In all such cases, these ‘punishments’ were awarded by caste panchayats. In cases where the man and the woman wanted to live together, the two had to leave their caste status and the couple would face a social boycott. People would not attend their wedding, dine with them and doors of temples would be closed for them.
In north India, panchayats, during the early 20th century, would deal strictly with any intercaste sexual unions but Valmikis were specifically dealt with an iron hand. Following the Manusmriti, these panchayats would reprimand the ‘upper caste’ men lightly for eloping with ‘lower caste’ women, while ‘lower caste’ men were punished severely. Among ‘lower castes’ as well, there existed a hierarchy of punishments and Valmikis were treated the worst.
A Brahmin, if found cohabiting with a ‘lower caste’ woman would be fined anywhere between 1 anna and 2 annas (1 anna = 1/16th of a rupee).
A Jogi would be fined to pay Rs 5 for the same offence. ‘Lower castes’ like Chamar and Dhobi, apart from Valmiki, were punished with fines ranging between Rs 25 and Rs 50. It was the Valmiki caste which attracted the most severe forms of punishment.
They would be publicly beaten up and humiliated. Their daughters and sisters were ‘handed over’ to the ‘upper caste’ men in order to avenge the wrong done with the ‘upper caste’ women. This was also not considered enough and the panchayat forced them to eat human excreta in full public view.
Panchayats were the traditional caste-based jurisprudence system in rural India. In villages, each caste had its own ‘panchayat’ led by people from well known families of the respective castes. These leaders were called panch. The posts of panchs were hereditary. These caste panchayats played an essential role in maintaining social norms and codes of caste in particular, and society in general.
The cases dealt with by the caste panchayats were generally of irregular sexual unions, prohibited sexual intimacy, family quarrels, land disputes or any similar civil matter. Normally in all the cases, the offenders were fined and asked to organise a feast for the community as penalties. In case one failed to pay the fine, the panchayat could excommunicate that person from the caste community.
These punishments were generally announced as atonement, in accordance with the Hindu shastras. Sufficient sources exist to indicate that ancient Indian society was not free of adultery and sexual relationships. Punishments mentioned in Hindu shastras varied with varna. The Manusmirti awarded a death punishment to Shudras for cohabiting with ‘upper caste’ women while a Brahmin would only be fined for cohabiting with a ‘lower caste’ woman.
The text is known for its caste and patriarchy-based approach. It clearly outlined on who could marry whom. It allowed ‘upper caste’ men to marry girls from the ‘low caste’ only after the man’s first marriage was performed with a girl from his own caste.
Manusimriti laws are discriminatory against ‘upper caste’ women as well. There is no valid punishment for an ‘upper caste’ man to cohabit with ‘lower caste’ women but if an ‘upper caste’ woman did the same, the punishment she received would be as severe as that imposed on a ‘lower caste’ man. As per the laws laid down in the Manusmriti, it was only ‘upper caste’ men who enjoyed power and freedom.
These long-standing hierarchies and discriminatory practices are starkly relevant in light of the news of the ‘upper caste’ panchayat held in Uttar Pradesh’s Hathras which expressed support for the accused in the gang-rape of the 19-year-old Dalit woman from Boolgarhi village on September 14.
Acutely aware of the caste-based panchayat judicial system in India, B.R. Ambedkar campaigned to bestow us with a constitution which did not discriminate along the lines of caste, creed or sex. These caste-based panchayats unjustly exploited, discriminated and punished the ‘lower’ castes in general and Valmikis in particular.
A shudder ran through me as I read that caste-based panchayats are being openly organised to challenge the processes laid down by the judiciary and the constitution.
These panchayats are a part of a larger design to bring back the laws of the Manusmriti and strip Dalits of the rights provided to them by the constitution. We, the progressive voices of the nation, should take cognisance of these developments and stop such caste-based, Manu-inspired, panchayats. Otherwise, we will again regress to the times when the punishment of ‘crime’, rather than the crime itself, were defined through the caste identity of the accused.
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This is especially crucial in individuals who