Print edition : June 03, 2011

Katta panchayats' rule Dharmapuri district despite court orders to the Tamil Nadu government to stamp out these kangaroo courts.

in Dharmapuri

M. PALANIAMMAL WITH her father, K. Singaram, and mother, S. Muthuvedi. The family was ostracised by a kangaroo court in Odasalpatti Pudur village after Palaniammal filed a complaint against her husband and his family under the Domestic Violence Act.-R. ARIVANANTHAM

THE Supreme Court has ordered in unambiguous terms that kangaroo courts (katta panchayats, or oor panchayats in Tamil) must be stamped out ruthlessly. Dismissing two criminal appeals on April 19, the court directed State governments to take action against high-ranking revenue and police officers if they failed to prevent the dispensation of justice through kangaroo courts or to take proper legal action against those who resorted to such extrajudicial acts.

In fact, the Madras High Court has come down heavily on kangaroo courts. However, despite the High Court's directives in 2008 and earlier in 2005 and 2004, little has been achieved in Tamil Nadu in terms of ending the practice.

Social activists point out that Tamil Nadu, which has a long history of struggles for social justice and which has been ruled by Dravidian parties for the past four decades, has a long way to go before the menace can be wiped out.

Reports from various parts of the State have established that katta panchayats headed by feudal-minded persons continue to pass decrees, give verdicts on family disputes, interfere in the personal lives of people, and even encourage atrocities in an institutionalised way.

The atrocities of katta panchayats have reached a new high in Dharmapuri district, which is industrially and educationally backward and is predominantly populated by the Vanniar community, posing a formidable challenge to the administration. Interactions with activists of political parties, women's associations and human rights and non-governmental organisations reveal the different dimensions these extrajudicial bodies have assumed.

In the absence of a proactive role by the law-enforcing agencies and the revenue authorities, katta panchayats continue to hold sway over life in rural Tamil Nadu. The individuals running the unauthorised panchayats help men desert their wives after paying the decreed compensation and allow persons who commit criminal assaults on women to go scot-free after paying paltry sums as solatium to the victims. They delay or scuttle development and welfare projects if the local people come forward to help the government agencies in their implementation, as they feel their word should be law. They do not tolerate any defiance of or opposition to their decisions and do not hesitate to punish those who challenge their authority. Their activities also come in the way of the day-to-day functioning of democratically elected local bodies.

Katta panchayats operate in several villages spread across the five taluks in Dharmapuri district. Their decrees often run counter to the laws of the land. A case in point is the enforcement of a social boycott decreed by one such panchayat against the family of a quarry worker in Odasalpatti Pudur, a small village. M. Palaniammal, a 28-year-old woman, and her parents have been ostracised for lodging a complaint against her husband, who is also her maternal uncle, and some of his relatives under the Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act, 2005.

TALE OF WOE

Recounting her tale of woe, a visibly shaken Palaniammal said she was thrown out of her house following a decision by the oor panchayat. In the Tamil month of Vaikasi (May-June) the oor gounder' [head of the kangaroo court] announced at a village meeting that I could no longer live with my husband, who was asked to give me Rs.1.50 lakh as compensation as the final settlement. By then my husband had decided to live with his first wife. He and his parents had made it clear that they were opposed to our reunion on the grounds that I was not able to bear a child even after eight years of married life.

Palaniammal also recalled that she was not allowed to put forth her views at the oor panchayat meeting as women were seldom allowed to speak in that forum. She was not only denied one-third of the compensation but some of her husband's relatives even prevented her from staying with her parents. Abuses were hurled at her. She and her parents went and stayed with her elder sister.

Against this backdrop, she sought the intervention of the authorities, including the District Collector, the District Protection Officer and the police.

My husband was working in a private foundry in Kerala and he used to visit Odasalpatti Pudur village once in two months or three months for a brief stay. He used to make some snide remarks against me for being childless. All my suggestions to him to undergo fertility tests were ignored. At one stage, he started saying that he wanted to reunite with his first wife, Palaniammal said. According to Palaniammal, her husband's previous marriage had broken up just two years before she married him at a temple on May 24, 2002. The same oor panchayat had settled the case by asking him to pay a certain amount as compensation to the first wife, she claimed. She later realised that her husband, who was 20 years older than her, married her only to take care of his son, born to him by his first wife.

Upon receiving the petition from Palaniammal on January 3, District Protection Officer V. Parvathy summoned her, her husband and their relatives for reconciliation. However, the meeting did not bear any fruit as the relatives of Palaniammal's husband took a tough stand against the reunion of the couple. The Domestic Incident Report submitted by the officer is pending before the judicial magistrate's court in Pappireddipatti. The petition seeks remedy under Sections 19 (residence order), 20 (monetary relief) and 22 (compensation orders) of the Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act.

Interestingly, the oor gounder', K. Ramakrishnan, who awarded the decree in Palaniammal's case, quit the post accusing the extrajudicial body for not ensuring that the settlement was honoured. A new person has taken over as the head of the oor panchayat.

U. VASUKI, GENERAL secretary of the Tamil Nadu unit of AIDWA, calls for concerted efforts to change thefeudal mindset.-P. GANESAN

Palaniammal's is not the only case that has come to the authorities for redress. During the past 18 months, relief and rehabilitation was provided to 15 women through the Social Welfare Department, Parvathy said.

Although the oor panchayats certainly have a gender bias, they have not spared men either. Interestingly, the heads of the kangaroo courts and the victims by and large belong to the same caste.

The victims do not come out openly to expose them as they do not want to antagonise the local people or be ostracised by the community.

These extrajudicial bodies have scant regard for court orders. Even the writ of the political parties does not run in areas that come under the jurisdiction of oor panchayats. Katta panchayats had been resisting political activities in certain areas in the district. However, intervention by the Left, including the Communist Party of India (Marxist), the Communist Party of India and the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist), has resulted in preventing the menace to some extent. This has instilled hope in the minds of the people. Eighty-five per cent of the population in Dharmapuri district lives in rural areas; over 50 per cent of it comes under the category of unorganised workers; and more than 88 per cent of the cultivators are marginal and small farmers. The district has the lowest literacy rate, 64.7 per cent, in Tamil Nadu, according to Census 2011, against the State average of 80.3 per cent.

LEFT INTERVENTION

P. Dillibabu, district secretary of the CPI (M), said though many such cases of atrocities had gone unreported, some had come to light during the past 10 years following the intervention of the Left parties and their mass organisations. In some cases, action had been taken against persons running the oor panchayats, he said.

According to him, in one such case at Mallupatti village in Palacode, a man who was subjected to social boycott by the oor panchayat was not allowed to perform the last rites of his mother. At Tippireddihalli village in Pappireddipatti taluk, though a woman received permission from a court to occupy her mortgaged house after redemption, the decision of the oor panchayat came in the way of implementing the order. In Kalasappadi village in the Sitheri hills, a person who lived with a physically challenged girl without marrying her was allowed to desert her after paying Rs.2,500 as fine.

Oor panchayats do not tolerate persons who seek police intervention in civil or criminal cases. When a newly wed woman committed self-immolation at Pandarahalli village a couple of years ago, her parents took the case to the police. The local kangaroo court swung into action and ostracised the complainants.

P. DILLIBABU, DHARMAPURI DISTRICT secretary of the CPI (M), says katta panchayats take advantage of socio-economic problems and the relatively low literacy rate in the district.-

Kanduvatti (a form of usury), money transactions and land disputes also contribute in a big way to the survival and perpetuation of these panchayats. The cruelty of the extrajudicial body attracted attention in the 1990s when sanitary workers attached to the Dharmapuri municipality had to sell their kidneys to repay loans taken from usurious moneylenders, as per an award given by a katta panchayat, Dillibabu said.

Of late, oor panchayats have turned their ire on the Left parties as they have dared to defy their authority. In one case, the district secretary of the CPI, P. Ilamparithi, and his family members were subjected to social boycott at Elagiriyankottai, his native village, in February 2010. The punishment was awarded in the wake of his opposition to a decision of the oor panchayat to ostracise 35 families of Mundasuburavadai hamlet following a dispute over the construction of a school building under the Education for All scheme. The decree of the oor panchayat has not been withdrawn yet, Ilamparithi said. The CPI has approached the district authorities seeking action against the unlawful activities of the oor panchayats.

The State secretary of the All India Democratic Women's Association (AIDWA), U. Vasuki, stressed the need for drawing a line between community involvement in favour of victims of atrocities and decrees of kangaroo courts. Generally, decrees passed by these extrajudicial bodies justified caste or gender discrimination, she said.

Criticising the attempts to blame women for infertility, more particularly for not bearing a male child, she said it was contrary to scientific findings. She also called for concerted efforts by all stakeholders to change the feudal mindset. Stern action against the culprits would instil fear in the persons who ran kangaroo courts, she opined.

On the role of officials preventing the activities of the kangaroo courts, Vasuki recalled that the State government had issued an order to this effect on December 2, 2003. The High Court had also passed orders against kangaroo courts.

She demanded action against officers who were directly or indirectly accountable in the light of the G.O. and the Supreme Court's direction that the District Magistrate/Collector and Special Superintendent of Police/Superintendent of Police as well as other officials concerned should be immediately suspended and charge-sheeted. She also demanded police protection to the victims and their families.

S. Chrisa Mary, secretary of the district unit of AIDWA, said many decrees of oor panchayats were triggered by the feudal mindset of treating women as a burden to the family and society. Shortly after leading a team of activists to Odasalpatti Pudur village on April 27, she said, the association would conduct a door-to-door survey in the district to ascertain the sufferings of women at the hands of kangaroo courts.

Dillibabu, who is also the vice-president of the Tamil Nadu Malaivaazh Makkal Sangam, an organisation of hill tribes, said katta panchayats were active in many districts and took advantage of problems such as industrial backwardness, labour migration, unemployment and illiteracy.

He called upon the government to uphold the rule of law by taking immediate action against those running these extrajudicial organisations. He also stressed the need for enhancing the basic amenities in rural areas and attending to livelihood issues.

Regional human rights coordinator of People's Watch K.P. Senthil Raja, accused the police of not responding sympathetically to complaints of offences. As the complainants were left in the lurch, they had to rely on kangaroo courts, which practised jungle law, he pointed out.

However, the police claim that they have been taking prompt action whenever katta panchayat cases are reported. Superintendent of Police R. Sudhakar announced that the activities of kangaroo courts would be prevented with the help of village vigilance committees. He said inspectors attached to various police stations in the district had been asked to visit every village under their jurisdiction to study the situation and evolve an action plan to eliminate katta panchayats.

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