Print edition : June 03, 2011

SENIOR Communist Party of India leader Deva Perinban, who is also a historian, said the oor panchayat system in Dharmapuri district had a 500-year-old history. When people shifted from pastoral life to agriculture, the independent tribal councils transformed into caste-based outfits. Later, the nattu gounder' and oor gounder' systems evolved. Eighteen villages (18 patti) came under the jurisdiction of each nadu', with each village having its own oor gounder. The oor gounder was assisted by manthiris' (ministers) and kolkarars' (messengers).

Under this system, which thrived during the pre-Independence era, the property of issueless persons automatically went to the nattu gounder after their demise. The gounder inherited a stick (to beat the accused) and a rope (to tie him/her if necessary) from his forefathers. Muscle power and valour were considered the prerequisites for becoming a nattu gounder. A circa 18th century copper plate speaks of the chieftain of Krishnagiri, Jagadevaraya, selecting for the post of nattu gounder a person who killed more persons than his rival in a fight.

The nattu gounder was empowered to punish an accused person by making him/her carry a head-load of stones and walk around the village. Those who opposed his verdict were subjected to social boycott. To identify such a person's house, neem twigs and cow bones were tucked into its roof.

Those who defied the decree were not allowed to worship at the village temple. Their communication links were cut off and even water was not given to them, Perinban said. The practice of forcing the victim to carry a head-load of stones existed in many parts of the district until recently.

The nattu gounder system degenerated further and took the form of katta panchayats, particularly in the urban and semi-urban areas, in the past three decades. These extrajudicial bodies were run by musclemen and the neo-rich, he added.

Describing the sham courts as remnants of the feudal order, Perinban said democratic civil life could be ensured only if their unlawful activities were stopped. He urged the government to take the initiative to hold a public debate on the issue before enacting a special law to ban them.

S. Dorairaj
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