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A war won & a battle lost… When police treated complaint as dispute, not criminal act

By Gagan Sethi*

The ingenious means of exploitation in tradition-bound villages of Bhal of Cambay taluka could well remind you of the feudal system.
One such tradition was of members of so-called upper caste in the area — the Durbars— paying money to members of another caste — Bharwads —to steal bullock carts of any Vankar who had acquired this asset (also a sign of economic and social mobility).
After the initial shock, he would get the message via community elders (called mahetars) that if he needed his cart back, he should visit the durbar who would ask him to pay Rs1,500 to Rs3,000 in return for the cart.
We heard of such an incident on one of our visits to Pandad village where we were to train a youth group in 1980. We told the group they should file a police complaint. The nearest police station being Cambay (now Khambhat), we asked if there isn’t a rule of law. There is, we were told. One has to seek permission of the durbar to go to the police station. After a lot of cajoling and a day of deliberations — discussions were done about consequences of ‘waging war’ against durbars and chances of not being paid for work on the field — one landless youth agreed. His father had recently died and he said there would be no pressure on him.
A dozen of us went to the police station and registered the complaint before a PSI whose first words were “Patayi do ne…. (just settle it).” Since we insisted and there was a man from the city in the group, the complaint was filed and a copy taken. However, it took us the whole day. The news had reached the village ahead of us. The Vankar elders were angry at such a transgression and were planning to apologise on behalf of these “juvaniyas” (youngsters).
We returned after telling the group that if they needed any help, they could get in touch with us. Five days later, when we had not heard anything, we got worried and rushed to the village. Just as we entered, the youth group gathered around us, very excited, “We have won!” they beamed. Asked what the police did, they said “We have withdrawn the case. The durbar has agreed to return a new cart.” We were shocked! “Did you say ‘won’? We have lost the battle!” we cried. They said that it had been proved that the durbar was a thief. Else, why would he have given them a new cart, they argued. “We have won the war. Now it will never be repeated,” they said.
The matter was treated as a dispute and not a criminal act. This blurring of understanding of ‘Rule of Law’ continues till today and many police stations, taluka and district judges support the process of ‘compromise’ even when the act is blatantly criminal.
Many years later, I was part of the drafting committee of nyaya panchayat Act with Dr Upendra Baxi, a renowned jurist. Everything was drafted, complete with provisions of designated space for women and dalits and having the possibility of trained paralegals at the village level to settle disputes under the frame work of the Constitution and separate criminal offences from dispute resolution. The Act was shelved as the then government preferred the Gram Nyayalaya, creating another rung of judiciary. Its day must come!

*Author is founder of Janvikas & Centre for Social Justice. First published in DNA

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