When justice gets perverted

A society which permits ‘moral guardians’ to flourish, flouts every law and violates the very idea of justice.

It is said that a society will be judged by the way it treats its weakest members. Indian society is supposed to be based on the laws of dharma. But, if one goes by what happened in West Bengal a fortnight ago, our society is not just backward. It is archaic in every sense of the word. A 20-year-old tribal girl from the village of Subalpur was awarded a bizarre punishment for the “crime” of loving a man outside her own community.

The village headman convened a meeting of the elders who decided to punish the hapless lovers by slapping an exorbitant fine on them. The “guilty” man paid the fine but the woman could not. As a result, the elders passed judgement and punishment of forced rape by a dozen men. It is a strange coincidence that just as the country is waking up to the horror of rape following several instances occurring in the capital and other major cities, here is one instance of gang rape ordered and executed by the authorities themselves! When law courts, including the Supreme Court, are engaged in battling this heinous crime perpetrated on women, here is a kangaroo court in a remote village encouraging it wholeheartedly.

The incident not only highlights the primordial attitudes of a patriarchal society, but it also unveils the vigilantism that is strongly prevalent in the country’s tribal districts which follow their own patterns of law and justice. Village councils presided by the elders and kangaroo courts which dispense justice are a common feature in rural areas. These councils adopt outlandish moral or ethical codes that must be followed by residents even if they strangely clash with modern times.

Moral guardians

Marriage is one institution where they exercise total control as to who should marry whom. This is enforced not so much as to continue tradition, but more to accommodate property rights. Inter marriage is taboo because it may dilute claims over land and house. So, kangaroo courts and village councils that represent themselves as the moral guardians of society are actually terrorists who intimidate and browbeat their victims. A society which permits these “moral guardians” to survive and flourish, flouts every law and violates the very idea of justice. Where is the much touted dharma in such a society?

As eminent economist Amartya Sen pointed out in his treatise on justice, there is a subtle difference between “neethi” and “nyaya” based on ancient Indian tradition itself. While the former may enunciate rules and procedures of behaviour in institutions like marriage, the latter takes a broader and more kind view in these matters. This eloquent interpretation of the true meaning of justice is unfortunately misunderstood in this country where women suffer the repercussions of their actions, while their male counterparts escape. Whether it is marriage, prostitution or any other relationship, the “neethi” is applied to the weaker sex only. Besides, kangaroo courts hardly qualify for the idea of justice, since they have their own laws and rules of conduct and the verdict is already decided before the trial of a convicted person. There is no question of fairness in these trials which are arbitrarily conducted by self styled judges.

This discrimination starts from early childhood itself. The girl child is loaded with domestic chores and deprived of proper schooling. Whether in urban or rural, it is the same. Boys have the privilege of uninterrupted study, whereas the girl child drops out of school after the primary stage or even earlier. Schools themselves offer few facilities or incentives for girls to study. In rural and tribal areas, they are inaccessible, possess no amenities, or are staffed by men teachers which are all deterrents to study. Such educational deprivation leads on to economic exploitation later. Women are employed in unskilled tasks, paid lesser wages and suffer other hardships in the workplace.

Is it any wonder that violence and discrimination against women has become so deeply entrenched in this country? The horrors perpetrated on them in tribal courts like this one is only a reflection of the larger malaise. Whether it is a woman belonging to a higher social strata that is gang raped, or a tribal girl suffering the same fate through a make shift court, they both point to a society that is harsh, inhuman and primitive.

When a woman, a tribal woman, an uneducated tribal woman, a poor uneducated tribal woman – she is weak on all four counts - suffers such indignities, it exposes a social order that is positively ailing. Indian society cannot claim to follow any kind of dharma as long as it continues to neglect its weakest citizens.

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