Think of the words 'caste panchayat', and all the wrong images typically jump into our heads - innumerable, helpless victims of one form or oppression or another. But in the tiny Korchi tehsil in Maharashtra's Gadchiroli district, the tyrannical iron mask of the jaat panchayat has begun to soften. The institution is adopting a more humane, gender sensitive approach. In the last five years, through the efforts of a local organisation - Amhi Amchya Arogyasathi (AAA) - working in the areas of gender and rural health, women have started participating in the proceedings of the caste panchayats, which were traditionally all-male bodies. And this has had significant impact on the way cases relating to women are being handled by the panchayats.

The idea for this unique experiment has its seeds in years of observation and study. Says Shubhada Deshmukh of AAA, "It is true that the jaat panchayat body is traditionally an all male affair and the judgements passed by it mostly go against women. But we found that this institution does offer women certain advantages that the legal system does not. For example, a woman, though alone, can still speak in her own language within a milieu known to her, and be understood; the process of justice is quick; the paperwork and expenses involved are far less than in normal court procedures. Also, since the panchayat is held in the village itself, repeated commuting costs [that would be incurred by taking matters to court] are also cut down."

Illustration of women in attendance at caste panchayat After the Panchayat Extension in Scheduled Areas Act (PESA) was passed, and local self-governing bodies including the jaat panchayats were recognised under it, Shubhada and other activists began to wonder if the structure of the institution could be altered to ensure better participation and justice to women. "We first conducted surveys and workshops in five districts, and floated the idea with several organisations working in the area of women and tribal welfare in the state in the year 2000. But due to the negative image of the caste panchayats, all organisations except Janarth Adivasi Vikas Prakalpa, working in Nandurbar district chose not to take up the idea", says Shubhada.

The idea was not very well implemented in Nandurbar, unfortunately; in Gadchiroli the AAA chose the Korshi tehsil for initial trial of this idea. "For months in the beginning," says AAA activist from Korchi, Kumari Jamkatan, "We talked to the local women on the idea of participating in the caste panchayats. We presented the ideas in the Korchi cluster federation of self help groups (SHGs), and though initially doubtful the women responded positively to the idea of participating in the jaat panchayat."

Caste panchayats

The caste panchayat is a body of the elders of a particular caste, who hear and resolve conflicts among members of the caste. The smallest unit of the caste panchayat is the village or tola, and a village may have one panchayat each for every caste community living in it. The federation of several panchayats in the area might be a sort of higher body where appeals might be made against the decisions of the village caste panchayat. The federations also periodically review and revise the rules governing the social life of a community, and form a platform for collective introspection. The caste panchayat has been given indirect recognition under the Panchayats (Extension in Scheduled Areas) Act, which considers the gram sabha "competent to safeguard and preserve the traditions and customs of the people, their cultural identity, community resources and the customary mode of dispute resolution."

In Tribal caste panchayats in Central India, the audience forms an important part of the arbitration process. The elders, after hearing both sides of a case, ask for the audiences' opinion, and this latter inflences the final judgement significantly.

The activists also discussed the idea with the nyaya pramukhs (justice elders) of the panchayats and their federations. "Though the idea was not received with overt enthusiasm, there was no opposition from the elders either." says Kumari. After months of preparation, the first opportunity to actually participate came in the case of Hirit Kunwar Hidami, a Gond tribal woman of Paknabhatti village.

"My father-in-law was making life miserable for me and my husband over property squabbles," recalls Hirit Kunwar, "Repeated jaat panchayats had been called, but they always blamed me for the problem and fined me. My father-in-law is the village priest, and he used his clout to victimise me." Hirit Kunwar presented her case in the cluster federation, and the women of the federation called the caste panchayat for a fresh hearing of the case - with one important difference from the usual situation. This time the case would be heard in the presence of women, who would attend in significant numbers.

"The panchayat heard both parties, and then asked the audience for its opinion, as is the standard procedure," says Kumari, "The women squarely blamed the father-in-law and said that the property should be divided equally between him and Hirit Kunwar’s husband, and the two ordered to live separately." The nyaya pramukhs of the panchayat found the decision fair, and it was implemented.

In another case, that of Shantibai Watti of Saleh village, the women opined that if her alcoholic and violent husband harassed her again, his house and land should be made over to Shantibai. The pramukhs, who had till then done little else in the case but to fine both husband and wife repeatedly, accepted this idea, and a written accord to this effect was made. Since then, the SHGs in villages have started making it a point to attend cases pertaining to women and giving their opinion.

The nyaya pramukh of the Gond caste panchayat of Jambhli village, Vadiji Madavi, who has actively undertaken the cause of women's participation in the caste panchayat says, "Cases pertaining to women are solved better when women are present. A woman all alone among men finds it difficult to speak, and the men don't empathise with her problem as well as women do. In my own village the number of women attending the panchayat is rising, and there are plans to get women elected as nyaya pramukhs in a year or two." To date, AAA has worked with the caste panchayats of the Gond and Kawar tribes. "It will take some time for us to start work with the panchayats of the various Dalit communities in the area, but the acceptability of the idea is on the rise," says Kumari.

Meanwhile, the Gond caste panchayat federation of Korchi has nominated three women to its standing committee. "The committee holds meetings during which ideas regarding improving the community's customs and laws are discussed," says Kumari, "Through these women, we are raising issues like the rising alcoholism among Gond men. Proposals for reducing the heavy costs involved in Gond weddings, and banning liquor during the celebrations, have also received positive response in the committee meetings, and these are already being implemented in many villages."

"Earlier we women were intimidated by the jaat panchayat. A woman who had never seen one was considered lucky. But now we are no longer afraid," says Rohelinbai Baghdehria, who has attended caste panchayats in many cases. Adds Kamlabai Jamkatan, the elderly treasurer of the cluster federation, "I have grown up regarding the jaat panchayat with awe and fear, and now in my old age I have attended 4-5 panchayats. And I find that there is nothing to fear at all!"