How to recover common property. India's informal courts

By Aya Ikegame · 23 July 2012

One morning in December 2011, I was sitting with more than one hundred people, many of who came from nearby villages. In the large hall, which many did not hesitate to call a ‘court’, we were waiting for the sole judge to appear. This was of course not a formal legal court but an informal arbitration court called the ‘nyaya peetha’ (seat of justice) established and run by Dr Shivamurthy Swamiji, the guru of an influential Hindu matha, Taralabalu Brihanmath, in central Karnataka, south India.

On that day, there were more than ten cases being discussed, some had final judgement and several new cases were brought into the court. There were family disputes: a husband would not pay any maintenance for his first wife after his so-called ‘second’ marriage, a young woman and her father wanted her dowry returned after a failed marriage. The court heard the criminal case of a man who had tried to kill his ‘co-brother’ (their wives are sisters) over a few thousands pound of debt (the guru advised them to go to the police). Many of the accounts given by the petitioners were serious and despairing, but the way in which some of them narrated their problems was so full of sharp sarcasm and irony that the audience could not help laughing.

In another case, villagers asked the guru for help in getting more water to their irrigation tank. We saw several women sobbing over their misfortune. Photos of a poor man badly injured after his co-brother’s attack were shown. In the middle of an intense hearing, a local politician (a member of the state assembly) in a spotless white kulta suddenly came in and touched the feet of the guru. He then informed the audience that there would be a big celebration to mark the completion of lift irrigation (for which the guru had negotiated with a succession of irrigation ministers over the past 30 years).

Amongst many cases of grievances, one particularly exemplified the problems of local society in contemporary India. It showed why the largest democracy in the world needs this kind of informal court, outside of the formal legal system. The case was a dispute between residents of one village (which I shall call K village) and a man who purchased land that once belonged to the village temple. Villagers claimed that he should give up the land for the temple so that they could reassume the worship there. The man, who was the legal proprietor of the land, looked dispirited while villagers accusing him of being unethical.

The guru told me that he had several similar cases in his ‘court’ concerning the temple land. The conflict over temple land has its origins in the progressive land reform, the slogan of which was ‘land to the tiller’, introduced in the 1970s and early 1980s in order to distribute agricultural land to landless labourers who often hailed from lower castes or were Dalits (former Untouchables) and Adivasis (formally called tribes). The government set a limit to the size of the land one person could own, and the remainder was to be distributed amongst cultivators who worked on the land but did not previously own any. The problem was that the lands which had belonged to the temples and other religious institutions were also included in this new legislation. Many temples had some land attached to them. Cultivators of the temple land would donate some portion of income to the temple so that the priest and others would be paid and could continue necessary rituals in the temple. Cultivators did not own the land. No one owned the temple land.

After the introduction of the land reform, which aimed to create a fairer society, many villagers decided to keep a certain size of land (below the limit set by the government) under the name of their trusted person, typically a village head, or the temple priest. Villagers informed the state authority that their chosen person had been the cultivator of the particular land for the sake of saving their temple land as common property. In the case of K village, temple land was divided into several portions and distributed amongst people (including Dalits) who were responsible for necessary daily tasks (sweeping, cleaning, lighting candles etc.) to maintain the temple. But the largest portion was entrusted directly priest. Multi-layered responsibilities, honours, and status within the social life of the village were translated into a single measure of land.

The deals that many villages secretly had finally came to an end in the last few years. In one case at the guru’s court, the trusted village head who was supposed to be a mere custodian of the temple land decided to transfer it to his children. The animosity between the villagers and the village head became uncontrollable and soon culminated in a riot. Several people were arrested. And the village head is still not able to go out of his house without police protection.

In the case of the K village, the largest portion of the temple land had been trusted to the temple priest who had been officiating temple rituals for generations. The priest, who was also working for a local post office, had decided to sell the land after having moved to the city several years ago. The man, who was accused by the villagers in the guru’s court, purchased the land from the priest. Since the departure of the priest, there was no ritual performed in the temple. The villagers were frustrated by the shameful state of their temple. More than a hundred villagers belonging to different caste groups came to the guru’s court. The guru ordered them to come back with a couple of representatives not an entire village!

On day I attended the ‘court’, four or five young men, dressed very smartly, were representing the village. The defendant resisted the demand from the villagers to give up the land. He said that if other people who received the portion of the temple land return their land, he would do the same. The guru dismissed this as an impossible demand since it would destroy many lives among still destitute people. According to the guru, the defendant was not a poor farmer but a landlord for whom the contested temple land was a small addition to his vast assets. The guru proposed to both sides three possible resolutions: the defendant pays the fees of running the temple rituals, the defendant puts some money in trust and uses the interest for temple rituals, or he returns the land and villagers compensate the money. By any of these ways, the K village will be regarded as a model village and the defendant will earn fame, the guru said. The defendant was still not happy.

It remains unclear what the defendant of the K village is going to do. Legally he is the owner of the land and therefore it is up to him to decide how it should be used. The guru said to the defendant: ‘you are legally right, but morally wrong’. Legality does not necessarily uphold morality. This is the very space where his ‘court’ functions as a final resort for the people. Here, people might not make a legal challenge but they can still seek justice. Legally villagers could not possibly contest the rights of a legal owner. It would be difficult for the first wife to win the maintenance even if legally it is her right. No state authority forces her husband to pay the legally defined amount (which is very little anyway), but the guru probably can. The woman and her father cannot possibly go to the formal civil court and demand that her estranged  husband’s family return the large dowry since the practice of dowry-giving itself is illegal.

It is perhaps wrong to assume that the popularity of the guru’s court in Karnataka is simply the result of the malfunctioning of the state. It is true to some extent but not the only answer. What is happening at the same time is the decline of local level self-regulatory functions. The villagers could not solve their problems amongst themselves. The village heads no longer hold the authoritative voice to decide what is wrong and right. Extended families cannot protect their women any more. Common property, such as the temple land in the K village, is legally vulnerable but morally essential. It seems that there are so many people and so many villages struggling to have justice in this contested terrain.

I hope that the religious authority of Dr Shivamurthy Swamiji and others is not the only solution but it is no doubt that citizens in central Karnataka are fortunate to have his ‘court’ serving their need.

About the author

  • Aya Ikegame

    Research Associate
    Aya Ikegame
    The Open University
    After completing her PhD in Social Anthropology at the University of Edinburgh in 2007 (a historical anthropological study of the South Indian kingdom of Mysore) Dr Aya Ikegame won an ESRC... Read more

Oecumene: Citizenship after Orientalism is funded by an European Research Council (ERC) Advanced Grant (Institutions, values, beliefs and behaviour ERC-AG-SH2).

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