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India village courts wield excess authority over personal matters

India's village courts, or jaat panchayats, are not to be tangled with

Mangal Singh Kamble, 31, was married in June but lost his bride the same day, after their union was rejected by an informal and powerful village court.

The unofficial court in western India, one of thousands of community tribunals that operate outside India's Constitution, ruled that Kamble's Hindu wedding ceremony had not taken place "according to community norms," including a test to determine whether the bride was a virgin. Kamble, who views virginity testing as inhumane and rejects the informal court's authority, suspects a different reason.

"The motive was to extort money," the civil service student said. The council members demanded about $800 to settle the matter and annulled the marriage after he refused to pay or to subject his bride to the virginity test, he said.

Villages in many parts of India, including here in the western state of Maharashtra, adhere to the rules of the councils. Experts say that most of the nearly 10,000 castes and tribes in Maharashtra have such independently functioning courts, known as jaat panchayats, which do not accept the authority of government courts and which claim jurisdiction over personal matters including weddings, domestic disputes and even murder.

No laws explicitly ban such courts, which mete out fines and other forms of punishment such as ostracism and, in some cases, sexual abuse, including ordering women to have sex with men. Maharashtra's top official, Devendra Fadnavis, last month described such practices as a "social evil" and promised a law to address the issue — but as of now, the courts continue to function.

Presided over by men whose positions are hereditary, such courts proliferated under British rule as a way to settle disputes outside the colonial justice system. During proceedings, the judges sit on platforms to adjudicate matters while the accused sit on the ground.

Women are barred from attending, though they often endure the worst treatment.

Activists described cases in which women accused of crimes were forced to retrieve a coin from a vat of boiling oil or walk 21 steps with a scorching ax, on the theory that if a girl is innocent, she won't receive burns.

Those who avoid the courts or refuse to accept a ruling are often shunned by fellow villagers, activists say. Low levels of education and a lack of faith in India's slow-moving justice system also compel villagers to follow the edicts of the informal courts.

"The idea was to solve meager community disputes without making a fuss out of it, but the panchayat started considering itself the custodian of its caste, resulting in despicable outcomes," said Krishna Chandgude, president of the Nasik branch of Andhashraddha Nirmoolan Samiti, or the Committee for Eradication of Blind Faith, a statewide advocacy group.

The issue gained national attention in June 2013, when a village council in Nasik, three hours by road from Mumbai, authorized a father to strangle his pregnant teenage daughter to death in order to lift a boycott imposed on the family because she had married outside the caste.

Before this tragedy, police rarely filed complaints against the councils, which are widely believed to function with the tacit approval of local authorities.

In 2012, village leaders in the district of Ahmadnagar in central Maharashtra blamed 50-year-old Shantabai Shinde for the death of her husband. But after she filed a court case to clear her name, her Vaidu community's village council conducted an unusual test to determine her innocence: It made her chew rice and spit it out.

The council said the rice was "drier than it should have been" after she spat, said her son, Avinash, a rickshaw driver. Council leaders demanded that she strip naked and wade into a river, fined her more than $3,700 and ordered villagers to shun her.

The family was boycotted for 2 1/2 years, he said, adding that the rice test was retaliation for filing a court case that challenged the council's authority.

Under the boycott, "nobody would give us food. We were not even allowed to attend any social events. It was complete isolation," the son said. After the family filed a police complaint, village heads would barge into their house at odd hours and threaten to rape and kill his mother, he said.

Local officials intervened and members of the council were jailed. In March, the council was dissolved entirely.

In the case of Kamble, whose marriage was annulled, the social boycott continues.

In Kamble's Kanjarbhat tribe, the village council typically conducts a virginity test on the wedding day: The bride and groom are given a white bedsheet on which to spend their first night together, during which council members celebrate outside the house with meat and alcohol.

The next morning, if the bedsheet is bloodstained — considered a sign that the bride was a virgin — she passes the test and the council approves the marriage.

Kamble refused to submit his bride to the test, but the woman, under pressure, signed a letter supporting the council's decision, he said. Neither the woman nor her family could be reached for comment.

A member of the Kanjarbhat council, Vijay Gagde, refused to answer questions when reached by phone. In a recent article in Tehelka, an Indian publication, Gagde defended the practice, saying that without chastity tests, "rapes will happen everywhere."

Kamble said local police rejected his request to file a complaint against the annulment.

"A practice that has no place in the constitution is aided by those who are part of it," Kamble said.

He has since been looking for another bride who would agree to forgo the virginity test, but nearly every woman's family has insisted on it, fearing the community would question her character.

"No family would accept me because of the fear of the panchayat," he said.

In February, Kamble met the daughter of a distant relative and the two have agreed to tie the knot. But he has one more obstacle to overcome: He has to persuade her to reject the virginity test.

Parth M.N. is a special correspondent. Times staff writer Shashank Bengali in Mumbai contributed to this report.

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