Seminars and Workshop (2011-2012)

 New Perspectives on Village Judicial Assemblies and Customary Law in Tamil Nadu


IFP – CEIAS, and with the support of Just-India

The scope of scholarly knowledge of the procedures and practices of village judicial assemblies and more largely of Tamil customary law is extremely limited. For one, during the colonial period, tamil customary law was never codified unlike some other regions of the British Empire. When questioning how they should deal with issues of caste customs, the British judicial administration by and large took the view of caste as a self governing body entitled to adjudicate according to custom and finally, in 1827, caste questions where expressly excluded from the cognizance of civil courts.

Besides the meagre information provided by the colonial literature on this issue, the academic input over the last fifty years has been relatively fragmented both from an anthropological and historical point of view. Since the wave of village studies has withered away in the 60s, little ethnographical attention has been given, especially in this region, to the actual procedures and processes which shape contemporary practices of caste-based judicial assemblies. Instead, researchers’ attention has been largely framed by the paradigms of legal pluralism examining the decision making processes of villagers when choosing the forum(s) in which to settle their disputes, emphasising the pragmatic evaluations they make of the advantages of state law versus local caste custom. These stimulating studies examine motivations, strategies and outcome but unfortunately rarely shed light on the actual procedures and transformations of caste-based judicial assemblies.

Following Independence and the drafting of the Constitution, the Indian State did not take any steps to legislate, for or against, these caste-based judicial assemblies, leaving them in the shade of a constitutional void. There have been several feeble attempts to set up government-sponsored local judicial assemblies (nyaya panchayat) as a door-step access to state justice but these have largely failed to be functional, trusted or properly funded in most Indian states. Instead, the traditional or non-state caste-based judicial assemblies have continued to adjudicate conflicts in a wide number of rural areas. The judgments passed by these non-state panchayats have not only co-existed alongside state-law but in many instances the decisions and judgments taken ‘under the banyan tree’ were recognized and accepted by the judges sitting in the courtrooms.

However this status quo is coming to an end in several parts of the country. In Tamil Nadu, since 2003, several court cases involving ‘panchayattars’, that is the men who adjudicate in village judicial assemblies, have put these non-state panchayats in the firing line of both the government and the media. The latter first expressed their surprise at the very existence of these assemblies and the pervasive hold of customary law on local rural society which was thought by many to be obsolete. Subsequently, a number of judges and government officials began to contemplate a ban of these “criminal courts” thereby drawing attention to the ongoing disjunction both between State law and non-state law most acutely felt within the growing urban-rural divide. The present day situation is a very real turning point for these non-state panchayats which the Tamil government is promising to do away with. In a foreseeable future, these panchayats will either cease to be held openly or simply disappear under the threat of lawsuits.

An important step has been taken to improve our knowledge and understanding of these assemblies in both with the EAP 314 project and the EAP 458 project. However, though gathering archival information is both crucial and urgent (much of the material is rapidly deteriorating), the documents digitized do not shed light on the contemporary shape and function of caste courts and Tamil customary law. Hence, within the framework of the Caste, Land and Custom project, we will be organizing several workshops and seminars  to broaden our understanding and knowledge on village judicial assemblies and Tamil customary law.

Forthcoming events

November 2011

Experimental Workshop on the knowledge and practice of Tamil customary law

In collaboration with the History Department, Pondichery University

January 2012

Multidisciplinary Seminar on Caste Customs and Representations of Non-State Law in Tamil Nadu.

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