Tuesday, December 11, 2007

A People's Court for the High Seas

Sea Courts: Reviving Traditions to Fight Social Strife

By N P Chekkutty

The sudden spurt in violent incidents in the coastal regions of South India, especially in the south-western coast consisting of Kerala and Karnataka, has given rise to intensive searches for lasting solutions.

When Kerala’s northern coast saw a series of violent clashes between the Muslim and Hindu fisherfolk in the Communist-dominated vilage called Marad in Kozhikode, during the past few years, the State Government found that they have no effective strategy to counter the spread of virulent forms of communalism, except using the increasingly ineffective measures of policing the entire region. When the first of these clashes took place three years ago, there were three deaths and when the counter violence took place exactly one year later, there were as many as nine deaths in the course of one night of an orgy of violence between the two communities.

There were other flash points in the entire coastal region, like Vizhinjam in the deep south district of Thiruvananthapuram, Thaikkal in Alapuzha in the middle of the state and Marad in the north, besides many minor incidents in other areas.

“It is a worrying situation because these coastal regions are now being converted to communal hot-spots while till some years ago there were no such incidents of communal division among the fisher people,” says V K Prabhakaran, a social activist who hails from Chombala, a fishermen village in North Kerala where recent years have witnessed deep divisions on religious lines among the people.

“It is important to remember that the traditional methods applied by the State to protect the innocent people, like policing are proving to be failures as the ideology of communalism is spreading,” says a scholar at the Calicut University’s history department who had done a thorough study of the development of communal politics in the North Kerala coastal region. The helplessness of the State was evident when A K Antony, then chief minister of Kerala, had to plead with the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) leadership in Marad for permission to visit the village in the aftermath of the nine killings there in the course of one night. In Marad, where the entire Muslim population had to leave the village for safety and spent months together in relief camps, the Government was reduced to the role of a helpless onlooker while it was the communal elements of both sides who took control of the situation.

The developments in Marad, Thaikkal and Vizhinjam also point to another serious turn of events in the Kerala coasts: While most of these villages were traditionally under the Communist domination, they are now fast becoming communal hot-spots with divisive communalist ideologies replacing the left-wing politics. It is a classic case of secular politics giving way to communal frenzy: During elections the fisher folk often vote the left and when communal divisions rage they take up the knives on behalf of either the Hindu or the Muslim or the Christian communal forces.

For example, Marad is a village that falls in the Beypore panchayat in Kozhikode, traditionally a Communist stronghold. Its fisher population consist of mainly the Hindu Arayas and the Muslims, both involved in the deep-sea fishing for many generations. The Hindus voted mainly for Communists while the Muslims were either supporters of Muslim League or the Communist Party. The communal outfits came on the scene only recently but they are very powerful now. The gram panchayat is controlled by the CPM, the local member of the Legislative Assembly is a businessman who was elected on the CPM ticket and the Member of Parliament representing the region is also a CPM leader who defeated the Muslim League candidate in the predominantly Muslim seat of Manjeri in the 2004 Lok Sabha elections. Still, when the two series of of clashes took place in the span of a few months, there were no traces of the Communists defending the secular domain because most of them had been fighting on behalf of either of two comunal groups or had fled themselves to safety.

The State Government officials have said that of the hundreds of persons arrested and chargesheeted in these cases, a large number belonged to the CPM and many others had either Muslim League or Congress backgrounds showing the infiltration of communal ideology into the mainstream political parties holding power in the state. A K Antony, senior Congress leader who had to lay down office as chief minister following criticism of his mishandling of the communal siuation, had accused the left parties of protecting and encouraging communal elements. But his own party’s records are no better because it has won power with Muslim League as ally and has also enlisted the RSS support to win elections. Pinarayi Vijajan, CPM State secretary, has denied the charges that his party members were involved in the communal incidents. But the complicity of left-party workers and supporters in these incidents is palabale. A study conducted by a group of scholars from the Calicut Uiversity had pinpointed the fact while tracing the history of communal politics in Marad. Intriguingly, the defence team for those accused in Marad case is led by a well-known CPM leader who happens to be a famous criminal lawyer in Kerala.

It is the Catch22 situation of the increasing criminalization and communalization of mainstream politics that has led to a search for a new, grassroots level, and people oriented solution to the tragedy. “It is necessary for us to reinvent the strong elements in our tradition and culture which helped us survive for centuries as one society remarkably peaceful and homogeneous”, asserts Civic Chandran, poet and social activist who organized a major conclave of national-level activists in Kozhikode recently to discuss alternative methods to fight such evils. The conclave was attended, among others, by well known activists like Sunita Narain, director of the Delhi-based Centre for Science and Environment, and C K Janu, tribal leader.

One of the suggestions that came up during discussions among activists and social scientists was the need to revive traditional systems of disputes redress and grassroots level democracy like the sea courts, said Tommy Mathew who was instrumental in organizing another conclave in Delhi as a follow up. These two conclaves concluded that the traditional systems of participatory democrary that thrived in the coastal regions of South India helped the region to continue and flourish as a peaceful haven with people of all faiths cohabiting for centuries without friction.

“It is important to remember that for centuries it was the coastal region which remained the points of external contacts in these areas as the outsiders came-- whether they were Arabs, Romans or Europeans like the Dutch,French and the English-- through the sea,” points out a historian who had done extensive research on Kerala’s maritime life. Civic Chandran pointed out that among the institutions of tradition which helped social cohesion, was the system fo sea courts known as kadalkotis in local language, which did a marvellous job of settling disputes among the fisher people for generations. It was, according to him, the most vibrant form of grassroots democracy with its own methods of hearing complaints, arbitrations, penalties and appeals helping the people to settle their disputes among themselves.

“These courts were so effective that even the British authorities in Malabar had accepted their verdict as legitimate in maritime disputes,”said V K Prabhakaran, who had witnessed the proceedings of such courts in his village many years ago. He recalls that they were very effective as they consisted of representatives of all boat-owners in the region and had elected office-bearers who belonged to various communities and their verdicts were accepted by all those who belonged to the area of its jurisdiction. If anyone refused to abide by its ruling, they could not operate in the region because of social boycott as the courts held a great moral authority owing to its roots in tradition. But they allowed complainants and defendants to appeal and there were cases that had gone up to as many as four appeal courts in recent memory. These appeal courts were formed, as the need arose, enlisting the immediate neighbouring sea courts to the north and south of the one that had heard the original case.

But post-Independence, sea courts were on a declining course as the civil and police authorities failed to recognize their important role, says Prabhakaran. In fact, in his own village the sea court decided to discontinue its operations back in the seventies following the interference of police authorities who thought they were encroaching upon their territory. The sea court decided to disband itself in protest, eventually leaving the space of social intervention to political parties, trade unions, commission agents and communal organizations.

Now the disastrous consequences are visible everywhere: The entire coastal belt is in the grip of evil forces who have successfully divided the society and play havoc with human lives. The civil authorities are groping in the dark for a lasting solution. We can only restore a life of social harmony only if we could revive some of these institutions which stood the test of times for hundreds of years, assert social activists and thinkers who advocate traditional solutions to contemporary problems of social strife.

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