Sunday, October 5, 2008

Sea Courts in Malabar Coast: A People’s Judiciary from Ancient Past

IS DEMOCRACY a modern concept? Nope, even ancient Athenians knew how to run a society on democratic lines though when they thought of demos they thought only about the elite. Women and slaves had no role in the demos' rule in Athenian city states. Neither the Romans thought they counted. For that matter, even the British and Americans accepted that women, blacks and other oppressed segments were part of the demos only recently.

Still, democracy has always been considered a Western concept thanks mainly to the fact that contemporary forms of parliamentary democracy are indeed a British contribution to the world. So those of us in the East tended to eulogize and even idealize our ancient monarchies, our caste ridden social structures that continued for centuries holding up progress and spread of universal human values in a decadent society that Karl Marx had described as Asiatic, especially with reference to Indian caste system. He felt it was a society that lacked creativity, that held up economic progress and prevented capitalist growth as, mainly, it was a social system promoted by and maintained for the status quo.

But the question whether democracy was alien to eastern societies has always been asked. Though it is generally agreed that it was colonialism that brought in modern technology to these societies, demolishing their status quo with introduction of railways, telegraph, speed boats and guns, recent studies have pointed out a variety of institutions that indicate a vibrant society at the grassroots which upsets the traditional understanding of Asian societies as generally static.

One of these unique institutions surviving even to this day is the sea courts or kadal kodathi, which used to thrive on the western coastal region of South Asia, mainly on the Arabian Sea coasts of South India. Recently, researching into the social customs of various traditional coastal communities in this long stretch of beaches extending from Kanyakumari, or Cape Comorin as the British used to call it, to the metropolis of Mumbai, which used to be a small fisher island around the temple of Mumba Devi when the British East India Company took it over three centuries ago as a trading post, I realized that in many villages, old customs still thrived, refusing to give in to oblivion.

A traditional justice dispensing system, which the local people describe as kadakoti or kadal kodathi, which means a court for sea-faring people, is one among them. It appears that these unique courts were prevalent in most coastal villages but I had occasion to examine their activities and history only in a limited region, extending from Ponnani in south Malabar to Kasargode at the northern tip of Malabar, a region which has seen quite a bit history in action during the past five hundred years.

Malabar has been a region widely known to Arabs and Europeans as it was one of the primary sources of spices which they coveted from the days of Romans who had a steady trade with this region. The Arabs knew it much closer and travellers like Ibn Batuta, Abdur Rahman and others who came to these shores over a thousand years ago, have extensively written about Malabar and its riches in their accounts. In fact, when Vasco da Gama set out from Lisbon in 15th century one of his main aims was to find a safe and easy sea route to Malabar. As he negotiated the African continent, he came into contact with Arab traders who were familiar with these routes and according to Portuguese contemporary sources, it was an Arab who guided him to Panthalayani, a famous port in Malabar those days.

Thus he reached a small place called Kappad in Malabar, under the local king Zamorin in 1498, seeking trade relations. But the trade and consequent disputes with Muslim merchants who had a monopoly over sea trade from Malabar pitted the Portuguese against Kunhalis, the sea captains of Zamorin, who continued to resist Europeans for over 150 years from early 16th century.

Thus life in coastal villages was not easy or dull even in those distant days. The ports were the first point of contact with external world and hence ever since the Arabs and Portuguese clashed, there were many others like the French, the Dutch and the English who came for trade and later on for colonial aggression. That put the local communities against newcomers, who had not only trade on their agenda, but their particular brand of religion too. The Portuguese were quite aggressive with their kind of Catholic faith, which they made an effort to force upon the local people, including the Malabar Christians who proudly traced their ancestry to the early days of Christianity, claiming they were first baptized by the apostle, St Thomas, himself. As the differences reached a boiling point, the traditional Syrian Christians who intensely disliked the Portuguese and their faith, held a big congregation at a place called Koonan Kurisu, which literally means the cross of the hunch backed, and pledged they would never ever accept foreign domination in religious affairs.

In this long stretch of land, which most foreigners knew as Malabar, there were people with different faiths, like various sea faring castes who were loosely held under Hinduism, the Muslims, Jews and others. Of the fisher communities, many were converted to Christianity, and hence most coastal fishing villages had an eclectic and pluralist society, with Hindu castes like Arayas, Mokayas, Mukkuvas and Muslims and Christians cohabiting and going to the sea together for their livelihood.

It was this heterogeneous nature of sea-going people that made it necessary and possible the development of organic forms of participatory democracy at grassroots like sea courts. The sea courts had their own procedures, jurisdiction, forms of petitioning, appeals, evidence taking, arbitrations, etc. They were democratic in their nature and functioning; those who came under its jurisdiction were those who went to the sea from the village in which it operated; its judges were elected by the community from among the boat-owners in the area and their decisions were binding on all those and their families who worked the boats.

Many old people I met said the sea courts were active till a few decades ago. Some remember that during the British rule, which lasted till 1947, the authorities did promote them because they helped them maintain peace and order in the beaches with minimum use for force. But the authorities in free India took a different view and slowly they withered.

Still, they continued to exist and V K Prabhakaran, who hails from a beach in north Malabar, recounts the proceedings of a court he had witnessed in his village. It was a case of assault in high sea and the complainant and the accused belonged to two different communities. It would have caused an ethnic clash, but for the intervention of the sea court. It came to the conclusion that the assault was a sequel to some family disputes between the two. It was a case of violation of a basic tenet: that no disputes in the land should be carried on to the sea and vice versa. Hence the complaint was dismissed without much injury to anyone.

Now that ethnic and communal tensions are routine in beaches, social workers and authorities are exploring traditional systems once again to build social cohesion. Many feel, sea courts could help find solutions for many ills that make South Asian beaches turbulent these days.

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