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The role of village courts in earlier times

Wednesday 12 September 2007, by R*Nagaswamy

There is a case to bring the system of the village judiciary back.

There is a growing feeling of disillusionment in our villages that the judicial system is unable to cope with the increasing demands for justice especially in the rural areas. It is interesting to note in this context what happened a thousand years ago.

Four records from Tamil Nadu dating back from the period spanning the eighth century to the 13th century show that the people of the time indeed paid attention to village courts which disposed of many cases at the village level itself. Every village had a court, with judges appointed from among its permanent residents. The system of village judiciary was more widespread then than it is today.

There are inscriptional records to show that whenever a village was established a court was established along with it. There are two inscriptions from Coimbatore recording the fact that a Kongu Chola king in the 13th century created two villages. Both inscriptions are in the Porur Siva temple.

In the first instance, the king issued an order to the chiefs of nearby villages informing them about the establishment of a village and creating seven posts of judges. He appointed Brahmins in four posts and cultivators (“Vellaalas-Kaunders”) in three. In the inscriptions the court was referred to as “Mantru,” the post of judge as “Mantraadu,” and the judge as “Mantraadi.”

The king issued orders that no royal (government) officer should enquire about or interfere with judgments, any punishment given for offences or any function of the judiciary. (It said: epper pattaviyum nam karmikal aaraaya kadavar allavaakavum.) Independent judiciary

This ensured the independence of the judiciary and freedom from government interference in any form. The participation of both Brahmins and cultivators show that all sections were represented.

The second illustration is also from the village of Porur where the same king issued an order creating a village. According to the record, the king captured the modern town of Coimbatore, created a village and gifted it as a temple village. He settled a number of cultivators there and permitted them to create the required number of posts of judges for it and appoint those who were acceptable to them.

All those appointed were Vellalas, which goes to show that the judiciary went beyond any upper caste prejudice in such administration.

Whether a village judge who is not conversant with intricate legal points could serve properly and do justice in the matter of disputes is an important question. The records indicate that no one without adequate knowledge of the legal system could serve in a village court. An 8th century record from Manur in the Pandya country illustrates this. There were many legal texts, called Dharma Sastras. The candidates who were to be appointed as judges were expected to have mastered at least one law text thoroughly, besides possessing general qualifications. Manur was a Brahmin habitation, and anyone appointed had to be conversant with at least one Veda and at least one Brahmana text besides gaining mastery over one Dharma Sastra text. Tough test

A permanent inhabitant of the village was expected to pass an examination in the legal text (parikshai tantaare), and this would have ensured the proper conduct of legal proceedings. A group of villagers without authority or knowled ge of legal texts could not just join together and impose their views as the decision of the village.

A candidate to be appointed as a judge had to be one of proven integrity, with conduct that was satisfactory to the villagers (su-vrittaraay iruppaar). None could be appointed by virtue of the fact that he belonged to one section of the village or a certain party: the kind of complaint sometimes heard in modern times.

While enough freedom was assured for the judiciary, the judges could be tried for bribery or abetment to the obstruction of justice. Further, there were sub-committees in the villages to look after their secular administration. Those who were appointed to the judiciary could not be in a committee. There were courts of appeal, such as territorial courts. Finally the king, assisted by learned judges, served as the Supreme Court.

There were many legal texts which were in Sanskrit, like the Manu Dharma Sastra. Readable, lucid translations were available which all villagers could follow. This narrowed the gap between the villagers and their judicial system.

Such close acquaintance with traditional law was prevalent till the end of the 14th century. But this gradually faded with the incursion of alien rule and new faiths. The population explosion, an inadequate number of village courts and the rapid migration of intellectuals from the rural areas to the urban areas and lack of incentives for lawyers to serve in villages, has left a major gap in the concept of village judiciary. A rethinking is perhaps needed in order to bring back the village courts.

(The writer is former Director of Archaeology, Tamil Nadu.)

See online : The Hindu

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