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Journal of Political Ecology:
Case Studies in History and Society
VOLUME 8 (2001)
Arguments Amongst Nomads: A Caste Council in India,
Reviewed by S. George Vincentnathan, Department of Criminal Justice, Aurora University, Aurora, IL.
Haydens Disputes and Arguments
Amongst Nomads is a revised version of his 1981 anthropology dissertation.
The book focuses on disputes and dispute settlement in the context of
the social structure and culture of the Tirumal Nandiwallas, a nomadic
caste in Maharashtra State in India. Disputes are processed by a community
council of elders known as the panchayat. This is a traditional institution,
not to be confused with the legislated and government initiated nyaya
panchayats at the local community levels, which often do not function
well (Baxi and Galanter 1979; Moore 1985).
Hayden's fieldwork was carried out
in 1975 and 1979. When he revisited the area in 1992, he found that the
Tirumal Nandiwallas had given up nomadic life and were settled, and their
panchayat no longer met. The book, however, is written in the ethnographic
present and I follow suit. This brief book is a valuable contribution
to the body of ethnographies on informal dispute processing.
The Nandiwallas, considered to be
a middle-level caste, have their own intra-caste hierarchy. The Patil
putta (subcaste), at the top, are the panchayat eldermen, headmen, and
priests. The others in rank order are: the Chougle, assistants to the
Patils; the Komti tradesmen and money lenders; and the Daundiwallas, servants
of the panchayat and executors of punishment. Higher sub-caste ranking
corresponds with higher economic standing. It is believed that these divisions
arose as a consequence of violation of caste rules and other wrong-doings
by the process of excommunication and suspension from regular everyday
roles. The higher sub-castes follow stricter purity rules, consider those
below them as polluting, and expect deference from them. Each sub-caste
is an endogamous group. some of the settled Nandiwalla groups do not follow
the sub-caste rules. Unlike many Nandiwalla groups that have a Patil as
village priest, the Tirumal Nandiwallas in this study have had a Brahmin
as their guru, or spiritual advisor. The Tirumal Nandiwallas, split into
small groups, move around specified territories and carry out their occupational
roles. They return during the monsoon season (June through August) to
Wadapuri in Poona District, which they consider their home village. At
that time they conduct religious celebrations and marriages, and hold
panchayat sessions to settle disputes.
Panchayat specifically means a council
of five, but may include more than five elders, who authoritatively direct
the villagers and help to resolve their disputes. Adult men congregate
in front of the elders and participate in the deliberation of cases. Women
are not included, unless they are connected with a case; this is also
the practice among the Tirumal Nandiwallas. Panchayats decide administrative
matters of collective concern, such as collecting money for festivals
and other projects. Most also settle disputes. In multi-caste villages
the village panchayat used to settle inter-caste disputes and problems
involving the whole village. However, these are not as common as caste
panchayats, especially in modern times, as egalitarian notions and politics
run counter to traditional caste hierarchy (Cohn 1965; Vincentnathan 1996).
Most problems and disputes are settled
within the caste by caste elders, or by elders constituting the caste
panchayat. The Tirumal Nandiwallas have a caste panchayat, which receives
disputes, deliberates on them in public, and settles them, using public
opinions. As elsewhere, their panchayat usually meets near a temple. The
meaning behind this practice, which is missed in the book, is that truth
and justice (nyayam) should prevail in the presence of god. The Tirumal
Nandiwallas panchayat meets in Wadapuri when the Patil headman through
the Daundiwallas announces it to the community and convenes it. The headman
sits away from others surrounded by "speakers," many of whom
are Patils. The position of the headman is highly respected, as he is
the head of the caste, the community, and the panchayat. Cases are presented
by the headman and the "speakers" argue the case. Those assembled
also join in. The Brahmin guru, if present, can provide interpretations
and make decisions, which are respected and often become binding. He helps
to resolve very difficult cases.
A review of the cases would reveal
that most of them are minor and trivial, as in many communities, including
the communities I investigated. When I presented my findings to an American
audience, they could not believe that such trivial private matters could
be given such public attention. Among the Tirumal Nandiwallas, the cases
referred to the panchayat are for violation of caste rules of association,
transaction, marriage, funerals, and religious practices. Cases of cursing,
illicit sexual conduct, false accusations, wife battering, violations
of panchayat rules, stealing, and fighting with a knife are also brought
before the panchayat. A generalization that could have been made by Hayden
from the bulk of his cases is that they were probably taken seriously
for two reasons. First, the Nandiwallas feared that they might offend
the deities if they violated caste rules. Without the deities' benevolence
their health, wealth, and happiness could be jeopardized. Monsoons may
fail, diseases may erupt, and people would be in serious economic distress.
Second, they feared that if these issues were not settled quickly, they
could deteriorate the community, leading to eruption of major disputes
and conflicts. A desire for collective well-being makes caste rule violations
public issues, which are dealt with collectively for the purification
of the community.
Similar to the villages I studied,
the panchayat discussions in Hayden's community become loud, tense, factional,
political, and driven by status and power contests. Complex and confusing
decisions are made that are oriented toward creating a balance within
the context of the community beliefs and the community's hierarchical
social order. It should be added, however, in caste panchayats there is
greater equality and open discussion, and intra-caste hierarchy often
blurs in heated and tense discussions. Such openness cannot be found in
the traditional village panchayats, such as the ones I studied in Tamilnadu.
As Hayden (pp. 101-107) notes, panchayat discussions are not purely case-based
and case-based linear processing, as in modern courts. Instead cases are
viewed from multi-sided perspectives. The nature of historical relationships
of the disputants, their statuses, the requirements of religion, the need
for reestablishment of relationships, and implications for peace in the
community are all considered (see Nader 1969). Opinions, views, evidence,
and hearsay information are admitted, without strict rules of order. Sanctions
are often fines and excommunication. In the latter case, most are not
totally out-casted, which happens for only rare, serious cases. Most are
excommunicated temporarily with fines, and are later restored to normal
relationships by the panchayat's readmission of them. The excommunicated
may be isolated and others required to avoid normal relationships with
them. When they are readmitted, the guru does a pollution removal ceremony.
Studies on panchayats show that
in general during panchayat sessions, established norms are articulated,
used, and reinforced, and sometimes contested. Exceptions are made and
rules are modified in relation to new situations posed by the changing
social order and changing times. For the Tirumal Nandiwallas the Brahmin
guru helped direct these changes.
Hayden notes that the democratic
values surging up are disturbing to the functioning of the panchayat.
He (p. 5) also notes, "It seems that the nomadic adaptation, which
prevented recourse to state institutions, was the key feature in the preservation
of these panchayats, for when these groups ceased being nomads their panchayats
died." I wonder whether giving up nomadic life and becoming settled
would necessarily involve the dissolution of the panchayat, considering
the fact that settled people usually have well-developed panchayats. They
also prefer to settle disputes peacefully among themselves, rather than
taking them to the official system, which could cost money and time, and
could cause shame. Furthermore, official outcomes are often unpredictable.
Hayden, however, gives no other explanations for the disintegration of
the group and the demise of the panchayat, except their becoming settled
and the decline of the caste hierarchy and development of democratic ideals.
In my view, an important reason for the disappearance of their panchayat
might be their absorption into new and respectable (at least not demeaning)
occupations that economic development has provided, especially in cities
and towns. When the author revisited the research area in 1992, it is
unclear whether he was able to locate the people, as they had apparently
given up nomadic life, and had become settled elsewhere, but we are not
told where. A good, brief explanation could have been given for the changes
that have occurred. There is a lot of information available from other
studies that could have suggested reasons for these changes, including
findings my own recent publications (Vincentnathan 1992, 1996; Vincentnathan
and Vincentnathan 1994). Changes and improvements in the economy have
especially diminished dependence on caste hierarchy; increased involvement
of people in new occupations; reduced interaction with caste members;
and dispersed people away from their home villages. I would suggest that
as the frequent interactive relationships that the traditional occupations
provided declined, and the new occupations promoted separation, individualism,
and alienation from each other, the community withered away and so did
Baxi, Upendra, and Marc Galanter.
Srinivas, M. N.
Vincentnathan, S. George.
Vincentnathan, S. George, and Lynn Vincentnathan.