Thursday, December 20, 2007

Democracy at Grassroots: Kerala's Sea Courts

by N P Chekkutty

The coastal region of south India, especially the western coast, has seen a series of violent communal clashes in the past few years. Rising incidents of communal confrontation, like the Marad carnage in north Kerala where almost a dozen people were hacked to death in two clashes, have spurred the search for a lasting solution to the growing communal polarisation among the fisher people.

The communalisation of Kerala’s fisher-folk is a recent phenomenon that appears contrary to the social image of Kerala as a place where secular forces are dominant politically. But it is also an indication of the tenuous nature of the secular social fabric here. Many scholars and social activists feel that the deterioration of the coastal region into hotbeds of communal politics ominously points to a similar fate for all of society, because what went wrong during the post-Independence years is the basic approach of social engineering under a welfare state. It gave more power and prominence to organs of the state like the revenue and police authorities, political parties and trade unions, while grassroots-level, people-oriented, traditional social systems were allowed to fade away or were forcibly laid to rest.

The death of the traditional sea courts, a grassroots disputes redressal system that once actively presided over the day-to-day life of all the coastal fisher-folk, is a case in point. According to social activist Civic Chandran, the sea courts, or katal kotathi in the regional language, were the most effective form of grassroots democracy in this region for centuries. Chandran has been at the forefront of a campaign to revive the traditional system as a way out of the politics of communal polarisation that’s currently gripping the fishing community.

Historically, the sea courts (an elected body of elders) constituted an effective system of arbitration among the various fishing communities. They enjoyed supreme power and prestige and were even recognised by the British authorities ruling over the Malabar region whose civil courts acknowledged them as a legitimate system of arbitration over maritime disputes.

The sea courts dispensed justice through their own system of hearings, arbitration, compromises, edicts, punishments and appeals to a higher court. Each court held jurisdiction over a small area called turai, enjoying moral authority over all the boat-owners and fish-workers in the region. It ensured the fisher-folk equitable access to marine resources and harmonious social living, as it arbitrated in almost all areas of the fisher people’s lives. These included relations between boat-owners and workers, disputes over catches on the high seas, disputes arising out of a group of boats coming together to encircle and capture a huge catch known as chakara, accidents and quarrels on the high seas, protection of marine wealth with fishing bans during certain seasons and times, disputes over fish sales, etc.

V K Prabharakan, a social activist from Chombala beach near Vatakara in north Kerala, was witness to the trial of a potentially communal case. It was a dispute between a Hindu, Meethale Purayil Vasu, and a Muslim, Paremmal Usman. Both worked in a boat owned by Chulliyil Moidu, another Muslim. There were eight workers in the boat as it went fishing one day, six of them Hindus and two Muslims. Usman and Vasu were involved in a longstanding quarrel, and, while out at sea, Usman attempted to push Vasu out of the boat. Vasu was saved when the other men intervened. The dispute came to the sea court that arrived at a unanimous decision that Usman had been wrong in raking up the quarrel at sea. He had violated a fundamental principle of work on the high seas: that no dispute from the land shall be carried over to the sea, and vice-versa. Usman was found guilty and penalised.

In another case -- Chulliyil Moidu vs Koora Raman and others -- the same principle was applied to dismiss a verdict given by a lower court by an appeal body. The dispute was over the apportioning of catch. Moidu and his workers had joined a group hunt in which around 30 boats participated. There is an unwritten law about the formation of such groups whilst out at sea that is based on mutual trust and cooperation. The proceeds, if any, of such joint operations are shared equally among the participants. However, in the middle of the joint operation, Moidu withdrew from the hunt without formally informing the others. His boat returned to shore and later went back to sea where it got a good catch of catfish. The other boats claimed a share in Moidu’s catch as he had not formally withdrawn from the group. The local sea court heard the dispute, upheld the fishermen’s claim, and asked Moidu to share his bounty. He appealed and the case went up to the fourth appeal court, a record in recent memory. (Appeal courts are formed by enlisting the immediate northern and southern sea courts.) Finally, the appeal court decided that Moidu was right in keeping his catch as he had returned to land before coming upon the disputed catch. The principle was that any agreement formed at sea becomes null and void once someone from the group touches land.

The sea courts fell on bad days in the post-Independence period when the police and civil authorities took over the administration of justice even in disputes relating to the maritime activities of the fisher people, despite the fact that they had no idea of the special nature of their problems.

“We had an effective court functioning in our region and the people had been settling their disputes there till the police intervened in their affairs and the courts were disbanded as a mark of protest,” recalls V K Prabhakaran who has studied the functioning of the sea courts. Prabhakaran explains that it was around 15 years ago that the sea court in his village decided to disband when the police refused to recognise it as a legitimate set-up in a dispute. The incident is an eye-opener: There was a dispute over the landing of catch at the local beach, as the sea courts had unanimously banned fishing at night in order to ensure the regeneration of the species. One particular group of fishermen from outside the area violated the ban and their catch was seized by members of the sea court. But the police decided it was a law and order problem and ordered the sea court to release the catch, forcing it to discontinue its activities.

“It is an instance of how the revenue and police authorities failed to understand the special significance of these traditional systems,” says Prabhakaran pointing out that this was one of the reasons for the demise of the traditional social fabric of the coast, to be replaced by a system of trade unions, commission agents, political parties and communal organisations, leading to disastrous consequences. Indeed, communal clashes became a regular feature of life on the coast only during the last two decades when such traditional systems were destroyed.

But it was not just an administrative lapse or official apathy that led to the disbanding of the sea courts. The inroads made by technology and capital-intensive practices into traditional vocations (especially gadgets like cell phones and mechanised boats) eroded their effectiveness as those who defied the dictates of the sea courts could easily divert their catch to other landing posts, avoiding court members who had jurisdiction over a limited area.

Following the recent communal clashes and the spread of communalism all over the coast, efforts were made to revive community-based traditional methods of maintaining law and order and dispensing justice. But the sea courts are now almost defunct everywhere on the southern coast; if they do make a comeback they will have to be given proper recognition and legal powers by the civil and judicial authorities. As Suresh, leader of a Hindu fishermen’s organisation on Marad beach points out, these courts were based on finding mutually acceptable solutions, but the problem today is that members of the fishing community are badly divided. But there are others who point out that with proper management and support from society, the sea courts could once again play an effective role in bringing communal harmony back to coastal Kerala.

InfoChange News & Features, November 2005

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