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Hope, women, the police panchayat, and the Mumbai slums

The Mumbai slums have recently achieved a weird kind of celebrity status. Whatever the considerable merits of the film Slumdog Millionaire and the best-selling book by Katherine Boo, Behind the Beautiful Forevers (now also a play and a film), these works have contributed to the making of a contemporary horror myth. So too have the bus tours of the slums that are now a regular fixture on the schedule of foreign tourists to Mumbai.

But not everything that happens in the slums of Mumbai is tragic. There is hope as well as despair in the slums, and there are people building community, tolerance, and a different future in this physically challenging environment. Many of these people are women, almost always poorly educated and some even totally illiterate.

One of the more unlikely ventures of the Mumbai slums is the police panchayat. This institution was the brainchild of a former Chief Commissioner of Police, A.N. Roy, who knew that the police provided practically nothing of value to the teeming slums of Pune and Mumbai. Roy came up with the idea of establishing a body to resolve small disputes and maintain order in the slums. The body was to be composed of, and run by, people (mainly women) from the community, with a single policeman attached to the body. Roy called the body a panchayat in order to associate it in the public mind with the community body by that name that is said to have dispensed justice in the ‘traditional’ Indian village.

Roy believed that the police panchayat could help the community to help themselves, while simultaneously improving relations between police and slum dwellers. On the first count, at least, he has been proven right. Whether there has been any major change in relations between the police and those at the bottom of the Mumbai heap is more problematic. But there is no doubt that in Roy’s time as Chief Commissioner of Police in Mumbai, he did provide a great deal of symbolic support to the organization.

Roy’s real stroke of genius was to recruit Jockin Arputham, a singular activist of the slums, as his leader of community involvement. It is the women, led by Jockin, who have built the police panchayat.

I first came across this organization in 2004, shortly after it was established in Mumbai, and I have recently been looking more closely at what it is doing. I was drawn to it out of a long interest in the sociology of Indian law – the social by-ways of community dispute settlement, as well as the behaviour of the legal institutions of the state.

There are now a couple of hundred police panchayats dotted throughout Mumbai and a few other cities, too. Many of them have been operating effectively under the stewardship of some extraordinarily committed women, who sometimes meet daily to handle the volume of work. That work is not what was originally envisaged. It is not ‘petty disputes’ about water, bad behaviour of children, and other neighbourhood disputes that have preoccupied the police panchayats.

Surprisingly, these bodies have evolved into a conciliation and mediation body for families in crisis. They are helping fill a great need for families whose relationship problems are beyond their own capacity to resolve. There are only a tiny number of family law courts in Mumbai (and, of course, everywhere else in India), with an even slighter complement of mediators attached to them. And, in any case, the courts are not always the right place to address these sorts of issues.

Maharasthran woman, fisherman's village, Mumbai by Wen-Yan King. CC-BY-2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.
Maharasthran woman, fisherman’s village, Mumbai by Wen-Yan King. CC-BY-2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

These family cases are often complex and can take up a number of meetings over a period of weeks, as well as follow-up work outside the hearings. Sometimes the panchayats conclude that relations between the parties have broken down to an extent that the marriage cannot be put together again. But often the women of the panchayat manage to bridge divisions and restore harmony sufficient for the marriage to continue. The members of the panchayat have a clear bias towards preservation of marriage, wherever this is reasonably possible.

Many of the cases arise from the clearly changing outlook of young women in India, as elsewhere. Young women now tend to demand if not complete equality with their male partner, at least much more equality than was characteristic of the past. And they are not always so attuned to fitting into a household frequently dominated by their mother- in-law. The result of such attitudes can be serious conflict. But there are also a whole range of other family disputes of diverse origin.

The conflicts are not confined to any particular community, and there is a large, perhaps even disproportionate, number of Muslims who approach these institutions for help. No doubt this is facilitated by a membership that is drawn from different religious and caste communities, and is predominantly female.

Despite the successes, it is not clear that the institution represents a model to be generally replicated throughout India. One of the problems is that the fit between police and community seems somewhat forced and may even be breaking down over time. On a day to day basis, the police are no longer involved in the operations of the institutions. Despite this, Jockin says there are moves to attach a panchayat to every police station in the country. This seems to some policy makers a cheap way of getting the community to do the work of the state. For Jockin, it would spell the end of the community basis of the panchayats; it would strip them of their dedicated and selfless commitment to service, and convert them into lifeless and bureaucratic organs of the state.

Whatever the difficulties of the police panchayats, their successes are worthy of celebration. Not only have they done significant work in the critical area of family mediation and conciliation, but they have also provided a vehicle for the tremendous empowerment of poor women with little or negligible formal education. They represent a compelling testament to what can be done in the slums.

The police panchayat is not an example of ‘law’ at work, but it is an institution dispensing genuine and practical justice to people who have missed out on just about every benefit distributed to more affluent people. It is something of a hybrid institution – an essentially community body, with some useful, if problematical, ties to an organ of the state (the police). It represents an intriguing development for someone interested in the intersection between institutions of the state and instruments of community authority.

Featured image: Mumbai India slum June 2005 by Sthitaprajna Jena. CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

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