Sitapur: The judiciary is burdened with 2.3 crore pending cases and the judge-to-case ratio is so lopsided at 1:1600 that it has left even the former Chief Justice of India in tears. In December, the former Chief Justice TS Thakur criticised the union government over increasing vacancies at various courts leading to pendency.
But for the women in India’s villages, this is merely another hurdle to overcome.
Not many people have heard of the Nari Adalat (Women’s Court) in rural areas. These are courts presided over by women with only a basic knowledge of the Indian Penal Code (IPC), which resolve cases through mediation.
The Nari Adalat, an innovation of the Mahila Samakhya, emerged as a grassroots response to the rise in violence against women and is formed across age, caste, marital status, religion, region and occupation. The court addresses issues of violence against women, and helps them access their rights as citizens. The programme was first introduced in 10 districts in Uttar Pradesh, Gujarat and Karnataka. As of April 2014, it has been functioning in 11 states and working in 126 districts covering nearly 42,000 villages.
Nari Adalats function with the tacit and, in some cases open, support of the government and the judiciary. The ‘nari’ who run the adalat are women who may not be entirely literate and are often from economically backward homes. Many of these women work as midday meal cooks, daily wagers and in other similar, low-paying jobs. They do not get paid for the work they do for the Nari Adalat.
Court in session
On November 14, 2016, victims of domestic violence, sexual harassment, dowry demands and other crimes gathered behind the community health centre (CHC) in Pisawa block of Sitapur district, in Uttar Pradesh. A couple of mats are spread on the ground. The area was swept clean. A banner proclaiming “Nari Shakti” hung from a pole, another from a mango tree. The women supplicants sat on the mats and greeted the Nari Adalat judges who were already seated. The court follows a routine. The hearings take place at 1 pm, usually after all the women have finished with their chores or work.
Two of the judges are Achari Devi and Ram Betni. Both are in their mid-30s. Both are midday meal cooks in a government school. Both have studied only till the sixth standard.
Achari has been a Nari Adalat judge for three years, inspired by a neighbour who went to the court over a case of domestic violence. She was first given basic training in the law by a few qualified female lawyers. Achari was 17 when she got married and it’s only because of the Nari Adalat programme that she now knows there is a minimum age for marriage, and that demanding and giving dowry are both crimes. She can also cite the section under which sexual harassment falls.
Those selected to hear cases in a Nari Adalat are all active members of the Mahila Samakhya, a programme started in 1988 by the Union Ministry of Human Resource Development. It envisages women’s empowerment as key to social transformation. The judges are trained to apply various sections of the Indian Penal Code to cases and on how to lodge an FIR. The judges go through a training process every six months, said Anuprash Mishra, the Nari Adalat head of Piswa block. The last training session was held in February this year, at the Mishrikh development block.
When they come across cases of dowry death, rape, sexual harassment, murder and female foeticide, they alert the police. At times, the police reaches out to them to settle cases through mediation.
The Pisawa block Nari Adalat holds hearings on the 14 and 28 of every month.
One of the recent cases was that of dowry harassment. Nisha (name changed) was being harassed for dowry by her in-laws. She had gone to the police station twice to register a first information report (FIR), but was prevented by the family each time. After the second attempt, Nisha tried to kill herself with poison.
Nearly a week after the suicide attempt, the case came up for hearing with Nari Adalat which adjourned the meeting midway and with the victim, trooped to the police station to get an FIR registered. They even contacted the Superintendent of Police who ordered the station-in-charge to register the FIR.
Nisha’s husband was summoned to the police station and questioned. He admitted that pressure was being put on Nisha to ask her family to buy him a motorcycle. Eventually, the case was settled with the intervention of police and counselling sessions with Nisha’s in-laws. Her husband was released after a warning by police.
The Sitapur Superintendent of Police, Saumitra Yadav, said that the Nari Adalat has also helped victims of atrocities in registering FIRs. “Women in our society, especially in rural areas, face a lot of hardships and it gets worse when they have to go against their families. The Nari Adalat helps such women to get justice,” Yadav said. “How can the police get to know of rape, violence and other silent crimes committed within the family when the voices are suppressed and not heard?”
Another case heard by the women’s court on that day was brought to the notice of the police almost immediately. The complainant told the court that her brother-in-law was raping her every night. The court questioned her before contacting the police station to lodge a case of rape. The accused Seni Lal, absconded after being tipped off, only to be arrested four days later, on the orders of a Deputy Inspector General.
Seema Rana, a member of the All India Democratic Women’s Association, described the Nari Adalat as a powerful initiative. She said that the condition of women can be improved with the joint effort of the state government and the people. According to Rana, if just imparting the basics of law could empower women to such an extent, then there needs to be more done to spread awareness and education.
“Police refrain from registering an FIR unless it is a murder or other heinous crime,” she said. “They hesitate when it’s rape, molestation and eve-teasing. The Nari Adalat has changed the equation. Today, it’s come to the stage that the police are taking the help of the Nari Adalat,” she said.
Usha Vishwakarma, a President’s Award winner for women’s empowerment and the founder of the Red Brigade Army (a non-governmental organisation that focuses on empowering women through self-defense education), said the adalat needs to be nurtured and developed.
“The police are now forced to register an FIR and the victim is getting justice. Governments, state and Central, should take notice and step up with infrastructure and education opportunities,” said Vishwakarma. Mishra also agreed that the government should at least arrange for a room and furniture for the Nari Adalat to hold its hearings. She also asks for regular training and counselling sessions for the members.
Of necessity, the Nari Adalat works as best it can, within the constraints imposed by limited infrastructure and the larger patriarchal structure in which the women of the courts, like the women whose cases are heard, are living every day. Success can only be measured at the level of individual cases resolved, but in situations like this, the smallest victory is a significant one.