Parwati’s house in West Champaran’s Katraw village, Bihar, was not locked for four days when she was at the hospital to treat her fever and chills. When she returned home, everything was intact — no one had broken in.
“The villagers here do not prefer to lock the doors when they move out of for a few days,” said Sunil Garhwal, the chief of Jamuniya panchayat that governs the village. “Locking of the door is construed a great disservice and disregard for co-villagers. However, one is at the liberty to lock their house if they are away for weeks,” he added.
Katraw is located 285 km from Patna. It has about 1,500 people from various communities, like Tharu, Muslim, Mushar and Dhangar. Its jurisdiction is patrolled by the Sahodara police station. The officers here have not registered more than a single case since India became independent in 1947.
“Nahi chhuwe la samantha koi kekaro (touching others belongings is a profane crime here),” said Hansa Devi, adding, “It is not as if altercations or disputes do not take place in Katraw. But, we resolve it amongst ourselves at the village level if the issue arises among ourselves”.A single case in 70 years
“To the best of our knowledge, except for one road accident case, no other complaint has been registered from Katraw,” said Upendra Nath Verma, superintendent of police (SP), Bettiah.
Such has been the allure of Katraw that even former director-general police of Bihar, Gupteshwar Pandey, could not stop himself from visiting the village when he was surveying West Champaran in July last year. “Everyone should draw inspiration from Katraw where no cases or FIRs have been registered so far. This [model of the village] deserves to be emulated [by other villages] so that India can shine,” Pandey said.
The peace perhaps dawns upon the hamlet due to its ingrained judicial setup. Called the Gomastha Bayawastha, it was born in the early 1950s. The system was the brainchild of Bihar’s first chief minister Krishna Sinha.
A Gomastha is essentially a patriarchal judicial authority — passed down from father to son — who delivers amicable solutions to the minor disputes that may arise in Katraw. A Gomastha may even penalise a person guilty of initiating a clash. Katraw, which has elected representatives in the panchayat system, seems to have unflinching faith in its Gomasthas.
The village, to date, has followed the verdicts delivered by the Gomasthas. Its testimony lies in the fact that the law and order has prevailed here for 75 years since India became independent.
“In Kathraw, a Gomastha is virtually regarded as a demi-god, whose order is invariably acceptable to all,” said Shailendra Garhwal, the president of Bettiah Zilla Parishad.
The position of Gomastha is not recognised by the government, although the local administration is aware of its prevalence in the Tharu tribe. “The system is followed in the Tharu community for long. It underscores the people’s firm belief in the democratic system, said Garwal, who belongs to the Tharu community.
“Ours is the third generation of Gomasthas,” said Vijay Kumar Gaurao who is at present the Katraw Gomastha. “I can say with a reasonable degree of confidence that no cases — either civil or criminal in nature — have been registered in the court or in the police station since India gained independence.”Local, community-conscious justice
The court of a Gomastha bears an anachronistic, antiquated look — the villagers sit under a tree or a community hall and dispense the justice after hearing the warring sides.
For instance, in July 2020 Mukesh Kumar was asked to pay a penalty of Rs 5,000 for slapping his sister-in-law. The Gomastha also demanded a written apology saying that Kumar’s actions had brought “disgrace to the women in a civilised society”.
Such a punishment was meted out to Chandrika Mahato and Visheshwar Mahato after they got into an altercation in broad daylight. Chandrika was angered after Visheshwar’s goats had grazed on his land.
The dispute culminated in an invitation into the Gomastha’s court, which charged each of them a fine of Rs 500 for “debilitating the social order”. The Gomastha also directed Visheshwar to pay Rs 300 to Chandrika as compensation.
An individual, who does not follow the Gomastha’s verdict, is excommunicated by others.
The fine collected from the directives is spent on marriages in the village or other social obligations.
The marriages are a community affair here. Invitations are sent out to every single villager, who are then bound to make arrangements for raw rice, pulses and vegetables among other eatables as a contribution.
Such social harmony is a matter of pride for villagers like Rohit Kumar and Shekhauddin. “We fix our own problems and we want to pass this legacy to the next generation,” Kumar said.(The author is a Bettiah-based freelance journalist and a member of 101Reporters.com, a pan-India network of grassroots reporters.)