A tribal council in northern India has categorically stated that it found “no substance” in the allegations of sexual misconduct that were made against its High Chief. This came was after a detailed investigation by other council members.
The Nyayarakshak tribe in northern India is one of India’s oldest self-governing tribal communities. They practice the curious tradition of wearing black cloaks despite the scorching heat of the northern plains. Another curiosity is the fact that the Nyayarakshak language has no word for “women” in its lexicon. Though the language recognises gender, it only restricts itself to using male pronouns with no words in the lexicon even considering the existence of non-male genders. This results in a rather amusing situation where female tribal elders are referred to as “brother” or “Lords”.
Anthropologists though have defended this part of the language as one that promotes absolute linguistic equality between men and women. They have also said that attempts to reform this culture will erode the independence of the tribe and may cause irreparable damage to their rich and varied cultural heritage.
The lack of words for the female gender in their lexicon however, has not stopped this tribe from being one of the most progressive tribes in the country as far as it concerns women’s equality. Out of 28 members of the tribal council, over two members are women and the council consistently employs a large number of women to assist it with its work. This is part of the reason that the tribe takes complaints of sexual misconduct very seriously. These allegations seriously affect the progressive reputation of the entire tribe.
Great moral fortitude
After the news of the allegations broke the council moved into swift action. Though the accusations were against him, the High Chief in a moment of great moral fortitude immediately convened some council members and informed them that these kinds of allegations were a matter of great public importance affecting the independence of the tribe and that he would be taking strict action against himself.
The line of succession for the High Chief is based on seniority. Once a High Chief dies, the next senior council member becomes High Chief. Taking a cue from this, the High Chief asked the next senior council member to investigate the allegations against him and a three-member committee of council members was formed to see if there was any “substance” in the allegations of the complainant. If the committee found any substance in the allegations, the High Chief would proceed to punish himself in accordance with customary tribal law.
Swift enquiry, unintelligible dialect
This three-member committee of council members held a swift enquiry into the incident and their deliberations were kept confidential in order to avoid public embarrassment to the tribe at large. Even though the complainant (who is from another tribe that is traditionally in the employ of the Nyayarakshak tribe) was unaware of the customary tribal law that would govern the proceedings, the committee dispensed with providing her access to people who could inform her about the law.
Instead they followed the traditional practice of “going behind the words” and made detailed notes of everything the complainant meant instead of what she was saying. Due to linguistic anomalies they were unable to explain to the complainant what had actually been recorded.
The complainant though refused to cooperate with this committee and insisted that she be made aware of what was going on. This flew in the face of the ancient customs of this tribe and the complainant’s behaviour was one that was disrespectful to the traditions of this really tiny community that is struggling to preserve its independence.
The complainant showed the highest form of disrespect when she refused to participate further in the proceedings merely because she was unaware of what was actually going on. Many other members of the tribe (and even the complainant’s own tribe) have described the actions of the complainant as being culturally insensitive and some anthropologists have even accused her of racism.
Since the complainant refused to participate, the committee proceeded to politely ask the High Chief if he had anything to say. We will never know what the High Chief said as the tribal members communicate in a dialect of the language that is unintelligible to outsiders. After hearing the High Chief the committee finished its work and said it had found no substance in the allegations of the complainant.
As part of the long standing commitment of the tribe towards environmental issues, there is absolutely no physical record of any of this. The council has committed the story of these allegations as part of the oral tradition of the tribe instead of committing it to the written record. While this makes it difficult for anthropologists to ascertain what has exactly happened, it is a necessary step to preserve the independence of this ancient culture.
With their High Chief cleared, members of the tribe engaged in the traditional celebratory rain dance. In this dance the tribe rounds up 144 people and locks them up in a room while tribe members dance outside the room in circles.
Meanwhile the head of the complainant’s tribe has been notified of the result of the enquiry and the council has recommended that the complainant’s tribe investigate the complainant for witchcraft.
This entire incident has caused serious disquiet in this very traditional community. Elders have welcomed the end of the enquiry. Our reporters managed to catch one of the tribal elders before he left for the tribe’s annual summer pilgrimage. He laughed and told us “Despite this, we have still managed to preserve our independence and the respect our culture commands. May our tribe last for a thousand years”
(With Bureau Inputs)
(Banner photo by Aparna Seth for The Leaflet)