Fight corruption through peoples’ courts – Janata Nyaylaya: this was the proposal taken up in the 15th session of the Shramik Mukti Dal, with a thousand delegates from rural movements of seven districts of Maharashtra meeting in Devrukh, Ratnagiri district, Maharashtra, 29-31 December. This is a solution that may very well break the deadlock we are in.

The Government’s Lokpal Bill has stalled. Anna Hazare’s movement has hit a huge roadblock – lack of popular support. Blame it on cold weather in Delhi or on the Shiv Sena opposition in Mumbai, this still does not explain the cold shoulder given to Hazare’s latest fast. The fact is that his “Jan Lokpal” no longer awakens enthusiasm. In fact there has been growing opposition. Alternative demonstrations and marches were organized by activists as disparate as Ram Puniyani and Namdev Dhasal.

Finally, why rely on one “Guardian” (or a few) above Parliament, above the people to deal with corruption? The people have to do it themselves. There are enough laws dealing with corruption: the need is for implementation. And the people can do it through peoples’ courts, implementing the law of the land from below, by themselves.

This is not new to India. Janata Nyaylaya have been known in fairly recent history. If we look at the freedom movement, we can find at its climax the “parallel government” of Satara district (there was also one in Bengal), lasting from 1942 until independence. Its history is one of functioning peoples’ courts. And behind it there were some special features.

One of the tragedies of the freedom movement period is that the anti-caste struggle (the nonBrahman and Dalit movements) remained to a large degree isolated from the anti-colonial struggle. Where they were not, where the traditions came together, a powerful force could emerge. This is exactly what happened in old Satara (now Satara and Sangli) district of Maharashtra.

The Satyashodhak movement had a strong centre here. In fact, both Jotirao and Savitribai Phule’s home villages were in this district. It was here that the Satyashodhak movement developed into a peasant rebellion in 1922, when peasants grabbed land and carried out “polluting” actions against the Brahman landlords. It was here that jalsas (singing drama groups) carried the message that caste should be destroyed, that people should not use priestly “dalals” (middlemen) for their religious ceremonies, that all children – both sons and daughters – should be educated, that ALL ARE EQUAL.

One of the young peasants attracted to this movement in the 1920s was Nana Patil, who went on to become an underground leader in 1942. When Gandhi gave the call to “Quit India” people of Satara responded. They organized demonstrations, marched to challenge British power at taluka offices – and then, under Nana Patil’s leadership, they decided to go ahead, throw off the alien power and form their own government. Instead of courting arrest, fighters went underground. A government treasury was robbed, guns were found, two Sikh members of the Subhash Chandra Bose’s Indian National Army were brought for training from their home village in Punjab.  And the underground fighters began to organize what they called nyayadan mandals: courts for justice.

These had one important function for the movement: they punished traitors. They also passed judgment on drunkards, wife-beaters and rapacious moneylenders and oppressive landlords. The underground fighters also took action against the bandits in the hills who harassed people.

Of course, there are considerable differences between 1942 and the situation today. Today there is a popularly elected government: Indian democracy works, if imperfectly. Therefore the peoples’ courts of today should not make their own laws: they should function within the laws of the country. However, the slow and painful procedure through the courts, with so many cases years behind; the questionable honesty of many judges themselves; and the fact that there is little representation of women, Dalits and OBCs in the highest judiciaries, means that there is a good reason for people to take the judicial function in their own hands.

There are dangers in this, many will say. How can unqualified people, workers, farmers, casual labourers, housewives, sit in judgment on others? It is perhaps easier for Indians to say this because India has never had “trial by jury.” Americans or British people would not be so quick. Trial by jury is a proud tradition in the U.S. and Britain, and it is specifically stated that it should be a “jury of one’s peers” – twelve people of the same class, race, or even gender as the accused. Not a Lokpal-Guardian or judge sitting above everyone, but a jury of common people, people like the accused, deciding on the evidence whether the accused is guilty or not. The judge can give the sentence – but he (or she – very rare in India!) must respect the jury’s verdict.

Then, why not people sitting in judgment in a court that handles issues such as corruption? It happened once, with the nyayadan mandals of the Quit India movement. It can happen again. The peoples’ courts might have expert legal advisors – but the decisions should be theirs.

The activists of Shramik Mukti Dal are resolving on this experiment. It needs to be watched. Can the nyayadan mandals of the freedom movement find a new role today? Can they do what a Lokpal cannot do? Only time will tell.