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Judicial CP - June 1987

Corpun file 11866

The Guardian, London, 13 June 1987

The popular justice of a Bangladesh village court

From Arshad Mahmud
in Dhaka


HUNDREDS of people gathered on Thursday in an open dusty courtyard at Bolail, a scattered village about 15 miles from Dhaka, to witness the flogging of a young man and woman found guilty of adultery by a village court or "salish."

Each time the cane descended on their backs, Abdul Jalil, aged 22 and Khurshida Begum, aged 17, writhing in pain, helplessly cried for help. But nobody from the crowd, nor their fathers, came to their rescue until it was all over. All of them earlier gave an undertaking that they would abide by the decision of the salish. The verdict was unanimous.

The salish, comprising six village elders, heard all the involved parties for about four hours, and everything was settled at around nine in the evening. The court sentenced Jalil to 30 lashes and Khurshida to 20. It also fined Jalil 500 taka (about 10). The accused were caught by some villages while they were fleeing at night last week.

During the hearing, the salish tried to persuade both Jalil and Khurshida to get married but they declined.

Jalil, a transport worker wearing a tattered shirt, said he wanted his wife back. She was married to him only two months ago but was now living with her father, Tamijuddin Ahmed, a farm labourer.

"My daughter will never go back to this debauchel and butcher who the other day beat up my daughter mercilessly so that blood gushed out of her nose and mouth," Tamijuddin, seething with anger, sold the salish. About five people from the crowd stood up voluntarily to corroborate his statement.

Jalil sat squatting with his eyes fixed to the ground. Then it was Khurshida's turn.

"I will rather work as a maidservant and fend for myself than marry again," declared Khurshida, in a choked voice. She too had married only six weeks before -- to Khalil, a rickshaw-puller. He was present during the trial.

The salish then turned to Khalil and asked whether he would forgive and accept her back as his wife. "No, never -- I can't accept this loose woman any more," he shouted. "Next time I will look for a girl with good character," he told me later.

The salish is a lingering legacy of the fast-disappearing feudal system in rural Bangladesh. For a Bangladeshi journalist with roots in village life it was an extraordinary event. The last time I witnessed a similar salish was about 15 years ago.

What is most striking is the villagers' abiding faith in this institution, which they desperately cling to in the face of creeping urbanisation. Not a single person from the crowd raised any question about the legality of the village court.

The court is not a permanent body, and does not always include the same people. The villagers decide who should be members depending on the gravity of the crime.

"We try to be absolutely impartial and weigh the pros and cons very carefully to make sure all the parties involved are left in no doubt," said Giashuddin Ahmed, one of the members of the court, a local businessman.

"The best thing we do in the salish is that we save poor villagers from the trouble of going to the police and the court, which is a money affair, and it normally takes years to settle even a minor issue," said Rahmat Ali, another member of the salish, who is a landlord.


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