In 2014, the Supreme Court of India ruled that no gender-related cases can be arbitrated at the village level; any assembly of this nature remains unconstitutional. 1 This judgement came following an incident in West Bengal’s Birbhum district in India, where a Santhali girl was punitively raped by twelve men—including the Majhi, or headman, of her village—on orders of a Majhi-led court. Santhals are one of the many Adivasi groups settled in eastern India, and the girl was allegedly having a relationship with a Muslim man. 2 This incident drew enormous national and international media attention highlighting the presence of “kangaroo courts,” parallel judiciary, or “salishi sabhas” among Adivasis. 3 The media portrayal gave the impression that community-initiated violence against women exists in Adivasi society because Adivasi society has not assimilated into India’s modern democratic paradigms.

To better understand how Santhals perceived the Supreme Court’s judgement regarding local arbitration, I traveled to Birbhum, the site of the case that sparked the court’s ruling. In Birbhum, which is located 155 miles north of Kolkata, Santhals live alongside caste Hindus and a large Muslim community. Inside Birbhum, every Santhali village has a traditional mode of dispute resolution, an institution called Majhi-Haram. The Majhi-Haram is typically comprised of five or six male village elders who are endorsed by the community to resolve disputes and perform rites around births, marriages, and deaths. During a dispute resolution, the Majhi will summon all parties involved in the conflict. After hearing all sides of the case, the Majhi will discuss the matter with other members of the Majhi-Haram and will issue a collective decision to resolve the dispute. The conflicting parties will then present hariya (a form of local alcohol) to the Majhi-Haram as a token of appreciation. The Majhi does not charge any fees for resolving disputes. Majhi-Haram is largely a gerontocratic institution, and the position of Majhi is mostly hereditary. The process of arbitration is mostly attended by men in the village; women are not normally part of the procedure. Majhi-Haram is therefore an assembly of people—mostly men—who come together at a particular moment around a dispute, only to be dispersed again. This constant aggregating and dispersing of people signal a rhythm that marks life in the margins (Das and Poole 2004).

Contrary to media portrayals of Adivasi society as India’s primitive order, my summer research of 2022 showed that Majhi-led courts are an intrinsic part of the life of neoliberal democracy in India. Adivasis are not on the outside of this arrangement, but are themselves stakeholders in it. My fieldwork also revealed that despite the Supreme Court’s ruling, Majhis continue to resolve disputes at the village level. This inspired me to think about the afterlife of unconstitutionality and inquire about Majhis’ political roles.

In this essay, I make two analytical interventions. First, I bring ethnographic evidence from the field to argue that Majhis operate under the auspices of the state even in contexts where the state outlaws its existence. Second, I argue that the Majhi’s role in dispute resolution need to be understood in terms of its political stakes. Here I underscore that Majhis play a tremendous role in maintaining the social organization of Santhali society, where religious minorities (including Muslims) are otherized, and where Santhali women’s mobility is surveilled and controlled. The continuity and persistence of this arrangement is supported by the economic and political developments in contemporary India.

Inside Birbhum: The Majhis

The Majhi-than is a sacred place in a Santhali village where the Majhi sits to resolve disputes, and where men gather to arbitrate. Women are not allowed to enter this space.

In Birbhum’s Santhali villages, disputes are generally mediated at the village level and are not taken to the “outside” world. The “outside” world, in turn, relies on the Majhi-Haram to adjudicate what the state views as “internal” Adivasi matters. For example, when I asked the officers who oversee government policies targeting Adivasi populations about Majhi-Haram, they noted the following: “we are aware of this institution, but we do not intervene in ‘internal’ matters of Adivasis unless something big like the 2014 incident happens.” 4

Though the 2014 incident received substantial media coverage, many of my Santhali interlocutors were not aware of the Supreme Court’s judgement. Those who were acknowledged that the 2014 incident was an exception because it involved such a spectacular form of punishment and thus brought much “shame to the community.” As one Adivasi leader explained to me, “Majhi-Haram is the most accessible institution for adjudicating conflicts for Adivasis, and the main thrust of the arbitration process is resolution between conflicting parties rather than punishment.” He explained that the Majhi-Haram is the most accessible institution for poor Santhalis who do not have recourse to formal judiciary. The leader also emphasized that the violent public shaming of women is not reflective of Santhali values but is instead indicative of the many changes that have occurred in Santhali society as it has become more integrated within the Indian state.

I spent several weeks with Majhis, asking them about how they see their role and what changes they perceive within the institution. What I discovered is that the customary authority of the Majhi-Haram is not only recognized locally, at the village level, it is also integral to the functioning of the very state authority that renders it unconstitutional. Dinesh Murmu (name changed), a Majhi from Pearson Pally, a village close to Shantiniketan town in Birbhum, offered the following: “If anybody from my village takes a matter to the local police station, the police will inquire if the matter has been discussed with the Majhi of the village before registering a case.” When I asked him about his livelihood, he shared that he works as plumber because there is no income attached to being a Majhi. He does, however, contemplate that the government should give an allowance for this role, because he is “managing the village” all by himself. Here, Murmu sees himself as a mediator between village and the state and feels that the state should compensate for his service.

One of the meetings I attended discussed the possibility of mobilizing the Majhis across villages, so that Santhali unity (Goanta) could be strengthened.

Inside Birbhum: The Mines

The government of West Bengal has recently initiated a coal mining project in Birbhum. The success of the project de