Panchayet System

Panchayet System an old local government institution. The term 'panchayet' implies an assembly of five or more persons. The term was in vogue in Bengal, as in the rest of northern India, since time immemorial. During the ancient period, this village assembly or panchayet, which was either nominated by the king or elected by the people of a village, was left undisturbed in the overall management of the administration of the village. The composition of the panchayets was such that they represented different classes and castes. The panchayets distributed land among the villagers, collected tax from them and paid to the government its due share. Kautilya's Arthashastra mentioned the grama-vrddhas (village elders) who were the esteemed members of the village assembly and whose duty was to assist the government officials in deciding petty disputes in the villages.

The Muslim rulers introduced a system of administration, which was more or less centripetal in character. Even then the administration of the villages was left undisturbed so long as the zamindars paid their royal dues regularly. The administration of justice and the maintenance of law and order in the villages were in the hands of the zamindars. The village council or panchayet, popularly known as the caste council, enjoyed limited powers and authority in the sense that it could interpret only social laws and customs and suggest penalties only against the violators of these.

At the initial stage of British rule, the prevailing pattern of rural administration of Bengal was retained. The panchayet, known as the caste kachari and headed by the zamindar, decided only petty civil and criminal cases and cases relating to caste, such as persons having lost their caste or any dispute relating to marriage. The panchayet as a viable juridico-political unit of administration was yet to emerge since the zamindar was the sole authority in the administration of justice within the villages. The once somewhat impotent panchayet was sought to be revived by the passing of the Bengal Village Chowkidari Act of 1870 that placed village chowkidars under the control of the panchayet. In spite of this, the panchayet was hardly a popular body. It was neither elected by the village people nor given any welfare functions of the village.

The year 1885 ushered in a new era in the history of local self-government in Bengal. Since then the British government was in search of inventing new institutions and implanting them in the soil of Bengal for carrying on rural administration. The Local Self-government Act of 1885 introduced a District Board in every district and a Local Board in every sub-division leaving, at first, the village panchayet untouched. But soon doubts began to appear in the minds of the British rulers regarding the efficacy of a village panchayet which was denied any welfare function in the village. Accordingly, the British government accepted the recommendation of the Royal Commission on Decentralisation which suggested the fusion of the chowkidari and municipal functions in the village and introduced a new body at village level, known as the Union Board, which replaced the panchayet and was vested with both the police and municipal functions. Finally, the panchayeti system of Bengal fell into desuetude with the passing of the Bengal Village Self-government Act of 1919. [Shibnath Banerjee]