Panchayet System, Dhaka
Panchayet System, Dhaka developed in response to the socio-cultural needs of various mahallas (wards) of Dhaka town. The panchayets of the Muslims and the Hindus were different. Nevertheless, the reputation of the system, which developed among the Muslim inhabitants, spread in all directions. The system also worked well in different parts of the town.
Adequate information could not be gathered on the panchayet system of Dhaka. In two books written on Dhaka during the nineteenth century, the authors, James Taylor and Walters, have provided many details of many other aspects but not on panchayet system. Some information on this system can be obtained from the book of James Wise, published in 1883. The supervisor of Dhaka's different panchayets, Khwaja Azam published his book, The Panchayet System of Dhaka, in 1907. It is assumed that the system prevailed in Dhaka even before the mid-19th century, but the system was given a much-organised form by the nawabs of Dhaka and under their patronage every mahalla of Dhaka had a panchayet, which functioned well. The nawabs used it as a means of maintaining their own dominance over the people.
According to Dr Wise, every Muslim 'Kaom' or class had a panchayet. If anyone opposed the unwritten low of the panchayet in trade, business and other matters, severe measures were taken against that person. The panchayet intended to serve the common people and bring forth their well-being. This court was 'secular and republican', where every member enjoyed an equal voting right, although the opinion of the president of the panchayet would prevail in almost all cases.
Khwaja Azam has rejected the interpretation of Wise. He held that the panchayet system was definitely introduced by the handful of converted Muslims of East Bengal and those of foreign origin. Their Hindu neighbours would always look down upon them by branding them as 'Mlechchhas'. So, they needed this type of organisation to protect themselves socially. Besides, the Fakirs (ie Saints) had great influence on the Muslims of East Bengal. They also played a role in the formation of the panchayet. This influence can be understood by the usage of a considerable number of terms in the panchayet, such as chanda (subscription), which was used exclusively by the Fakirs. Likewise, when something was distributed, the Panchayet Sardar (leader) would get two shares, which was the usual practice in the case of the Fakirs. It is not true that the system was borrowed from the Hindus. But it is equally difficult to accept the argument put forward by Khwaja Azam. If the early Muslims had started this system, still any prevailing system must have influenced them. This may be put in this way: various Hindu castes or groups had their own panchayet, which would mainly protect their commercial or professional interests. This was somewhat like the guild. This custom might have also extended to the social life of the Hindus. The converted Muslims might have retained this practice unwittingly. Khwaja Azam himself wrote that neither the Muslim rulers nor the Mughals had introduced this system. Therefore, the system was in existence from earlier time.
Panchayets were in vogue not only in Dhaka but also in various parts of Bengal, the Punjab, North West Frontier Province, Bombay and South India since ancient times. The ancient panchayet system or 'dal' of the Hindus had an impact on the dwellers of Dhaka. They established panchayets in various mahallas mainly to settle their own disputes. Gradually it influenced the lives of the inhabitants of the mahallas. Notwithstanding this fact, even if the panchayet would be an assembly of the Muslim, it was not a religious organisation. Its special function was to solicit judicious advice for delivering judgments. Hence, the respected persons of the mahalla, either Hindu or Muslim, would be the members of the panchayet. It was different from the Hindu 'dal' or panchayet because the latter was based on caste and in all probabilty, it concentrated on their professional matters.
Among the Muslim also, there were a few professional panchayets, eg those of the Bhistis (water-carriers). This panchayet was comprised of the water-carriers living in different mahallas of Dhaka. During the muharram, the chief of their panchayet would be called the Nawab Bhisti, because in the Muharram procession the water-carriers had a special role to play and this post was hereditary. But this was only a professional matter. Everybody had to obey the orders given by the mahalla panchayet. In this respect also, the panchayet of Dhaka was different from all other panchayets.
After the partition of bengal in 1905 Nawab salimullah made an effort to unite the Muslims of Dhaka through 'Islamisation' and this resulted in qualitative changes in the panchayet. There was an increase of Muslim representation in the panchayets and the nawab family utilised the panchayet as an instrument to extend their influence in Dhaka.
The original inhabitants of Dhaka are known as 'Kuttis'. Others would consider themselves different from the Kuttis. It is because most of the Kuttis were uneducated and poor. But they constituted the majority in Dhaka and the panchayet controlled them. The chiefs of the Khwaja family kept that in mind. They would provide economic aid to the Kuttis or for that matter the panchayet. The chief of the nawab family would put the turban on the heads of the panchayet sardars of different mahallas. He would also conduct the milad and for that a post of supervisor over all the panchayets was created. Khwaja Azam was selected as the supervisor. In the changed circumstances the panchayet sardars also looked up to the nawab as the leader of the Muslims and their saviour. However, after the death of Salimullah, a change was brought to that system.
Each mahalla of Dhaka town had a Panchayet, all Muslim inhabitants of the mahalla were its members. The panchayet controlled every social function of the mahalla and settled disputes and conflicts within it. In fact the life of the Muslims of the mahalla was regulated by the panchayet.
According to Khwaja Azam, the total number of panchayets in Dhaka, in 1907, was 133. These were divided into two groups 'Bara' (twelve) and 'Bais' (twenty-two). Khwaja Azam, however, did not mention the reason for the origin of the two names. According to him, the panchayets were divided on the basis of language. Those mahallas in which the inhabitants would speak 'Islamic Bengali' were under the 'Bais' panchayets'. From this perspective Khwaja Azam concluded that the members of the 'Bara' panchayets' were the descendents of the converted Muslims, and the members of the 'Bais' were the Muslims who came here as foreigners. It seems that the Muslims of the 'Bara' panchayets were those who came from outside Dhaka town and settled here. Their language was Bengali. The members of the 'Bais' panchayets were the Mughals and other Muslims who came from outside Bengal, married here or were their successors or descendents of those who did not return back. They would speak Urdu or 'Dhakaiya' which was a mixture of Bengali and Urdu. However, it is not that the Muslims of 'Bara' panchayets' would not speak the Dhakaiya language. In the Dhaka town, the number of 'Bara' panchayets was 72 and that of the 'Bais' panchayets 61. All the panchayets were again known as 'Daira-i-Mutiul-i-Islam'.
The panchayet was more or less a representative institution. They were collectively known as 'Pancha Layek Biradar' (five elderly brothers). One of them was the sardar or 'Mir-i-Mahalla' (leader of the ward) under whose leadership the activities of the panchayet would be conducted. Khwaja Azam had written that in the post the leader of the panchayet was hereditary, but during the last 20 years (ie before 1907) the sardar was being elected. However, it was noticed that after the death of the sardar, somebody who was close to him or an influential member of his family would be elected to the post. However, the supervisor of the panchayets could declare the election mull and void if he so desired. It seems that this rule was framed with a view to maintaining the control of the nawab family.
After the election of the sardar, the other panchayet sardars would collectively decide the amount to be contributed as 'chanda' by the newly elected sardar to the panchayet fund. On the day the newly elected sardar assumed the office, all the inhabitants of the mahalla together would present him a turban, which was called the 'Sardari Pagdi' (turban of the leader). After being installed in the office of the sardar, he would invite and feed all the people of the mahalla. If and when the sardar would neglect his duties or become incapable of conducting the activities of the panchayet, the members of the panchayet would reserve the right to remove him from the office.
Usually an influential (or a rich) person would become the sardar. There was no mention of the occupations of the sardars in the list of the sardars of the mahallas provided in the appendix of Khwaja Azam's booklet. But a glance at the names reveals that a considerable number of sardars were 'Bepari' and 'Khalifa'. Names of two doctors have also been found in the list. It may be assumed from the names of many of them that they were not that rich. However, it seems that richness was not the only eligibility to be elected the sardar. 'Khandan' (aristocracy) or muscle power might possibly have also been a yardstick of the eligibility.
In the hierarchy of the panchayet system, the 'Naib Sardar' came immediately after the sardar. In the absence of the sardar, the Naib Sardar had to discharge the responsibility of the sardar.
Two of the elderly persons would also be elected as members of the panchayet. They were known as 'Layek Biradar'. The fifth member of the panchayet was called 'Gurid'. He acted as the messenger. If any function was arranged or when anyone died, the sardar would send the message to all people in the mahalla through the 'Gurid'.
Apart from taking care of the social functions, one of the major activities of the panchayet was to settle all kinds of disputes and quarrels in the mahalla. If there were any dispute or conflict, any one of the parties involved could request for the meeting of the panchayet. In such a situation, the expenses for holding the meeting would have to be borne by the party asking for it. The expense would involve only for the betel and tobacco, and nothing else. Usually such meetings would be held in the evening of Thursdays. Apart from the plaintiff and the respondent, any one of the mahalla could join the 'Majlis' or meeting. The 'Layek Biradar' and the sardar would question the plaintiff and the respondent. After that, they would reach a decision and pronounce the verdict. Both the parties would have to accept the verdict of the panchayet. And nobody had the right to express disregard against such verdicts. Still, if anyone so wished, he/she could appeal to a tribunal formed with the sardars of other panchayets against that verdict. During the 1920s and 1930s, when the sardars failed to settle any dispute, they would approach Qazi Zahurul Huq, Qazi Alauddin, Hakim Habibur Rahman, Syed Mohammad Taifur and Qazi Ismail. They were the prominent personalities of Dhaka at that time. After the death of Nawab Salimullah, the influence of the Nawab family on the panchayet was waning and in the 1930s that influence was hardly left. At that time the above-mentioned persons established themselves as the substitute of the Nawab family. They were not zamindars, no doubt, but came of 'Khandani' (aristocratic) families, rich enough to lead a comfortable life and educated in a word, they belonged to a new era in contradistinction to that of the ahsan manzil (the residence of the Nawabs). It is their domination that was on the rise in the society of the then Dhaka.
Usually no one would prefer an appeal against the verdict of the mahalla panchayet. No one would like to irritate the panchayet of the mahalla unless he/she was compelled to do so. If any body dared not to abide by the verdict of the panchayet of the mahalla, he/she would be ostracised. Socially this boycott was known as 'Bund'. The person on whom such a 'Bund' was enforced would be ruined. If that person would go to another mahalla leaving his/her own one, still that 'Bund' would remain effective. It would have become impossible on his/her part to live in Dhaka town.
There was another form of punishment against the law-breaker. A jackfruit (a very large and heavy compound fruit) would be tied in the belly of the culprit and then flagellated. Thereafter, he/she would have been ordered to run. If the sardar was satisfied in these performances, the offender would get released.
All the sardars of the town had also a council of their own. This information had been mentioned in the census of 1901. If an allegation was brought against any sardar for any reason, the council would conduct his trial, and he would have to accept the verdict of the council. However, if the sardar was not satisfied with the verdict of the council, he had the right to appeal to the supervisor of the panchayets. And the verdict of the supervisor was final.
Another function of the panchayet was to assist and lend cooperation in the religious festivals of the Muslims. The two religious festivals in which the panchayet had to lend special assistance were Muharram and Fateha Yazdaham. There were a few sources of income of the panchayet. Every newcomer of the mahalla had to pay a subscription to become a member of the panchayet. In any marriage ceremony of the mahalla, the panchayet of the mahalla of the bride would receive certain amount of money from the bridegroom as 'Nazrana' (a present). In this matter every mahalla had its own rate. This Nazrana was known as 'Panchayet-e-Rakam'. If the father of the bride lived in the land or house of another person, the bridegroom had to pay an additional amount of money over and above the fixed rate. It was known as 'Haq-i-Zamindar' (rightful claim of the landowner). Usually its amount was not more than one rupee. The panchayet would give that amount of money to the house-owner of the father of the bride. The bridegroom had also to pay some amount of money for the maintenance of the mosque of the mahalla of the bride, which was known as 'Haq-i-Allah' (right of God).
The immovable property of the panchayet was the house of the panchayet, which would be known as 'Bangla'. During day-time, the 'Bangla' housed the Maktab (elementary school for the education of the Muslim children) for the children of the mahalla and at night it would turn into a club of the mahalla-dwellers. Articles such as carpet, light, hookah, and vessel fitted with a device for spraying rose water, canopy, etc, which were used and deposited in the 'Bangla', were also included in the immovable property of the panchayet. The treasurer of the fund of the panchayet was the sardar himself.
It is not known when the panchayet system of Dhaka was discontinued. However, it is assumed that the process started in the 1940s. The new structure of the economy, the great change effected after the partition of India in 1947 and all such related matters seemed to have contributed to its elimination. Recently attempts have again been made to revive the panchayet system in one or two mahallas of Dhaka. [Muntassir Mamoon]