The mother, an animal herder in the western Indian state of Gujarat, watched in horror as her 3-year-old daughter was snatched from her. The kidnapper, an upper-caste woman from a nearby village who was unable to conceive, had been encouraged by her in-laws to help herself to a low-caste child. The mother pleaded with the village council and police for her daughter’s return. But both were dismissive. So she approached the unofficial Nari Adalat, or Women’s Court.
Five members of the court walked to the village where the girl was being held, and confronted her abductors. They refused to budge until the family let them search their house, where they found the girl hidden beneath a pile of mattresses in a musty storage room. They brought her home.
In Gujarat, a state of 60 million, a rural, grassroots network of courts has emerged to assist women shut out of more formal systems of justice. These courts originated with a few women in a Gujarat village in 1995 to combat domestic violence; today, there are at least 35 across the state, and similar tribunals in over half a dozen others. They have heard thousands of cases on everything from assault, child marriage and dowry disputes to accusations of witchcraft.
After a complaint is brought to a Nari Adalat, its members — about 15 women, ranging in age from their 20s to their 80s — walk from house to house to conduct interviews. Everyone is invited to testify. Often the courts can’t afford an office, and the meetings are held under a tree. Women habituated to a crouching silence can stand and speak freely. In a country where police are notoriously corrupt and cases can drag on for years, these amateur jurists, who are often illiterate, are seen as impartial and speedy. They typically render a verdict in only four months. And their services are often free.
Nari Adalats can’t issue legally binding judgments. They depend on strong local relationships and the trust of poor women and village leaders, which takes time and effort to establish. Men have been known to threaten staff and to humiliate women for daring to stand up for themselves. But once a court — whose members frequently include people from oppressed castes and religious minorities— is perceived to be fair, its decisions tend to be respected.
But with national elections scheduled to be held by May, this remarkable women’s movement is under threat. In 2010, Narendra Modi — Gujarat’s chief minister since 2001, a leader of the conservative Bharatiya Janata Party, and a leading candidate to become India’s next prime minister — called for the establishment of a Nari Adalat in each of the more than 200 administrative units in Gujarat. But his record on women’s issues has been otherwise dismal.
A 2011 census noted only 918 women per 1,000 men in Gujarat — a ratio, below the already scandalous national average of 940, that hints at the magnitude of female infanticide. In Gujarat’s tribal areas, upper-caste men seeking an heir will buy low-caste teenage brides.
According to Oxfam India, more than one in three married women in Gujarat is a victim of domestic violence. Despite this, Ahmedabad, Gujarat’s largest city, was found this year to have just one officer to register complaints of spousal abuse, provide legal aid, monitor cases and take victims to shelters, as required under a 2005 national law. At one point, this officer was handling some 800 cases. In February, the Gujarat High Court rebuked the state government for making a “mockery” of the act. Neeta Hardikar, director of Anandi, a group that advocates for rural women, says that while violence against women is a “normalized phenomenon all over India,” Gujarat’s government is notably inactive.
In 2007, Mr. Modi named Maya Kodnani to the state’s ministry for women and child development; two years later, she was arrested in connection with an attack during Gujarat’s 2002 anti-Muslim riots that led to the deaths of at least 94 people. Ms. Kodnani left the ministry and, in 2012, was sentenced to 28 years in prison.
As if this history wasn’t bad enough, Mr. Modi’s government is now attempting to capitalize on the achievements of the Nari Adalats. Members of the new Modi-backed courts report that trust-building steps, so vital to the grassroots courts, have eroded. Anxiety and insecurity seem pervasive; the original founders feel sidelined.
The features that made the program a success — in-person surveys, nuanced assessments of caste tensions, meetings with local leaders, and home visits to women who often can’t leave without permission from their husbands or in-laws — are mostly gone. ’ “This government is more interested in making grand announcements and claiming credit than implementing real change,” says Zakia Soman, co-founder of Bharatiya Muslim Mahila Andolan, an advocacy group. If any of Modi’s courts are functioning, says one insider, it is despite “political pressure from some ministers who want to control the Nari Adalat and be the voice of the women.”
This pressure is likely to intensify ahead of the election. Winning Gujarat is a steppingstone to national victory, and the Nari Adalats could be a conduit to hundreds of thousands of rural women’s votes. Some local activists fear that Mr. Modi will attempt to install his cronies in the courts. If he becomes prime minister and nationalizes the system, one could envision this vehicle for justice becoming a political tool that conditions judicial relief on political support.
Government backing isn’t necessarily bad. Nari Adalats have long received assistance from a national program called Mahila Samakhya, or Education for Women’s Equality, that dates to the 1980s. But while the program offers guidance and basic legal training, it respects the independence of the Nari Adalats. What is happening in Gujarat, on the other hand, sets a distressing precedent for the political manipulation of local movements in India, and signals that any successful grassroots effort is vulnerable to a political takeover.
Nari Adalats offer a blueprint for the effective dispensation of justice in other parts of the developing world. Mr. Modi is right that they should be expanded in India; without them, many poor rural women would have no recourse to legal aid. But if his administration truly wants to help its female constituents, it must not use the Nari Adalats as political pawns. Instead, it should improve the formal justice system while funding private initiatives, like the women’s courts, that support the public good.
Sonia Faleiro is the author of Beautiful Thing: Inside the Secret World of Bombay’s Dance Bars.