Enigmatic Kutumb : Unpacking the traditional community institution

An understanding of adivasi culture is not complete without learning about the key institution that binds the adivasi clans together and this key institution is the ‘kutumb’ or clan group. It is an extended family of the village and through these conversationslet us unpack what the kutumb means to the Kondhs and what is its relevance in today’s social context.

“Kutumb for us is ‘all people living in the village, including the non-adivasis like Dombs. Every kutumb fixes some rules and regulations which everyone in the village has to abide by. And any decision is the kutumb involves all families in the village. That is why if a kutumb meeting is called all families are supposed to attend and will collectively discuss about celebrations of festivals, marriages, observing death rituals and even executing any government work that has come t the village like laying a road, building any public service centre, etc. There is no fixed date or time for calling a kutumb meeting. As and when the need arises, we sit. The meeting can be held at any time and could be called even 2-3 times a month.

The Jani or head priest, the one who looks after the village deity, presides over the kutumb. He decides when to call a kutumb meeting and then informs the Barik or the village informer who is generally from the Domb community. Barik goes around the village informing everyone about the kutumb meeting and just before the meeting again he goes from door to door asking male family members to come to the Sadar or village centre or Jhankeri (place of village deity) for the meeting. Women are not allowed to attend village meetings.

Kutumb meetings generally end with a decision on the amount of contribution each family has to give for any common festival or event. But if a family cannot pay cash, then they can also contribute anything in kind and most generally these families give a hen or cock to the kutumb. If any dispute happens or any disagreement happens between the villagers, then jani will take the final decision. All our disputes and problems are sorted out in the kutumb only. If it cannot be solved by the kutumb then the matter is taken to the Panchayat and still if it remains unresolved then the case is taken to the local police or the collector or even the court. Generally some marital conflicts are also resolved in the kutumb if it cannot be first resolved within the family and the larger clan. Thus the kutumb is like our own village court.

What is the difference between kutumb and pallisabha?Kutumb is for village issues and presided over by our traditional leaders like the Nak, Jani, Disari and Bejuni. But Palli Sabha is a meeting of the Government rather the Panchayat. And it is presided over by Sarpanch. In our kutumb, if any family faces any kind of problem, then other kutumb members are there to help them out and no one grudges giving such help. And if any family or person decides to disobey a kutumb decision, then she or he would face social boycott. This had happened with a person some 2-3 years back. He was restricted to use the village well or tubewell and could not join any village work or talk to anyone in the village. But no such moral bonding exists in Palli Sabha. We hardly ever go to Palli Sabha meetings because discussions there are always about Government issues and never about the village or families.

The kutumb also gives opportunity for people to repent and make up for their mistakes. This cannot happen in a Palli Sabha. If someone realizes their mistake then she or he can approach the Jani and if the Jani forgives she or he then the person willhave to pay a penalty for being allowed back into the kutumb. Generally, a penalty amount is not more than 300-400 rupees and if a person cannot pay then it may be brought to even 50 rupees.

What is the benefit of being a part of kutumb ?If someone dies in the village, then the kutumb takes care of the family’s food till the death rituals are over. The villagers contribute rice to the deceased’s family and neighbours cook their food and send it to their house.Kutumb also supports a familyif there is a marriage in the family.While each family in the kutumb contributes 200 rupees or 2 manas rice, they also send one member of their family to help in the marriage feast cooking, fetching of fuelwood for the feast, stitching leaf plates and bowls, brewing liquor for the village and guests, fetching drinking and washing water during feast, overall hospitality of guests, etc.Before any marriage, a kutumb meeting is called and roles and responsibilities given to the villagers. Accordingly everybody takes up some work during the marriage functions. The kutumb also takes decisions about the terns of exchange of labour in agriculture activities. We believe in working as a group rather than an individual.If any family faces any crop loss or does not have seeds to sow for the agricultural season, then kutumb provides support to the family.

The Jani knows all the rules and regulations of the kutumb because theJani is the religious head of the kutumb. He worships the village deitiesgod and goddesses. The Jani is assisted by a Sisa who is basically the cook for the deities. The Sisa is tasked with the role of preparing food for the deities during all the kutumb festivals and rituals. Naik is the head of the village and kutumb.He is the head of the judiciary system of the village. He gives justice to people and is the decision maker. Disari is the person who finalizes date of marriage. And the Bejuni is the female priestess of the village and worships at the Jhankeri. Every Jani, Disari and Bejuni dreams of becoming kutumb heads since their childhood. We believe that our village deities appear in the dreams of the selected Jani, Disari and Bejuni and instruct them to take on these roles. Kutumb does not play any role in selecting them.But the selection of the Naik depends on the kutumb’s decision. Naikcan be replacedif the kutumb decides to replace him if it is found that he has not served the villagers with justice and democracy.The kutumb will give an errant Naik three warnings to mend his ways. After these three warnings, a kutumb meeting will be called and Naik can be then replaced. But Jani, Sisa or Disari cannot be replaced. A Sisa’s son will be Sisa.But if there is no son in the family, and then their relatives can besisa. A girl cannot however become a Naik.

Do you think this kutumb system will die somedaysoon ?No our kutumb system cannot die. We have not faced any difficulties in running the kutumb system all these years. And we have not seen any changes in the way a kutumb is run. So why should it die soon ? Yes, few practicesand beliefs have changed though. Like for example, no one in our village eats beef any more. We used to eat beef when we were children. But since the last 30 years we have stopped consuming beef.Though still a few Kondh elders are eating beef and cook it themselves outside the house. However we continue to worship the cattle as per our old traditions and customs. But unlike before, when a cow dies we bury it and do not eat it. And also these days we notice that the younger generation does not show much interest in attending the kutumb meetings or learning about how the kutumb functions. But after they get married, in particular young men, they begin taking a lot of interest in the kutumb and understating its functioning. Therefore we believe strongly that as long as the village exists the kutumb will also exist.

Is there any kutumbghar or village council house ? In our village there is no kutumbghar or house for kutumb meetings. We have our meetings at the Jhankeri or the sadar (village centre). So who takes care of the Jhankeri and itsrituals ?Generally, the Jani takes care of it and ensures its maintenance like cleaning the stones, removing dry leaves from the place, making a new leaf and branch shed if the old one breaks, replacing the ancestral stones near the Jhankeri if any gets broken. But if the Jani dies and till we find a new Jani, family living closest to the Jhankeri or in whose home boundary the Jhankeri is situated takes care of the Jhankeri.

Do you also discuss matters about land disputesin kutumb’s meetings ? Land is one of the most important discussions in the kutumb meetings.For example, if there is a death, in particular of a head of household, then we discuss about distribution of the man’s lands and we prefer equal distribution of land among all his or her sons. But if there is an unmarried daughter in the family, then we have to inform the family that she cannot get a share like the son or sons. However, there is one option for women to inherit land and that is if the unmarried daughter takes care of her mother, then she would be entitled to get the share of land that has gone to her mother. There is no separate equal share for a daughter in our customary inheritance laws. Also if the son does not take care of hiswidowed mother and neglects her, then the kutumb ca ask the daughter to take care f her mother and in turn take the share of land that was given to her mother.

Similarly land issues come up in our kutumb meetings when a wife faces physical torture from her husband and approaches the kutumb for justice.If a woman does not want to stay with her husband, then also she can appeal to the kutumb for separation or divorce. No husband or wife can take a decision to separate from each other on their own. They have to intimate thekutumb however no written order is given from the kutumb. After the kutumb recognises the divorce or separation the woman can take all her belongings and return to her parents’ home or anywhere else she wishes to go. But if she wants to stay in the village even after the divorce or separation then she can ask the kutumb to help her build a home for herself and with their permission all villagers come together to help build a new home. And her ex-husband will have to give her a share of his land for cultivation. If he does not do this, then the kutumb has the right to interfere and ensure a just and fair sharing of land resources. Similarly if a man takes a second wife, the kutumb will not interfere in that decision, But if he does not take care of both his wives, then the kutumb will interfere and ensure that they are treated with respect and all their needs are met.

Before anyone starts building a new house or repairing an old one there is a kutumb meeting and decisions are taken around how every family in the village can help build the new house or repair the old one. The only currency is labour exchange and we do not have to pay anyone anything. We only have to give the workers food and liquor at the end of the work and mandia jau every day during the work.We find that the youth in our village are always cooperating with the kutumb and do not disobey the decisions taken by the village elders.

What is the kutumb’s relationship with the Panchayat ?In our kutumb meetings we also discuss about road construction contracts for our village, about need for digging wells to ensure better irrigation for our fields and other government schemes. And whatever decisions we take the Panchayat members cooperate in executing those decisions. We always ensure that the most vulnerable persons in our village are given priority in every government welfare scheme.

We have realised that if the Naik, Jani and Disari are strong headed and principled persons then party politics cannot divide our villagers. For example, this year we have decided to stop cotton cultivation from next year. One meeting on this issue is already done. But there are many cotton traders who are trying to buy out our elders. But they have not been able to convince the Naik and Jani to change this decision.

In all Kondh villagesd there must be a kutumb. If there is no kutumb then we do not consider it a Kondh village. And each kutumb has its own panthi or fund. Weprefer to keep things in kind rather than cash in the kutumb panthi or fund. As of now our panthi has 30 50-kg bags of paddy and mandia as villagers’ contribution to the panthi.We have two separate panthis, one for the Saraka, Palaka and Hikaka clans and the other for the Kadraka clan. But the money or paddy of both panthis is used for the entire village. We are keeping these two separate panthis for our own convenience. So far we have 10,000 rupees also in our panthi. We sell the panthi’s paddy after harvest and keep the money in the panthi. During festivals, we collect money from each family and use it for the festivities and the surplus again goes back to the panthi. The barik keeps the records of panthi expenses and details of expensesare shared in the kutumb meetings.”

As we listen through the story of the kutumb we do realise that while it is not the ideal space for women’s democratic participation in decision making, it is definitely a transparent institution for democratic running of the small village republic !

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