“Women, Land, and Law: Dispute Resolution at the Village Level”

Gupta, J., 2005, “Women, Land, and Law: Dispute Resolution at the Village Level”, in Basu, S. (ed), Dowry and Inheritance, London and New York: Zed Books.


This paper is part of the report of a project carried out in West Bengal between 1996 and 1999 on the extent of rights women have over productive forces of society. It focuses on the way in which the individual and collective interests are being addressed through dispute resolutions at the village level and whether they are being raised at all in the process of mediation called gram shalishi. It investigates the relation between women demands about rights (mostly property rights), social and economic changing context (changing mostly due to macro policies of Bengali Government), patterns of dispute resolution (whether in formal or in informal legal sphere) and dispute outcomes.

Most of women demands show a clear consciousness of the chance to improve their situation through a revised system of inheritance and property attribution. Requests range from equal rights to inheritance to independent ownership of productive resources, from equal rights to the homestead of the parents, to stricter legislation to deal with multiple marriages, to the request of Government intervention to end the menace of dowry. The Muslim women expressed deep dissatisfaction with the practice of polygamy and felt totally betrayed by the changes in the maintenance provisions for Muslim women. They also complained about the denial of their share of inherited property in practice. Even if they were debarred from working as agricultural labourers and from working they own fields, they pointed towards the need to recognize processing of agricultural produce and preparation of it for the market as part of social production. They thus claimed a role in the agricultural production process, and a consequent independent share of property/land and equal right to matrimonial property. Interestingly, disputes involving women in the courts only rarely concerned property issues, and according to lawyers property inheritance disputes are on the decline, probably because of a contemporary decline in the rate of accumulation of real property, especially land. Majority of property related disputes were resolved and addressed through community participation. Reasons for that are identified in time saving rather than in success rate for women, but also in other factors such as expenses and fear that once matters go to the court all options of negotiation are closed. The author analyses therefore functioning and outcomes of gram shalishi, that is forums of mediation at village level composed by members of panchayat, civil society and village (women’s organisations, peasants’ organisations, all members of village community, parties in dispute and their family and friends).

It is interesting to note that cases offered for gram shalishi are on the rise, and that when cases are discussed before a gram shalishi they become far more complicated than what the immediate cause of dispute is, since participation of the whole community compels to take into account a series of facts and considerations usually kept out from official courts. There is an increasing intervention by gram shalishi in cases of denial of the sisters’ rightful share of property by brothers, and property cases are more widespread among the Muslim community than among non-Muslims. I quote author’s considerations on such matters since they could be of use for us:


“[…] among the Muslims, share in parental property (even agricultural land) of the daughters is determined according to well defined principles just as denial of matrimonial property to Muslim women is also worked out on well-defined principles. While intervening in cases of denial of parental property by brothers, gram shalishi can adhere to the existing principles in law, be it in relation to Muslim women or non-Muslim women. It is in the areas of denial even in the formal law, that gram shalishi play an important role in extending the notion of rights.” (p. 206)


As already told, gram shalishi have to take into account a series of considerations and positions within social context which force them to make the notion of ‘rights’ a variable. The interesting conclusion of the author is thus that:


“[W]hile the formal laws have attempted a broad definition of the concept of rights commensurate with the concept of the family, existing property relations, social relations of labour, accumulation, production, consumption and distribution, and the state, the dynamism observed at the level of reproduction of everyday life deviates from it and sometimes works in conjunction with the wider processes of law and law making. The incompatibility between the formal guidelines for the larger social process and how everyday life patterns reproduce themselves, lead us to conclude that there is enough room for negotiation between the two processes and none is frozen in time” (p. 207).

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