This note is a part of my Zettelkasten. What is below might not be complete or accurate. It is also likely to change often.
31st August, 2020

In the shadows of the state - Alpa Shah

The book talks about the Mundas (a tribe in Jharkhand), their Local governments and their relationship with the state.

On intervillage self governance (called the parha)

  • The Pahan and the Paenbarra (spiritual and secular leaders of the village) are selected once in every three years with an involved selection process
    • The last pahan finds a man with a light shadow which the spirit will possess (women are likely not eligible, but men from other villages are)
    • This spirit (Sarna Mai) will lead the man (blindfolded) first to the house whose head whom she wants to make the pahan and then to the house of the person to be the paenbarra. This is likely a ritual which embraces Randomness as a strategy to avoid biases
    • The pahan and paenbarra also alloted 7 assistants through a similar process
    • They get access to some customary land for farming during their tenure as payment for their services
      • The produce from this land is often given to the needy in times of hardship
  • The Pahan and the Paenbarra are responsible for
    • Settling village disputes by communicating with the spirits
    • Keeping the spirits happy - spirits ensure good harvests and so on
    • Hosting village feasts thrice a year (using the land that they are allocated)
  • The pahan and paenbarra are not involved in ritual clensing or familial functions like marriages or funerals. They are not considered to be superior to other Mundas.

Values of the sacred polity

(As argued by the author)

  • Democratic and Egalitarian
    • The selection of the pahan and the paenbarra is random, their term is limited and their succeess (and therefore their social status?) is based on how well the parha does in their term and their generosity.
    • Because of these, the author argues the system embodies democratic values of the exercise of voice, local sovereignity and universal qualification for leadership.
  • Mutual aid and reciprocity
    • The pahan and the paenbarra are given access to special farming land for their services and are expected to host feasts for the village thrice a year. In times of hardships, needy families are given rice from this land.
    • The mundas engage in voluntary associations called Madaiti - a sort of a labour exchange. There is no payment involved. Rice beer, mahua wine and food are sometimes served at the end of the day.
  • Consensus in dispute resolution
    • The pahan and paenbara preside over disputes concering Mundas.
    • The problem is resolved usually through discussions, negotiations and consensus (though the pahans hold the final say)
    • If required, fines based on the person's ability to pay are levied. The rare ultimate punishment is expulsion.

Potential problems with this system

  • The randomness in the system is very basic - it can be gamed
    • A failed randomness test in the ritual will result in the bias it was meant to avoid and will concentrate power in the hands of fewer people
    • The gaming of the system can be very basic as well - the pahan chooses the "light shadow"-ed person who chooses the next pahan (this is so obviously breakable), a nudge here and there to the possessed and it goes where you it want or, maybe the closer to the ritual grounds your house it more likely you are to be Pahan
    • A more trustless system could be that when the pagan of the neighbouring village brings the person to be possessed
  • The pahan election is what keeps this fair
    • However, it removes women (and maybe some communities) from being eligible
    • The more the contestants in the process, the less likely any one person is to be pahan.
      • It feels like after a point, if number of people keeps increasing, the process will be less fair.

On state(sarkar) interference

  • Broken police machinery puts an unfair stress on the Mundas and other local communities
  • Excise officers crackdown on rice beer and mahua liquor traditionally brewed in every household
    • Sale of liquor is illegal not brewing but that division is moot
  • Modern courts weaken the authority of the parha
    • They were also expensive and allowed exploitation by lawyers and medaitors
  • State takeover of the forests and protection of the elephants is a menace for the Mundas