Dobashis: Custodian of Customary Law and Practice in Nagaland

Dobashis: Custodian of Customary Law and Practice in Nagaland
A Customary Law court in Nagaland. (Morung File Photo)


M Imyu Longchar

Para Medical, Kohima


When the British established their administration in the Naga Hills, Dobashis (DBs) and Gaonburas (GBs) were appointed to assist them.


At village level GBs were appointed to collect the annual household tax and act as Government’s agents for all correspondence. The DBs were appointed as an interpreter to translate the local dialect into Assamese, Hindi and vice versa. The term is a derivation of Assamese and Hindi word “Dou-Basha” – one who could speak the two languages – Assamese or Hindi and translated them into local dialect. And with the passage of time Dou-Basha changed its form to “Dobashi.” They were appointed at Kohima, then the Headquarters of Naga Hill District, followed by more appointments at the others Sub-Division like Wokha and Mokokchung. Initially, DBs’ duty was just to interpret, but gradually their functions increased to both civil and criminal cases as well as administration of justice.


The British had good experiences to deal with the local people and running the administration of justice in wherever territory they occupy. For example, Warren Hastings’ Judicial Plan of 1772 in India, the English Judges had no acquaintance with native Indian language, habits, as well personal and customary laws of Hindus and Muslims, respectively written in Sanskrit and Arabic. Thus, they appointed the Pandits and Kazis to interpret the Hindu and the Muslim personal laws respectively. They were known as “Native Law Officers.”


The same strategy was applied while establishing administration over the Naga Hill district. In the meantime Nagas had neither niether script nor written laws, but practices customs, usages and tradition from forefathers, which were carried-out verbally or orally. Perhaps, this could be another factor which compelled the British to appoint the interpreter (Dobashi) within their administrative jurisdiction. Later, the Dobashi Court was established for better administration of justice.


The DB Court was not established through any Act, but out of necessity and by convention. For example, as per the record, the DB Court at Mokokchung was established in June 1, 1914 while in Kohima, it was established much earlier. Gradually, DBs service became an influential and coveted Administrative Service. Nowadays, every District Headquarters and its subordinate Administrative Headquarters have such courts.


The system of dispensation of civil and criminal justice by the DBs and GBs has been further streamlined and enhanced by “Rule for Administration Justice and Police in Naga Hills District 1937.” It has been amended by the State Government of Nagaland from time to time, i.e. first amendment in 1974, second in 1983, third in 1984, and fourth in 1987. It received the assent of President of India on March 4, 1987 (better known as “Nagaland Act No. 1.1987).


DBs are salaried Government employees and designated to wear uniform – a waist coat with two colours, red in front, and black on the back with black-belt indicating a special official person. However, the GBs in village level are not a salaried, but as a Government agent, they are paid certain commission on percentage basis out of the annual household tax collection as remuneration. Both are provided a red blanket annually through the District Administrative authority.


The GBs are also allowed to wear the same uniform worn by the DBs. Besides, they are empowered in the village administration by the “Rule for Administration Justice and Police in Naga Hills District 1937.” The GBs are part and parcel of village council and their service remain as long as they are found deem fit. The village council members may come and go, but GBs may not, hence they become another guardian of customary law and practice at the village level. Today, GBs are appointed even in the urban areas and plays a very important role in the administration of grass root level. Now, the Government of Nagaland provides a welfare scheme for GBs vide Notification No.GAB-1/COM/82/2004 Dated Kohima24th March 2007.


The functioning of the DB Court is headed by a Head Dobashi. However, a higher post – Political Assistant (PA) to Deputy Commissioner – is there on promotion from Head Dobashi. The cases are conducted in summary trial manner. Cases can be either appealed from village level or directly by any aggrieved person or party. It takes shorter period to deliver the verdict in comparison with the court of Magistrate and others higher court, except in cases like land disputes, which are decided after verifying the spot as per traditional customary practices and usage.


The decision of this court is subjected to higher Magistrate court. If the decision given by this court is not satisfactory, the aggrieved party can appeal in the higher courts. At present, District DB court is equal in status with that of the second class magistrate court.


The functioning of DB Court has been lauded on many occasions. For example, D. Pathak, the then the Chief Justice of Guwahati High Court (GHC) on his visit to Dobashi court at Mokokchung in on 30-06-1982 stated:


“The DB’s Court at Mokokchung was established on 1st June 1914. My visit to this court in the 30th June 1982 after a lapse of 68 years is quite an experience. I am very much impressed by the performance and trouble taken by DB’s court for disposal of the disputes according to the customary law prevailing among the people, having jurisdiction of this court. I expected the disposal of cases quicker and cheaper in this court, I am satisfied after going through some of the records that the performance is quite in order.”


Similarly, the Chief Justice of GHC Madan Lokur, during his visit on 07-12-2010 said:


“It has been a very pleasant experience visiting Mokokchung District and the Dobashi customary court…That the court has been functioning effectively since 1914 speak volumes of its acceptance and credibility. Such courts should be encouraged because they render justice as the parties accept the vertices.”


The institution of DB Court is over a century old and predating the Statehood of Nagaland. Hence, while demanding Statehood, it was included in the 16 points memorandum Sl.No.7:


“No Act of law passed by Parliament affecting the following provision shall have legal force in Nagaland unless especially applied to it by a majority of vote of Nagaland Legislative Assembly:-


(i) The religious or social practice of Nagas.

(ii) Naga Customary Law and Procedures.

(iii) Civil and criminal justice so far as these concern decision according to the Naga Customary Laws.

(iv) The ownership and transfer of land and its resource.”

The above points were incorporated under Article 371 (A) of Indian Constitution when the State of Nagaland was created. The DBs service is quite peculiar in comparison with others departmental services. The posting and transfer of DBs, for instance, are confined within the respective district. As per the customary practice, no female is recruited in the service.


The DBs’ functions are also a unique three-tier system – assisting the civil administration, sometimes performing police duty, and acting as a Jury as members of judges in the DB Court. Thus, it signifies a unique identity of Naga social life.


The preservation of the sanctity of customary court depends firstly on the efficiency and responsibilities of the members of DBs and their high integrity to the service. Secondly, it is important on the part of Government to ensure that their recruitments are done without political interference and strictly adhering to Dobashis Service Rule 1970, Rule 7. (1), (2) & (3). Besides, facilities like travelling allowances, accommodation of departmental quarter, etc should be fully provided and further enhanced under the 7 RoP.


As one of the protectors of Naga identities, the superannuation age of DBs should also be enhanced and not counted on the length of service. This would further augment the importance and value of the Naga traditional customary Law and practice. For example, in the Indian Judicial Service, the retirement age of the Supreme Court and High Court judges are higher than others services at 65 and 62 respectively. The general idea is that the professionalism of the senior members is highly required to dispense public justice as they have more expertise, and better versed.


Nagas have different tribes having distinct culture, custom, tradition and dialect, mostly communicate through Nagamese or English. Administrators posted to any districts, whether a Naga or Non-Naga, may not know the dialect, custom and tradition of that particular tribe or the locals of the posting place, except for those officers belonging to that District. Under such circumstances, DBs’ service is vital to assist the administrator. Thus, Dobashis play an important role in the Preservation of customary Laws and Practices, and their services are indispensible to Naga Social Life.